Kipling’s Burma and Myanmar’s Kipling

He knew little about the country, but colonised the West’s imagination about it

Written by Andrew Selth | Published: April 25, 2016 12:02:34 am
Rudyard Kipling Rudyard Kipling

The Indian Institute of Advanced Study and the UK’s Kipling Society are holding a conference in Shimla on the theme “Kipling in India: India in Kipling” on April 26-28. However, it should not be forgotten that when Rudyard Kipling was writing about the subcontinent, India included the then province of Burma. Indeed, it could be claimed that Kipling’s impact on Western perceptions of Burma, now the country known as Myanmar, was almost as great as it was on foreign images of India.

When tourists arrive at Yangon International Airport these days, the chances are that their heads are full of romantic notions planted there by the “Bard of the British Empire”. For, more than anyone else, he is responsible for the popular picture of Myanmar as an exotic land of golden pagodas, swaying toddy palms and demure women. His iconic poem about a retired British soldier pining for a “neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land” has attracted visitors to the country for over a century. The great irony, however, is that Kipling knew little about Burma, visited it only once, very briefly, and never went to the places that are most often associated with his name.

When Kipling was a journalist in India at the end of the 19th century, he read reports about Myanmar and heard tales told by British soldiers who had served there. He wrote several short stories and newspaper verses about it, such as “The Taking of Lungtungpen” (1887) and “The Ballad of Boh Da Thone” (1888). It was not until 1889, however, that he actually went there, on a voyage back to the UK. Kipling was only in Myanmar for three days. As he later wrote, his sojourn in Rangoon (now Yangon) was “countable by hours” and a stopover he made in Moulmein was even shorter. He dreamt about living in Myanmar, but never did so, as several writers have claimed. Nor did he ever sail on the Irrawaddy River or go to the old royal capital.

It was on the basis of this brief visit, however, that Kipling wrote his Barrack-Room Ballad “Mandalay”, which was first published in 1890, when he was 24 years old. It was enormously popular, both in the UK and further afield, and has forever linked his name with Myanmar — or at least an idealised version of it.

Over the years, some 25 musical settings of the poem have been composed, most under the title “On the Road to Mandalay”. Artists as diverse as Lawrence Tibbett, Peter Dawson, Bing Crosby and Peter Bellamy recorded versions, in operatic, light musical, jazz and folk styles. Frank Sinatra tried his hand at a swing version, controversially changing the lyrics to refer to “Burma babes” instead of “Burma girls”.

Kipling’s ballad encouraged the composition of nearly 200 other musical works with a Myanmar theme. Most painted the same stereotypical picture for sentimental Western audiences. These themes were reproduced in several movies, which featured Kipling’s song on their soundtracks. It had become redolent of everything mysterious and Oriental.

In literature too, the poem has long been a favourite of publishers and authors. Websites list dozens of books with titles drawn directly or indirectly from Kipling’s poem. Other Myanmar-related titles, like The River of Lost Footsteps and Unlike Any Land You Know About have been taken from a book of travel sketches, From Sea to Sea, in which Kipling described his 1890 visit.

These works range from novels, travelogues, autobiographies and histories, to cookery books, anthologies of poetry and collections of photographs. Just to cite Kipling and his famous poem is a powerful selling point, regardless of the subject. The author of a travel guide summed up the situation when he wrote: “Rare is the book about Burma that doesn’t gush the obligatory line or two of Kipling!”

The poet’s tenuous ties to Myanmar have been exploited by the local tourist industry, which quickly recognised their attraction for Western tourists, and their profitability. At the Governor’s Residence in Yangon, for example, there is a Kipling Bar, where the hotel’s guests are invited to imbibe, along with their drinks, the atmosphere of the British Raj. In its promotional literature, another hotel boasts (incorrectly) that Kipling stayed there.

Once it became well known, the name “Mandalay” acquired commercial value in other spheres. It was applied to condiments and cocktails, ships and streets, buildings and businesses. In 1907, for example, H.J. Heinz invested heavily in his Mandalay Sauce, which sought to replicate some of the “spicy garlic smells” described by Kipling in his ballad. A drink based on rum and fruit juice was dubbed “A Night in Old Mandalay”. In such ways, Kipling colonised the imagination of the West. “Mandalay” became firmly fixed in popular culture and has endured into the 21st century. It did not matter if accuracy suffered in the process. In the 1930s, for example, the Australian singer Peter Dawson claimed that “No man knew or saw more, in and about India and Burma, than Rudyard Kipling”.

The historian Hugh Tinker stated in 1957, “to the average Englishman Burma conjured up one poem and perhaps a short story by Kipling — Kipling, who spent three days in Burma”.

This complex amalgam of fact and fantasy, realism and romance in the public imagination of the West was captured in 2004 by Emma Larkin in her book Secret Histories. She confessed to feeling something of the “independent magic” of Mandalay, which conjured up “irresistible images of lost oriental kingdoms and tropical splendour”.

Kipling’s “Mandalay” is easily recognised, and still holds enormous appeal.

It continues to evoke strong responses among all those who read the ballad or, more likely, hear it sung. This now includes the millions who visit Myanmar looking to relive the imagined experiences of the Bard of Empire, “On the Road to Mandalay”.

The writer is adjunct associate professor at Griffith University and the Australian National University. His latest book is ‘Burma, Kipling and Western Music: The Riff From Mandalay’

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