A Sketch of a Leading Artist of Myanmar Modernism
‘Done any new paintings this week, U Khin Maung Yin?’
‘Only one since I finished your portrait. Among that stack behind you.’
As was his custom, he had piled his paintings upright in reverse so that the paintings could not be seen.
As I turned each painting, I saw a colorful one.
‘That one, that one…’ his voice gestured.
I pulled it out and stood it up against the pile. A painting in red, yellow, and blue. I noticed four vertical strips of blue.
‘Isn’t it lovely?’ he asked.
‘Yes, it sure is. Is it done?’
I noticed his signature at the bottom left hand corner of the painting. While I was sitting down on the floor having a good look at the painting, he said:
‘There’s a book on the table. It’s in French, so I can’t read it. I just looked at the paintings in it.’
I took the book from the low table. It was a thin book of about 30 pages. The word ‘Picasso’ was on the front cover. In it were Picasso’s color plates.
‘Hey, you know, there’s a painting by Picasso with a French title.’
I looked at the painting I had taken out from the pile. The four vertical elements of blues stood out, or my mind seemed to focus on it and saw something vaguely familiar.
‘Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, isn’t it?’
So saying, he got up from his chair and sat down on the floor. Dragging his buttocks on the floor, he started to move. I held his hand.
‘Don’t pamper me. Let me move on my own.’
‘Tell me what you want. I’ll get it for you.’
After a short silence, he said: ‘I’ve forgotten what I wanted.’
He shifted himself back towards his chair, pulled himself up, and sat down, and gazed at the street outside. It was a hot afternoon and there was no one on the street. His house was once a school where he taught English to students living in the street. The students have now all grown up with children of their own. He had stopped teaching for a long time. People who passed by would still greet him ‘Sayagyi’ (‘Respected Teacher’).
I took out the bottle I had brought with me. I found a glass and poured myself a drink. He poured a glass of water from the water container near him. He drank from the glass and looked at his painting.
‘You going to drink it neat? No water?’
‘Yes, I like it neat. No water.’
‘You’ll die soon, then.’
I shrugged my shoulders. I remembered the many evenings I would come here to drink with him. It all seemed like a very long time ago.
‘I have biscuits. You can have biscuits with your drink.’
‘What? Biscuits? With my drink?’
‘Heh, these are not sweet biscuits.’
‘It’s OK. Thanks. I’m fine.’
He held the door-frame and pulled himself upright. Then he called out to the teashop next door: ‘Hey, somebody. A bottle of impure water, please.’ A boy came and gave him a bottle of purified drinking water. ‘Put it on the bill,’ he said.
I thought he had ordered it for me. I said, ‘I don’t need it. The water you have is good enough for me.’
He said: ‘It’s not for you. It’s for me.’
I opened the bottle top for him and filled the glass he held in his hand. He drank from it. I held up my glass.
‘Cheers, U Khin Maung Yin.’
We touched glasses. When I was about to fill his glass with water again, he said:
‘That’s enough. You drink the rest.’
I had visited him the last Friday. I saw that my portrait had been done.
‘I named it ‘Mandarin’ because of the mandarin colored shirt you’re wearing and because you look like a scholar – candidate taking the Chinese Imperial Exam.’
‘You never title your paintings. Why this one?’
‘I just wanted to. That’s all.’
‘You like it?’
‘Yes, very much. It’s nice. Thanks.’
After a moment, I stepped outside to have a smoke. I had left my empty glass on the floor. I saw him leave his chair and drag himself on the floor. A while later, not hearing anything, I peeped at him. There he was, sitting exactly at the place I was sitting. In his hand was my glass. He sniffed it, and put it down on the floor. I turned toward the street before he could catch me watching him. After he was back on his chair again, and I had tossed my cigarette stub, I went back in pretending I had seen nothing.
I looked at the ‘Avignon’ painting. I took a drink . Then I looked at the painting again. I felt I had to make some small talk.
‘U Khin Maung Yin. I see horses in the painting. Now, who was it? Matisse? Renoir?’
He looked at the painting from his chair as if in deep concentration.
‘No. Yes, it’s Degas.
His painting of horses. ‘Horses at the Racecourse’. Yeah, that one.’
I had succeeded in digging out a nugget of gold secret from him. The painting echoed Picasso and Degas.
‘You know, the other day I read an article in Newsweek in which the writer called Picasso a thief. He said Picasso stole the subjects and styles of past Masters.’
‘That’s not stealing. That’s honoring.’
‘I thought so, too. Even if the subject matter is similar, the way it’s painted is so different.’
‘Now that there are shapes of women and horses in this painting, don’t you feel something peculiar?’
‘Nope,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘I mean, just last week you said you didn’t like a painting you had just painted because there were some human shapes in it, and that you prefer only colors and abstracts.’
‘That was last week.’
‘Well, okay. By the way, your paintings look so different from one another in choice of colors, brushstrokes…’
‘Yeah, I just paint as I feel. If I have some tubes of paint and a wish to paint, I get a painting.’
‘Who was it, the other day, was saying your paintings are posted on the website for sale throughout the world?’
‘Really? I have no idea. I know nothing about it. Speaking of sale, some time ago, a young woman came to look at my paintings. She asked me about the subjects of my paintings. When I said there are no subjects in my paintings, she asked me why they are called paintings when there are no subjects. I didn’t say anything. I just told her not to ask anything unless she wants to buy them. My paintings are for sale. I want to talk with people who really want to buy my paintings. I don’t need to discuss aesthetics with them. If the price matches, I will sell it. As simple as that. What’s more important than this?’
I kept quiet. He was talking about some of the things that irritated him.
‘U Khin Maung Yin, how shall I frame my portrait?’
‘Choose a black one. Half-an-inch border. It must be black so that the orange color will be distinct. When you ask someone to frame it for you, make sure you have it accurately measured first. Only then you should stick the painting into the frame so that it fits tightly. Don’t hammer with nails. I hate people hammering nails into paintings.’
‘Yes, Ok. I will do as you say. By the way, your paintings become more elegant when they’re framed as in exhibitions. Why don’t you sell your paintings with frames?’
‘I sell paintings, not frames.’
At that moment, two of his young helpers arrived to massage his arms and legs. I felt he was getting tired. My bottle too was empty.
‘Put your bottle behind that wooden post. If people see it, they might think I’m drinking again.’
‘No, it’s okay. I’ll take it back with me.’
‘No, no. Leave it there behind the post.’
I was puzzled, but knowing him, it was better not to ask. I placed the empty bottle behind the post so that it would be out of view.
‘U Khin Maung Yin, before I leave, could you please let me have this ‘Avignon’?’
He became still. He stared at the painting for a long time.
‘OK. It’s yours.’
I took out an envelope full of money that would cover the cost of both my portrait and ‘Avignon’.
‘No, no, no. Take it. I don’t need payment from you.’
‘No, U Khin Maung Yin, I insist. I want to pay for the two paintings, please.’
I put the envelope in the place where he hid his money. There, I found another envelope of money. I felt happy for him. I placed the two paintings face to face and prepared to leave. As he was sitting on his chair at the doorway, I had to walk past him, I kissed him on his cheeks. And then the ritual of leavetaking.
‘U Khin Maung Yin, Bayboothee.’
U Khin Maung Yin, my beloved artist, said: ‘Bootsan Bannerjee.’
- The title refers to the street where U Khin Maung Yin lives, Thandar 11th Street, North Okkalapa, Yangon.
- U Khin Maung Yin’s movement has been seriously impaired due to a stroke he suffered some years ago.
- Bayboothee Bootsan Bannerjee is an Indian(?)/Bangladeshi (?) writer and movie director U Khin Maung Yin admires.
First published as one of Zeyar Lynn’s writing samples at The University of Iowa website.
Images: Facebook, Artflippa.