Another day cruising around in the Archaeological Zone.  About the production of lacquer Bagan style and about somebody who met Obama.

Just picture me cruising around Bagan for the second day, happy as a clam (no, my fall did not deter me from doing this again, I was already out yesterday afternoon, after the failed Mt. Popa trip).  Picture me going from yet another stupa to yet another pagoda to yet some more remote temples and the Archaeological Museum in between, marveling at brickwork, stucco decorations, frescoes and sculptures and negotiating with some local artists over some of their paintings.  I know the more I am going to write about this, the more it becomes clear that this could only be of interest to me.

So, how about this instead: I will write about a lacquer workshop I visited for some stupa relief — yes, I need that too, once in a while.  I find these art and crafty things most fascinating and I hope you will, too.

So much stuff comes from trees, other than fruits.  In the Yangon region there were the rubber trees.  In Michigan we have the maple trees.  Around here there are the lacquer trees and trees you get resin from.  It’s always the same process: you cut multiple V-shaped lines into the tree bark and make the tree “bleed”.  After catching the sap, you figure out what it is good for.  At least somebody did, likely hundreds of years ago.

The lacquer industry in Myanmar is an important and distinct one.  Bagan and Mandalay are centers of production and often families have worked in this craft over many recorded generations.  In Yangon I purchased a piece of lacquerware, an “antique” piece from the 1950’s (by that definition of antique, I would be antique too…) which has the signature of a workshop still in business today.  It is a multi-tiered, multi-colored lunch box with a handle.  I paid $85 for it.  I was told that it is a 10-layered piece.  The top and most expensive pieces are 12 layers.  But now that I know what went into making it, I feel quite bad for paying so little.  The making of a piece of lacquerware no matter how small, is not measured in hours but in months or even years!  I won’t describe the steps going into this process in too much detail as that is done much better online.  But I will mention a few basics and add a few specifics from the place I visited, the Ever Stand Lacquerware Workshop between Nyaung-U and Old Bagan.

The youngest son of the owner greeted me and even though I was a lone traveler (not a bus load of prospective buyers), he took lots of time explaining everything to me I wanted to know.  The process that starts here already presupposes the harvesting and cooking out of the lacquer sap into a thick, asphalt-like paste.  Everything I saw was done by hand.  The most sophisticated tool I saw was a burin, an engraving needle.  Not even a brush is used as that would leave brush marks!

A young boy formed the most intricate designs out of thin straps of bamboo.  No glue was used.  Nothing other than the shape itself held his designs together!  In fact, the guy took some of his work apart to demonstrate this to me.  Almost all of the workers —  and there were three groups:  the builders, the lacquerors, the designers — worked under a shady roof, which really means not that much in a climate where temperatures often reach 45 C/ 115 F!  But a small group of men had to work in the plain sun to apply the layers of lacquer.   They use their fingers and rub the tar-like substance into the bamboo, the horsehair, or the wood.  These are the three basic core materials.  They “only” have to do this in 1-2 hour shifts.  Then they get a break.  I would be dead.

After the first layer of lacquer, a person scrapes the edges of the bamboo strips off to make a smooth design.  I guess, this is the first instance in which a real tool is used.

Each layer of lacquer has to dry.  Lacquer does not dry in the sun but in cooler temperatures.  A storage room below ground had been dug out on the premises — a geo-thermal system, so to speak — that keeps the room cool. I was told that depending on the piece and the thickness of the layers, drying takes between 3 days and 3 years! Incredible!

The design for each of the colors is etched into a black layer of lacquer freehand, following a drawn sample.  The women I observed working on this had a design sitting somewhere in the back of them but hardly looked at it.  They knew where to draw and where to scratch.  Just like in an intaglio process, the etched lines are then filled with and rubbed clean of a particular color (typically red, green, blue, yellow) and sealed with a resin which is also harvested from local trees.  The next color is then etched in, filled in, sealed and dried; and then the next.  Each time a new color is added the overall design fills in.  Each time, the etching process has to be done with total precision since you cannot cut too deep into the piece, or you will destroy months of previous work…  Each layer of resin and lacquer has to dry independently and remember that takes from several days to years each!

The fine motor skills of these workers is incredible.  The women whom I observed scratching a design into a door panel, don’t even have adequate light conditions! They scratch into black lacquer and sit in a shady hut without illumination.  What will this do to their eyesight?!  They were the second group that used a “real”, metal tool, the burin.

Many of the workers there, men and women, started training around 13-15 years of age.  Depending on the years of experience they have and the quality of work they produce, they can earn between $7 and $10 per day.  That amounts to $160 to $240 per month, counting a 6 day week (better than the $150 average of a teacher and at least twice as much as the unskilled factory workers working in the textile industry under horrible conditions and much longer hours).

The artisans here had comparatively reasonable working conditions if I got the full picture: they only work from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM six days a week.  And if they still have energy left, they can work on a few pieces on the side at home for extra income…

Still, when I now look at the piece I bought, I know that the low price I paid comes about in two main ways.  It is the low wages, first and foremost then and now.  But because I bought an “old” piece, it is also not considered as valuable as a new one; most likely because it once had been paid for before.  The age of it seems secondary and not to add much to the value.  A much less detailed piece of comparable size in the workshop was over $200.  Some of the cabinets I saw sold for over $10,000. Those would have taken years to make and in the west would have to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.   Once again my head was spinning from understanding a bit more about an age-old process I had never put much thought to.  And literally everything observed in this workshop could have been done this way 100, even 200 years ago.  Electricity did not play a role except in the nicely cooled showroom.  You don’t want to make your customers, sweat, right?

Sometimes there are the infamous six degrees of separation, sometimes, there are only two.  The illustrious owner of the workshop came out as it was closing time: 4:30 PM.  I snapped a picture of him and his son and when I left, I passed a photo framed in a gold frame proudly displaying the man in a line-up with Obama!  Obama had visited Myanmar a while ago, as we and the world hope that since the 2010 elections in Myanmar things will change for the better.  The owner of this lacquer workshop was among some distinct Myanmar citizens chosen to greet him.  He was obviously very proud of it, as his son made sure that I noticed the photo before leaving.

I stumbled on a beautifully secluded spot for a quiet sunset in Bagan, not like the one yesterday which I had to share with several busloads of tourists, dozens of other e-bikers and a few passengers from the picturesque horse-drawn carriages.  Today it was a girl from Italy and me.  And I only ended up there because once again it had gotten late fast.  On average it takes me 2 hours for one stupa, getting there and all the incidentals included.  I don’t think I will even make the list of 21 in my three days here.

But I have seen a lot already.

2 comments so far

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  1. I treasure the lacquer pieces we purchased many years ago in Thailand and remember how impressed I was as I watched it being done – a beautiful craft indeed.

  2. Thank you for the stupa relief!