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You are here: Interview Mizzima A year of struggle with the Burmese censorship board

A year of struggle with the Burmese censorship board

(Interview) – Burmese writer Hsu Nghet recently produced and wrote a VCD, ‘Classical Dance Accompanied by Four Drums’, that had to pass through several stages of censorship by the Motion Picture Censorship Board under the Information Ministry of the new government. The film was given approval on February 20, 2011, after Hsu Nget visited Naypyitaw and talked with censor board officials in Rangoon three times in order to defend his production. He began distributing the film on May 23.


Hsu Nghet won Burma’s highest literary prize in the novella category for ‘Tein Yan Einmat Moe Htet Nayi’ (Dream in the Cloud, Rhythm in the Sky) in 2007. His VCD presents basic classical dance sequences in five stages totaling 125 dance forms that were created by a famous classical dancer, Daw Aw Bar Thaung. One of the issues hinged on the word ‘kabyar loot’ (verse free), which was used to describe several dance forms. Mizzima reporter Phanida interviewed Hsu Nghet on the contents of the VCD, the goal of his production and the intricacies behind the censorship of the word ‘kabyar loot’. His experiences indicate the extent of the censorship board’s involvement in controlling the work of writers, artists and filmmakers in Burma.

Question: What was the problem in getting permission from the censor board for a VCD on basic classical dance?

Answer: I am so tired and exhausted after explaining and negotiating with the censorship board officials to get clearance. It took more than one year. I wish competent people from the cultural arts could decide on these matters.

I had to submit to them music played by a noted musician, Sein Baydar, with international notes recorded and signed in 1961 by musicians from a band which was established in 1925. I had to convince them this music was not new, and that we just copied and replayed it. They hadn’t heard this music before and objected to it.

Q: Did the board try to censor the visual, audio and texts in the VCD?

A: This video has five basic dance stages with 25 dance forms in each stage. They are followed by ‘Yein’ (choral dancing) and ‘Tapintaing’ (solo dancing) with a total of 10 dance forms. In these dance forms, the subtitle was the dancer Aw Bar Thaung’s ‘Kabyar Loot’ (verse free), first stage, second stage, etc.  The censor board ordered us to delete the word ‘Kabyar Loot’ in about 10 places. The word is the official word used by Aw Bar Thaung when she taught female classical dance courses. They instructed us to replace ‘Kabyar Loot’ with ‘Basic Female Dance by Aw Bar Thaung’.

Q: Why did they order that?

A: Only one out of a total 17 members on this censorship board objected to the words. Then the director generals of the concerned departments realized that this video was useful and would benefit the country. So they then invited scholars in the field to decide on the matter. Some of these invited scholars objected to this word too.

The motion picture censor board misunderstood us. This music has been played for about 86 years by the ‘Myoma’ music band that was established in 1925. The music and the melodies have been played since the time of noted royal musicians like Sein Baydar in the reign of Burmese Kings. The dances in the VCD are accompanied by these melodies and music. Some people objected because they hadn’t heard the music before and said that these notes were not classical music, that the music had been written in modern times.

Q: What prompted you to make this VCD?

A: I want young people interested in Burmese classical music and dance to be able to see and hear it, because it has been suppressed throughout our history. The main dancer Khin Win Nwe in this video is my elder sister. Her husband was the writer, Zaw Pale. He also recorded these dances in paintings and other forms, but he could not get his book published. He read his work as a paper in 1980 at the Hantharwaddy Daily Literary club, and he died in 1984. And then I came across a paper on ‘Burmese Classical Solo Dance’ in 2003.

Q: Now that the VCD has been made available, how much interest is there?

A: Let me say frankly that very few people are interested in this VCD. People are losing interest in Burmese classical music, dance and culture because young people are now brought up in a material world. They are interested only in modern technology. They think classical culture is for old people, and they have no interest in it. They don’t understand that they must love and adore our culture. We must present our classical dance and music in artistic ways to win back the interests of the current generation. On the other hand, the press censorship board and motion picture censorship board should understand and they must give artists more cooperation. The ministries concerned should encourage those who are devoted to classical productions. I think the artist families living abroad may have more interest in our production than the domestic audience. We have English subtitles on this production, too.

Q: What is kabyar loot?

A: The Burmese female basic dance is accompanied by four drums or ‘dosit’ in Burmese. There are no lyrics, no melody in this ‘dosit’ music. Then this music changed slightly and developed. A Performing Arts school was opened in 1953. Aw Bar Thaung was appointed as principal dance instructor, but she had no formal curriculum or syllabus for her dance course.

She invented some basic dance forms accompanied with the four-drum ‘dosit’ for female dancers for her three-year diploma course. Until that time, these dance forms and this syllabus had no formal name. In about 1960, the government led by Prime Minister U Nu held an art, crafts and industrial exhibition at the Shwedagon Pagoda western gate. Minister Bo Khin Maung Lay visited the exhibition and saw the dance with ‘dosit’. After that, he gave it the name ‘kabyar loot’ (verse free) to this basic female dance form because it had no lyrics, verse or melody.