Myanmar is one of those regions which produced Lacquerware, a very unique art, as early as 11th to 13th century A-D. Surprisingly they still practice this art style today and one should not miss a know-how opportunity while in Bagan.
Bagan is a UNESCO World Heritage site, stretched across the bank of mighty Irrawaddy River in central Myanmar. It was a dry scorching summer when we landed there. Usually the mornings and evenings offer the best ambiance to shoot those archaeological sites of Bagan. As the sun turned bang at 90 degrees above our head we went to explore indoor. Now before you wonder what is there more unique than those iconic pagodas, let me remind you that Myanmar has a vivid confluence of history and art both. It is one of those regions which produced Lacquerware, a very unique art, as early as 11th to 13th century A-D. Surprisingly they still practice this art style today and one should not miss a know-how opportunity while in Bagan.
Not only in souvenir shops, we even observed our hotel staffs carrying Lacquerware trays and cups for daily usage. Finally, we met a highly skilled Lacquerware master artist. As we roamed inside his workshop he thoroughly explained us the process.
Lacquerware is made of lacquer tree resins ("thitsi" in Myanmar), brought from the light altitude forests. Due to its amazing water proof nature people often call it as "Natural Plastic". After applying the layers of black resins on bamboo utensils or wooden bowls the products are dried underground in humid rooms for weeks. Sometimes multiple layers are applied to ensure quality products and each layer takes a week to dry. It's a remarkable feature of the art that drying in sun or in open air makes the lacquer moist and sticky.
Sometimes lacquer is mixed with peanut shell powder to make the final artifact harder and durable. People can even use them to pour hot or chilled water and food. The next important step is etching fine curves and grooves on the product's outer surface with a knife. Natural colors are then rubbed all over by hands. Once dried, artists wipe it up so that colors in the grooves remain intact and excess colors come out. Burmese locals use Lacquerware utensils and furniture for daily usage for ages. The entire process starting from making bamboo base till coloring may take up to 8 months.
Natural colors are extracted from stones.
The products are washed and polished after coloring.
A worker prepares the bamboo base.
In Bagan, we ventured through multiple Lacquerware workshops and all of them used traditional method for production. Some use small machines though they are also operated manually.
As per the UNIDO study, there are about 650 to 750 small and medium lacquerware shops in Bagan. The limited access to the international market was one of the major concerns earlier. However, the art is gradually reviving as the tourism industry has been booming in Myanmar. As part of responsible travel, it is always a best practice to buy such handmade art souvenirs directly from the local artists and shops. This not only helps you to go kinder to your wallet but also encourages the ancient art to thrive longer.