After years of political and economic isolation, few outside of Burma (now renamed Myanmar) are aware of its culture and traditions. But now Burma is in transition to a freer economic policy. Its doors are opening to the world, and investment and visitors are being invited in. Sylvia Fraser-Lu's magnificent book, which catalogues almost the entire range of Burma's crafts, is therefore timely. It should draw attention to the magnitude of the treasures that could be revived and restored to their former level of excellence.
Pan sei myo, Burmese for "the ten blossoms of art", cover the spectrum of arts and crafts from painting to metalware and masonry. Fraser-Lu goes beyond technical detail and utility to identify the significance of each craft to society, history and religion, making this not only a richly illustrated mine of information on arts and crafts but also a book on Burma and its people.
In ten chapters, with nearly 300 black-and-white photos and over 60 colour plates as well as line drawings, she gives a concise historical account of the arts, documents changing styles over the years and describes the influences of neighbouring countries such as China, India and Thailand. She lists references to the objects in literature and historical texts, including stone inscriptions and palm-leaf manuscripts. She describes the various styles of the wares, their utility, whether secular, religious or superstitious, the subject matter and significance of their decoration and how this relates to the social status of the user or patron, whether royalty or commoner, urban or rural. (The book contains one slight, but important error. Alaungsithu is mentioned as the king who raised the Mya-Zedi inscription, known as the Rosetta Stone of Burma. In fact it was his uncle, Prince Raza Kuma.) Tools, techniques and raw materials are described. There are comparative ground plans of palaces and timber-framed houses, a step-by-step guide to making lacquerware, and a complete list of royal regalia. The DIY stucco enthusiast might be tempted to try the recipe on page 51: "One part of bael fruit, two parts of jaggery (palm sugar), five parts of ohn ton (a vegetal product) and six parts of a gelatinous glue obtained by boiling buffalo hides. Mix in six parts of powdered lime and sand, allow to dry, pound and mix with more buffalo glue. Repeat this at least four times."
With the exception of Shan crafts, there is comparatively little mention of ethnic minority crafts apart from weaving - an understandable omission, as to include them would double the size of an already large book; also many minority areas, particularly Kachin, Chin, Karen and Kayah states have only just ceased to be out of bounds to visitors. But I cannot help wishing that the book's unflagging author will take on this work as her next task before the fast-disappearing ethnic wares vanish altogether.
Despite Burma's tradition of the extended family, all knowledge of arts, crafts and indigenous herbal medicines is a closely guarded secret, rarely taught to those not of direct lineage. This secrecy is contributing to the decline in quality. It also means that only a non-Burmese could have painstakingly collected this wealth of information. A native scholar would find it much more difficult to prise information from his or her countrymen. The fact that an otherwise generous and friendly people should be so loathe to share information has been a major hindrance to progress in Burma. The Burmese call it pyinnya hpwet: to conceal knowledge. It is uttered as an insult, but practised unashamedly.
While it is true that "the crafts still have an honoured place in the national life and continue to be a source of pride to all Burmese people", economics and modern fashion have led to a diminution in quality, range and quantity, and, most important of all, in appreciation by the Burmese themselves. It is to be hoped that the many new religious buildings and pagodas presently under construction and renovation in Burma will adopt the standards of such works in the past. Today the lowly coconut shell water ladle no longer boasts a decorated handle. Women still use stone slabs to grind thanakha paste for their faces - but intricately carved slabs are collector's items. How much richer our heritage would be if these utensils were once again a genuine part of our lives. Instead they are carted off to the shops of Chiang Mai over the border in Thailand, or find themselves displayed as part of the (no doubt cherished) interior decor of an expatriate home. However, with open trade, a new awareness of quality control, and official support such as that provided to the lacquerware school at Pagan, I hope that the crafts will flourish again. To that end, this book is a priceless guide and catalogue. It is apparent that its author has a great affection for Burma: equally, Burma's people owe a great debt to her.
Ma Thanegi is a Burmese artist, jewellery and puppet maker, writer and former secretary of Aung San Suu Kyi.
SIGNS OF THE ZODIAC AS DEPICTED ON BURMESE LACQUER
Top row: Tagu (April)Meik-tha, the ram (Aries); Kah-son (May) Pyeik-tha, the bull (Taurus); Nayon (June) Mei-don, composite twins (Gemini); Wa-zo (July) Karaka, the crab (Cancer). Centre: Wa-gaung (August) Thein, the lion (Leo); Taw-thalin (September) Kan, the virgin (Virgo); Thadin-gyut (October) Tu, a figure holding scales (Libra); Tazaung-mon (November) Byeik-sa, the scorpion (Scorpio). Bottom: Nadaw (December) Danu, the archer (Sagittarius); Pya-tho (January), Maka-ra, a crocodilian sea creature (Capricorn); Tabo-dwe (February) Kon, the water pot (Aquarius); Tabaung (March) Mein, the fish (Pisces)
Burmese Crafts: Past and Present
Author - Sylvia Fraser-Lu
ISBN - 0 19 588608 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 371