Art of turning metal into merit

The Art of Burma

December 24, 1999

Marg, the distinguished publishing house of India's National Centre for the Performing Arts, devoted the year 1956 to a series of volumes on Buddhist art, including one on the Buddhist art of Burma. Now Marg has published a beautifully produced collection of nine articles on Burmese art which, according to the editor Donald Stadtner, "attempts to rekindle the spirit captured in that first (1956) issue".

The 2,500th anniversary of the birth of the Buddha, 1956 was the year of the Sixth World Buddhist Conference held in Rangoon. The 1956 issue included an article by the architect of the University of Advanced Buddhist Studies in Rangoon, then half-built. It was to be constructed to last for 2,500 years - impossible, said the architect, to guarantee! The cold war and the nuclear arms race were then at their height. India stood for non-violence and disarmament and led the non-aligned nations, of which Burma was one. Gandhi's spirit was not forgotten. Today, the cold war is over, India itself leads a nuclear arms race, and Burma is under military rule. The voice of Gandhi is that of Aung San Suu Kyi, denied her freedom and that of her people. It would be hard indeed to rekindle the spirit of 1956. But if the editor has been defeated in this, and has perhaps not succeeded in "providing a broad, general overview of the development and nature of Burmese art", neverthless he deserves our gratitude for collecting an impressive range of reports on current research. Some of them also point the way for future work.

John Guy, in "The art of the Pyu and the Mon", presents a clear summary of the evidence for the vigour and variety of Pyu civilisation. He re-examines the relationship with early Pagan civilisation, often uncritically assumed to be one of direct descent. The small brick gu temples at Sri Kshetra are probably not Pyu foreshadowing Pagan, but a tribute by Pagan-period builders of the 11th century to their Pyu predecessors of half a millennium earlier. Well-chosen photographs, some by the author, illustrate the article, and are much clearer than those of the same objects printed by the Burma Archaeology Department. A majestic late Pyu gilt-bronze seated Bodhisattva in the Victoria and Albert Museum is particularly fine. It seems, however, to have been overlooked by the editor in his introduction, when he states that "not a single work of art in public collections outside Burma can be positively attributed to the Pyu".

Pamela Gutman traces the influence of Vishnu in Burma and Arakan with scholarly brio. Proof of strong and varied Indian connections is abundant, nowhere more vividly illustrated than in a mid-16th century sculpture in the Shittaung Pagoda at Mrauk U. Here, King Min Bin, six-armed and holding a chakravartin disc, is flanked by one pair of wives in Indian saris and another pair in Burmese dress.

Claudine Bautze-Picron treats andagu stelae, small slabs intricately carved in a soft fine-grained stone called andagu in Burmese. Light is thrown on the complex interaction between Pagan, India, Sri Lanka and other parts of a wider Buddhist world. Nearly 50 stelae are listed, half of unknown provenance, and now scattered all over the world in both public and private collections. An appendix completes a critical catalogue, which will be indispensable for future research on these beautiful little sculptures.

Besides editing the book, Stadtner also contributes "Fresh observations on Pagan bronzes". Three important hitherto unpublished bronzes are illustrated and discussed without reference to where or when they came to light, how they were acquired, or whether dating tests have been carried out. Perhaps most intriguing of the three is a seated Buddha figure in the Mon Cultural Museum in Moulmein. Instead of the usual earth-touching gesture, bhumi-parsha , the hands of this figure make the vitarka expository gesture. Stadtner thinks this bronze belongs somewhere in the formative phase of Pagan's development, or else to an altogether different tradition, perhaps Mon. We are left wondering. He notes with approval that even today Burmese continue to dedicate metal objects for insertion into new stupas . "Turning metal into merit is a spiritual alchemy that enriches us all." Alas, too many skilful forgers in Bangkok turn metal into fakes and enrich only themselves and unscrupulous dealers.

Pierre Pichard is an architect whose massive Inventory of Monuments at Pagan , published jointly by Unesco and Efeo (L'Ecole Française de l'Extreme Orient), between 1992 and 1997, is beyond dispute the most significant advance in Burmese art history since Gordon Luce. Here Pichard presents the techniques used by the builders for constructing vaults and arches. The article is illustrated with photographs, plans, sections and elevations all by the author and exactly placed to illumine the text. Pichard celebrates the ingenuity and technical mastery of ancient craftsmen, and modestly reveals his own.

On March 31 1984, Pichard discovered "carelessly folded and rolled upon the floor" of Temple 315 in Pagan some fragments of a cloth scroll. Their amazing rescue is described in "Cloth paintings from early Pagan" by Pratapaditya Pal. Two restorers in Rome set about their "consolidation, thorough cleaning to remove dust, traces of smoke, insect nests and spiders' webs with skills that transformed bits and pieces of dirty rags with patches of barely visible colours into a wonderful work of art of lively forms and brilliant colours". The style is identical to that of early 12th-century murals such as those in Myinkaba Kubyauk-gyi of 1113 AD.So before Pichard picked them up, the scrolls might have lain there for more than 800 years. Pal places them in an old tradition of narrative scrolls used by story tellers. When the legends below each picture frame are deciphered, the Buddhist Jataka tale or tales depicted may be identified. Pigments used by these 12th-century artists included both raw lacquer (black) and lacquer mixed with cinnabar for red - proof that Pagan-period craftsmen were familiar with lacquer.

Patricia Herbert's fascinating and beautifully illustrated study of Burmese court manuscripts summarises the history and main techniques of Burmese manuscript painting, and the varied subject matter. Royal donations were meticulously recorded and depicted. The mobility and generosity of the devoutly religious King Mindon contrast strongly with the character of Burma's present military rulers. Mindon constructed the Kuthodaw Pagoda with its 729 slabs of marble of the complete Tipitaka, and decreed that officials should not exact unpaid labour from the people. Nowadays forced labour is commonplace, and a huge, flashy hotel has been built not far from the Kuthodaw hpaya . Not to earn merit.

Both Herbert and T. Richard Blurton, whose "Scarlet, gold and black" describes the lacquer traditions of Burma, acknowledge their debt to Arts of Asia magazine articles by Noel F. Singer, whose knowledge of Burmese art and history is wide and deep and generously shared. As any writer on lacquerware must, Blurton also recognises the unique contribution of Sylvia Fraser-Lu, whose 1985 book Burmese Lacquerware is indispensable. His pithy article praises the 1830 "ethnographic research" of Henry Burney,who kept two teams of lacquer craftsmen in the compound of his house at Ava, watching every stage of the complex processes of manufacture. Burney asked and was told all the terms used for tools, materials, quality grades of lacquer sap and colourants. Blurton gives very accurate accounts and some excellent photographs of lacquer manufacture, including the smoothing of coiled bamboo foundations on a lathe; and the washing of gold-leaf shwe-zawa work to remove surplus gold and reveal the pattern. Captions for two of the wonderful pieces illustrated, a shwe-zawa panel once part of a large manuscript chest and a magnificent hsun-ok in gilt and glass-inlaid relief work, unfortunately lack their dimensions.

Choodamani Nandagopal's delight in the Victoria and Albert Museum's Burmese gold-and-ruby-studded jewellery is real enough, but the pieces illustrated are not placed in time. A golden tassel is described as "probably part of the regalia of Queen Shin Sawbu", but whose queen she was or when the jewel may have adorned her neck or hair, we are not told. Another piece "appears to be the favoured type of necklace of Burmese women". Is it still in fashion? The Victoria and Albert acquired it in 1903. It is surprising to read that "gemstones were also used to adorn a wide range of objects in lacquer". False gemstones in coloured glass are indeed used in lacquer betel boxes, hsun-ok and furniture for Buddha images, but if real stones were ever used in lacquer vessels, as opposed to metal ones, no such pieces are known. And the mineral that includes both ruby and sapphire is corundum, not "corandum"; the dictionary gives the derivation as from the Tamil kurundam . Nandagopal's article is rather loosely strung.

The editor and several contributors regret the neglect suffered by Burmese art studies since 1948 and especially since General Ne Win's military takeover of 1962. Ne Win was personally responsible not merely for neglect of scholarship but for active vandalism. The Burma Research Society is described by Herbert in her definitive bibliography of Burma. From its foundation in 1910 the BRS was "a fusion of energies of both Burmans and Europeans", "its journal a forum for debate on Burma for 70 years". "In 1980 the BRS celebrated its 70th anniversary with a conference at Rangoon University, but following the surprise attendance of General Ne Win at one session of the conference, the society was closed down, its journal ceased, and the contents of its library discarded. The abrupt end of this distinguished society and journal makes a sad comparison with the still-flourishing and near-contemporaneous Journal of the Siam Society (founded in 1904)."

The jacket of the Marg collection notes that "foreign researchers are not encouraged" in Burma. Nor are Burmese researchers. The military regime suppresses all debate and dissent, while spending on sham replica buildings vast sums that should have gone into the conservation and study of old buildings and sites. Pagan's villagers were forcibly expelled, ostensibly to protect the archaeological zone - through which the military government has driven a dual carriageway and built not only hotels but a golf course, spurning Unesco advice. Perhaps when Marg again devotes an entire book to Burmese art in decades to come, some of the contributions may be by Burmese scholars living and working in freedom.

Ralph Isaacs was the British Council representative in Burma, 1989-94. He is currently working on a British Museum exhibition of Burmese lacquerware scheduled to open in April 2000.

The Art of Burma: New Studies

Editor - Donald M. Stadtner
ISBN - 81 85026 440
Publisher - Marg Publications
Price - £28.00
Pages - 128

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