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"He Was a Great Artist"
(Sayagyi U Ba Kyi)

By Maung Lu Zaw

(From 'Myanmar Perspectives April , 2000 - Vol. 6, No. 4'

        The sad news of the death of a reputed Myanmar artist U Ba Kyi did not come as a surprise to his colleagues, friends and pupils because he had been ailing for sometimes due to old age. Though his memory did not fail so much his physical constitution was very much enfeebled and the last he was seen in public was at the gathering of old alumni of the Yangon Institute of Education at the Universities' dhammayone (Buddhist Preaching Hall) on Sunday 30th January 2000. He appeared lying on an easy chair amidst many retired staff of this institute. At that ripe age of 88, he pulled up all his remaining strength so that he could be present with his old colleagues and pupils at the ceremony of Acariya Puja, homage paying to the teachers - a time honoured tradition of Myanmar peoples. The aged artist could not stay with the gathering to the end. After receiving homage from his pupils and giving blessings to them the old man was sent home. It was indeed his last farewell to everyone for exactly two and a half months later he passed away in peace on 15, April 2000 at his home. His death is a loss to the Myanmar art world.

        On 29, April 2000 at noontime in the Kumudra Hall of the State School of Fine Arts, Yangon, Bahan Township, commemorative talks on the late artist were held under the sponsorship of Myanmar traditional Artists’ Association (Central). The audience which filled the Hall consisted of different age groups, including monks, of professional and amateur artists as well as all art lovers and U Ba Kyi's fans and friends. There were six speakers of whom four were themselves professional artists and the two were seasoned writers and U Ba Kyi's friends. The first to speak was U Htin Fatt (Maung Htin) a journalist-writer of national fame, now an octogenarian, who recounted his long friendship with U Ba Kyi and gave his appreciation of the artist's works. Next followed U Lun Kywe the artist, U Min Naing the artist and writer, U Shein Htun the artist and U Nyan Shein the artist who were either U Ba Kyi's colleagues or pupils. They all spoke from their memories regarding U Ba Kyi's life, career, character and artistic talent and his outstanding works. The sixth speaker was Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt. He was sitting among the audience and was invited by the chairman to say something about U Ba Kyi. The invited guest speaker recaptured his memory and narrated his happy days with U Ba Kyi at the Yangon Institute of Education from 1975 to 1982 where they lectured on their respective subjects to the B.Ed students. A large portrait of U Ba Kyi, photographic copies of his rare works, memorabilia, CD-Rom, and video films of his paintings illustrating the Buddhavamsa were exhibited and shown.

        From the talks given by the above speakers and the exhibits and videos viewed in the Hall that day the following biodata of the late artist may be sketched:

        Artist U Ba Kyi (FRSA London)

        He was born on 16 July 1912 at Kyaikhto town of father U Bo Sin and mother Daw Aye May. Since his childhood he was captivated by painting. So throughout his school education he took up painting as his hobby and studied it seriously. He joined Yangon University after passing Matriculation examination and completed I. Sc. (Intermediate of Science). He also passed the Teachership Certificate Examination. In 1933 he studied painting under the guidance of U Ba Nyan, RCA London, who had returned from England after his education in art there.

        In 1949 U Ba Kyi won a French Scholarship offered by the French Government and he attended the National Higher Academy of Arts in Paris for one year during which he got the rare opportunity of showing his art works at the world's art exhibition Le Salon 49. He also exhibited his paintings in the art shows held in London and Monte Carlo.

        In 1958 U Ba Kyi was again awarded a Scholarship by the US Government. He studied art particularly painting for one year at the Academy of Art, Philadelphia. In that year he was admitted to the M.A. (Art) class at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1949 the Royal Academy of Art London admitted him as a life member and awarded him FRSA.

        U Ba Kyi was one of the founding fathers of Myanmar modern painting. He earned his fame by his artworks on the subjects of Myanmar traditional recreations, performing arts, traditional monthly festivals, Buddha Jatakas (Buddha's birth stories), Myanmar Buddhist art, history and Myanmar culture. He also gave in his paintings his expression of modern concept and technique of art, while at the same time Myanmar traditional ideas and methods of creating pictures were well-preserved in his artworks on Buddhist themes. Since 1952 he started doing research on Myanmar traditional techniques of painting.

        On return from France where he had completed his academic pursuit in painting, he was given an assignment by the YMBA Association to illustrate Buddhavamsa --- History of the Buddha compiled by Agga Maha Pandita Ashin Zanakabhivamsa. Sayadaw. U Ba Kyi successfully accomplished his task by using Myanmar traditional method of painting. His pictures not only vividly depict the Jataka stories but also appeal to the Myanmar heart. The book has now gone into the 4th edition. It is said that before he began his assignment U Ba Kyi approached the learned Sayadaw monks under whose guidance he performed a series of religious deeds such as praying, telling beads, meditation and other meritorious works until he attained a mental frame of peace, loving kindness and spiritual inspiration.

        U Ba Kyi was an accomplished teacher as well. In 1939 he served as art instructor at the School of Fine Arts which was opened in 1941. At the Yangon Institute of Education U Ba Kyi served as lecturer in painting and drawing until his retirement in 1974. He could control his class by means of his pleasing mannerism and smart dress, and engage the interest of his pupils in his lectures by his wit, humour and jokes. In extramural activities U Ba Kyi revealed his talent in singing.

        Many of his works can be viewed at home and abroad. To mention a few prominent ones are mural paintings depicting history of Myanmar literacy on the walls of the library of Yangon Institute of Education, the mural painting of the royal ploughing ceremony on the wall of the foyer of the said institute and the painting of an arch and a stairway on the wall of the audio-vision room of the institute. The most eye catching artworks of U Ba Kyi are those at the Yangon Airport. On the walls of the departure hall are executed scenes from Myanmar legends, fables and stories all suggesting and symbolising "flight". Figures in the pictures are airborne - winged elephants and horses, Garudas, Keinnara, Keinnari (human birds), sailing clouds and spacious skyscape. The walls of the restaurant on the second floor of the building are adorned with a composition of different scenes in which Myanmar arts and crafts and performing arts and market scene are depicted in lively action with bright colours. These paintings of his cover a total mural area of 3000 square feet. His oil on canvasses can be viewed in series on the panels of the tazaungs (covered causeway) of Botahtaung Pagoda and Shwedagon Pagoda. There is an enlarged reproduction of his original oil on canvas on the inner wall of the Gem Museum on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road. It depicts the historic event of a negotiation between Myanmar Minister Yaw Mingyi U Po Hlaing and the French Envoy regarding the lease of Myanmar Ruby mines in the time of King Mindon. The National Museum and Jeyathiri Hall of the Defence Services have U Ba Kyi's masterpieces. Besides Wunsin Hotel at Meikhtila and Strand Hotel in Yangon can boast of possessing U Ba Kyi's paintings. Abroad, his works are on display in Tashkent Museum, Beijing National Museum, Art Gallery in Amsterdam, Holland and Bodhgaya Museum, India. Nobody knows how many of his paintings are in private collections.

        His organising ability and leadership quality elected him chairman of Myanmar Arts and Crafts Asiayone (Association) ten times. He was also member of many NGOs such as Writers' Association, Film Academy Award Selection Board, Committee for compilation of Encyclopedia Myanmarica, Art Advisor to the Ministry of Culture and Patron of Myanmar traditional Arts and Crafts Asi-ayone.

        On 15, April, 2000 at 6.15 P.M.. U Ba Kyi breathed his last peacefully. He was 88 and is survived by wife Daw Tin May, two sons, one daughter and six grand children.

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22th June 2000