Arts and crafts of Myanmar

One of the unexpected themes of my trip around Myanmar was the craft workshops we visited. As a business plan it makes a good deal of sense in the context of a poor country with largely hand-made economy and a tourism industry in the early stages of development; the workshops are all there already, all that’s needed to get the visitors in is a few words in English, a showroom and a few local guides to point people in the right direction. And I’m very glad for it; I’m fascinated to watch skilled people making beautiful things, and I was treated to a range of processes and end products.

In Bagan we visited a laquerware workshop, where bamboo and horsehair moulds are covered with layers of the black tar-like sap of the laquer tree (melanorrhoea usitata). After twelve layers of painting, smoothing and polishing with each layer needing one week to dry out, the resulting bowls, tea sets, trays and statues are shiny, lightweight and malleable. Intricate patterns are painstakingly etched freehand and inlaid with gold leaf or natural dyes.

The gold leaf workshop in Mandalay was impressive mostly for the use of brute strength. Small pieces of gold are placed between 5 inch squares of rice paper and covered in leather to make a little book. These are then hammered with long, heavy mallets for half an hour, the gold pieces are split into four and the process is repeated. The final time the gold is hammered for five hours until it’s thinner than paper thin. It was a bit hypnotic watching the hammerers hammer, and it was interesting to notice that they all fell into rhythm with each other, even when the number of men hammering changed, similar in principle I suppose to sailors singing sea shanties.

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Hammering gold leaf

Also in Mandalay I walked down a whole street of stone masons workshops, primarily making life-size or bigger Buddha statues for local monasteries and temples out of huge blocks of marble. The craftsmen worked completely freehand with electric tools and the white marble dust was everywhere, covering shops, trees, hair and roads. No one was wearing any kind of protective clothing and I hate to think what all that dust was doing to their lungs.

Our final craft stop in Mandalay was a wood carving and embroidery workshop, where men sat with old but well-kept chisels carving statues and intricate lattice-patterned pieces, and women embroidered tapestries, cushions and bags with beads and sparkly threads.

The best workshop, however, had to be on the drive from Kalaw to Inlé Lake, where we visited an umbrella workshop. First we saw paper being made from tree bark, which is boiled, mashed with water and spread over a wooden frame over a water bath. Leaves and petals are added for decoration and it dries out to make a strong, almost untearable sheet. This paper or cotton is used for the fabric of the umbrellas, and the paper is also used to make lampshades and writing paper. The intricate sliding mechanism for the umbrella and the catch in the handle are made from wood and are made and fitted to the bamboo handle with incredible speed and accuracy. I’d barely ever thought about how an umbrella even works, let alone how you make one by hand, and it was a pleasure to watch.

Beautiful though their crafts are, it’s important not to romanticise the lives of the workshops’ employees. As well as risk of injury and medical problems, conditions are hard and the work is repetetive and low paid; since August 2015 the national minimum wage is 3600 kyatts (just under £2) per day. I wonder as well what the effect of increasing tourism and a (hopefully) growing economy will be. Will visitors’ demand for laquerware and bamboo umbrellas be met (as has already begun in some parts) by cheap factory knock-offs, keeping artisan wages low as the economy grows around them? Will the skills be wiped out completely in the quest for progress and greater living and working conditions? Will the currently authentic workshops become disneyfied tourist traps, bearing little resemblance to real Burmese life? I’m not an economist and even if I was, I’m sure I wouldn’t know exactly what to hope for. I just hope, as I’ve hoped before, that the influence of tourism is a positive one and that the wealth it brings benefits everyone.

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