An Introduction To Burmese Sculpture


    Early Burmese literature has made frequent references to sculpture attesting to the fact that it is a time-honored, highly developed form of aft in Burma.

    Sandwiched between the two great nations of China and India, Burma derived a great deal of its cultural heritage from these two countries, particularly India. In particular, strong Indian influences may be found in the old Mon-Burmese and Pyu cultures, and perhaps as much as 60 percent of literature, music, art and sculpture may be traced back to India, not to say anything about the religion of Buddhism.

    Buddhism, which arrived on Burmese soil during the First Century A.D., spread to Thaton and Sriksetra in the Fourth Century, and then to Beikthano in the Fifth Century to spread further inland. in West Burma people of the Arakanese stock were already practicing Buddhism by the Second Century, These early beginnings gradually gained strength over the centuries, and both the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism flourished around the city of Pagan during the Tenth Century A.D.

    Also well entrenched on Burmese soil by that time were traces of Brahmanism of the Hindus which had come here intertwined with Buddhism.

    Buddhist literature and culture sprang up around the Buddhist religion and spread to various parts of the country, This development in turn brought forth the attendant arts of the construction of pagodas, temples, shrines, monasteries, prayer halls and ordination halls, and sculpture , painting , architecture, and masonry.

    There arts and crafts attained their height of development around Pagan during the 11th, 12th and 13th Centuries, and as the native Burmese assimilated there imported cultural influences, there evolved characteristic Burmese cultural styles.

    In due course the arts developed to such a stage that a whole class of professionals arose to practice them. There is a mass of evidence, in the form of stone inscriptions at pagodas at Pagan, that the professionals, including the sculptors received their fees from clients.

    During the Ava period the domain of Burmese sculpture had not only widened considerably but the sculpted images began to take on Burmese forms increasingly. By then the flow of cultural influences from India had been sharply reduced, with the result that the Burmese concentrated on the development of their own indigenous styles depicting characteristically Burmese national features, customs and traditions. this marked a major turn in the art which eventually led to its Burmanisation.

    It was also in the Ava era that the art of sculpture branched out from purely religious  themes to more mundane subjects, as sculptors were commissioned to work on ornamentation of royal palaces and residences of ministers and high-ranking officials. The illustrious monk-poet from the town of Taungdwin, Ashin Maha Silavumsa, reflected in his poems the sculptural glories of his times : he gave detailed descriptions of the intricate designs and images that the master sculptors wrought so ably to adorn the stately mansions of the period.

    The Konbaung period witnessed further advances in Burmese traditional art and sculpture  and their wider impact on the people. The artists and sculptors also became more systematically organized into groups taking on the form of professional guilds and later attaining the status of a royal society. A group of master sculptors came to be employed by the palace and was placed under the direct charge of the Controller of the Royal Exchequer.

    As befitting the King's employees they were accorded proper status symbols and had well-defined rights and responsibilities.

    The royal sculptors were charged with creating artistic pieces for the adornment not only of the royal chambers but also the temples, shrines and religious congregation halls built by kings, queens and the high-ranking officials of the day.

    The common people followed the example of the aristocracy and commissioned artists and sculptors to create images and ornaments for the temples and monasteries they donated.

    Such Konbaung era sculptures abound in the great monasteries of Shwe Nan Daw, Myadaung, Thakawun, Shwe Inbin and others in Mandalay and Pakokku districts, of Central Burma, which still stand today. They bear unspeaking but eloquent testimony to glorious Burmese sculptural traditions, in which master craftsmen plied their trade and thereby left for posterity not only round and embossed sculptures but intricate and many layered floral designs that are truly many-splendor things.

    Especially worthy of note are the wonderful images and the eight-layered floral frieze works inside the Thi Hoe Shin pagoda in Pakokku, which probably set the record and remain record holders in Burmese sculpture to this day.

    The stress in artistic creation varies. There are works which emphasize the rounded or embossed figures, with the floral patterns and designs providing background. But in some works the artists main preoccupation was a superb handling of the patterns themselves. In yet another category the sculptors happily amalgamated the images and the patterns , with each contributing to the effect and beauty of the other, and the result is a delightfully balanced creation.

    Stylized creations based on curves : that, in a nutshell, is the essence of traditional Burmese painting and sculpture. Such stylization is a pervasive influence in painting, sculpture and also in lacquer works, masonry and architecture. It has had its imprint not only on royal furniture and other household items but also on commoner objects used by ordinary people and villagers, such as pipes, scythe handle, cups, ladles, mascots, mallets, etc.

    In fact, it is due to characteristically Burmese stylization that the Burmese artists and sculptors had been able to give full expression and play to their talent and produce works of art particularly pleasing to the Burmese eye.

    They cannot do without it whether they be depicting flowers, waves or clouds.

   The same stylization is also responsible for the mellifluous effect that the Burmese artists and sculptors achieve in their creations of man and nature.

    It also spells the main difference between traditional Burmese art and sculpture and the school of realism in vogue in Europe and the West.

    The key to Burmese art and sculpture is rhythm.

    This begs the question : is traditional Burmese art and sculpture opposed entirely to realism?

    The answer is No. Burmese art and sculpture has its basics, over which is imposed a system of techniques which takes into account and thereby enables the artist or sculptor to depict both realism and emotionalism , that is , both what the eyes see and what the mind feels.

    Because traditional Burmese art and sculpture has its origin in religion, the artists have given expression to their feelings of tenderness, respect and esteem-- akin to religion-- through the medium of art. In other words, the artists' creations represent the strivings by means of which they aim to induce similar emotions in the viewers.

    Hence, the beautifully done images, the painstakingly wrought floral patterns, and sometimes a mixture of the tow, wherein it is difficult to say where one ends and the other beings. It all tires to create a special effect on the viewer.

    According to sages of old in India, although the individual themes and styles might vary from time to time and place to place, there are only four basic forms: (1) objects of nature, like the sun, the moon, etc.,(2) begins, both supernatural and natural, like devas, man, animals, (3) trees and flowers, and (4) inanimate artistic creation, like curves, loops, circles, and angles.

    You may call traditional Burmese art Buddhist art, for it is a transmutation, through Burmanization over the centuries, of the Buddhist art that flourished in India over 2,500 years ago.

    In modern times the artists and sculptors make use of various materials such as wood, bamboo, ivory, mother-of-pearl, plaster, wax and cement, but traditional Mon-Burmese sculptures uses the time-honored medium of wood.

    As Burma is a country that abounds in various kinds of wood and bamboo, Burmese sculptors can have their own choice of wood: teak, yamanay, and yindike are the sculptors' favorites.

    Nowadays, traditional sculptures have found their way into pagodas and monasteries, public halls like Karaweik, and hotel like Thiripyisaya and Mandalay hotels, where they are on permanent display.

    Regular exhibitions of traditional sculpture also help keep public interest focused on this proud art and promote understanding among individuals and nations.