Glorious past woven in tribal dreamcoats

Textiles from Burma
January 9, 2004

Human beings have clothes, bamboo baskets have frames," runs a Burmese adage. But the stories of the textiles and costumes of the peoples of Burma are more complicated and multilayered than this saying suggests. The complexity of Burma's clothing politics is celebrated in Textiles from Burma , a lavish and beautiful book based on the collections of textiles and photographs taken by British colonial officer James Henry Green in the 1920s and 1930s, and by subsequent researchers, independent scholars and Burma lovers.

As well as providing us with beautiful patterns, colours and pictures that have long inspired many artists and designers, the book gives readers an insight into the minds and ways of life of the people who wear and use traditional textiles. Like many other aspects of its culture, Burma's textiles have been subject to various influences from neighbouring countries since time immemorial, yet they retain their capacity to express personal and group identity. Textiles and tribal costumes were treasured as historical records and family heirlooms by individuals who did not use writing as their main medium of record-keeping.

Some of the examples featured look so modern and vaguely western it is hard to believe that they were worn more than 100 years ago by "primitive" tribes in the remotest parts of Burma. A man's jacket worn by the Flowery Lisu tribe of Kachin state, northern Burma, looks so much like a western woman's jacket of the late 20th century in its design, cut and colours that, at a glance, it does not seem to fit any stereotype of tribal costume. Only the accompanying headgear gives away the tribe's oriental identity, reminding one of the hats worn by ancient Chinese men. Similarly, the woman's jacket and skirt of the Black Lisu, from the same region and of the same period, are reminiscent of convent school uniforms.

This kind of outlandish cultural heritage is, in a sense, quintessentially Burmese. The country is made up of at least ten major ethnic groups, from several racial origins, with their own distinctive languages and traditions, and more than 100 sub-tribes that survive under the influence of their main tribe and powerful neighbours from different racial denominations. My own tribe, the Padaung or Kayan people, is mainly known by outsiders for its "giraffe-necked" women, so-called because of the brass rings that adorn their necks. But many Padaung who live close to the Shan, Pa-O and Burmans wear the costumes and even adopt the religion of those peoples while continuing to speak our language. In this situation, "outsider" refers both to every other tribe in Burma who lives outside our community and to all non-Burmese people in the world.

Textiles from Burma examines and evaluates what is deemed traditional by the people who wear the clothing, and how outsiders see them, as well as how the wearers struggle to keep the traditions alive. The book meticulously investigates the constantly shifting patterns of the textiles and their designs and colours, as well as the social and political reasons behind the shifts. Furthermore, it tells the stories of the people who created the textiles, wore them and collected them.

The Kachin of northern Burma retain one of the most rigorous and complicated patterns of weaving, depending on their exact clan and tribe.

Despite some innovations over the years, Kachin textiles can be recognised easily by their vivid colours, bold designs and rich materials. On the other hand, their neighbours, the Chin and Naga, have received less attention from collectors and researchers, not because their textiles are any less beautiful but because the remoteness and harsh climate of their villages made research more difficult. In fact, some of the Chin and Naga textiles are more robust, and their designs and colours more subtle, than those of the Kachin.

Shan state, a prolific producer of refined textiles, has gone through one of the most complicated and long-running cultural and political courtships with its neighbouring states. The state was formed by agglomeration of semi-autonomous states squeezed between China and Burma proper. Different regions of Shan state absorbed, transformed and naturalised different styles of textiles. Dress and costume differed not only from one sub-state to another but also between rulers and ruled within a sub-state, depending on which of the two major neighbouring powers the sub-state was closer to politically.

One of the book's editors, Sandra Dudley, examines the identity crisis of the Karenni people who fled their war-torn homeland and now live in Thailand as refugees. She points out that they try to define the boundaries of their own people by the "traditional" costumes they wear. But prevailing national and political sentiments play an important role in the complicated notion of what is considered traditional. The Karenni's cousins, the Karen, face similar confusions, compounded by economic hardships.

Of course, not all textiles in Burma are for daily wear. The Burma enthusiast Ralph Isaacs explores the exquisite beauty of sazigyo , the binding tapes for sacred Buddhist manuscript bundles. People in Burma have clothed images of Buddha, monks and sacred writings with fine clothing for hundreds of years, and this is not to mention kings and queens, princes, princesses and royal courtiers. The old Burma produced grandiose and flamboyant textiles, alluding to the mystical Brahmanic world. Government officials, kings and princes of the past wore cumbersome and impractical fairytale dresses to emphasise their importance and define their positions in society.

Although this book does not cover every aspect of the textiles produced in Burma - Mon and Arakan states produce fine textiles that have inspired imitation by weavers in other parts of the country - it is a fluent description of their history. In a pioneering spirit, it brings out their beauty, diversity and complexity, both in the past and in the present and, one hopes, in the future.

Pascal Khoo Thwe is the author of From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey .

Textiles from Burma

Author - Phillip Wilson
Editor - Elizabeth Dell and Sandra Dudley
Pages - 192
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 85667 569 5

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