Lengths of kalaga, or richly embroidered cloth, were traditionally used as portable curtains by monks, royalty, and rich people. Kalaga pieces could be attached, with ropes, to trees, posts, or pillars to create an enclosed, private area. The art of kalaga making declined rapidly after the British took over Myanmar and abolished the monarchy. Many old pieces of kalaga were donated to monasteries or brought by collectors. Some beautiful pieces are now housed in museums outside Myanmar. The art of kalaga making was kept alive by Burmese classical drama, whose dancers and marionettes wear kalaga costumes. In the 1970s, tourism helped revive the craft. Today, kalaga pieces are made mainly for export and come in varying shapes and sizes.
Historians believe that the art of lacquerware originated hundreds of years ago in Siam (Thailand, today) and spread to China before reaching Myanmar. Today, the oldest and largest lacquer industry is based in Bagan, in central Myanmar. Other lacquerware centers include Mandalay, Ywama on Inle Lake, and Kengtung (a town in Shan State).
What is lacquer?
Lacquer is a light, waterproof, easily molded material painted on objects, such as boxes, bowls, umbrellas, musical instruments, statues, and furniture, to give the items an attractive, patterned surface and a glossy finish. The lacquer used in Myanmar is the sap of a wild tree (unlike the lacquer used in India and Europe, which is the secretion of an insect). The trunk of a mature lacquer tree can measure up to 6 feet (1.8 m) in circumference. The sap, tapped by making cuts in the tree trunk, is stored in airtight containers. Its natural color is black, but certain kinds of lacquer can also be stained red. The best lacquer in Myanmar comes from Shan state.
Objects of Art
Most lacquerware items have bases made from long, thin strips of bamboo coiled or woven into specific shapes. Lacquer can also be painted on wooden or metal objects. Plain lacquer is mixed with finely ground clay, with ash from teak sawdust, or with rice husks to produce lacquer for different layers. The lacquer is then painted onto the object. After each layer is applied, the lacquer is dried and polished. Each item can have several layers of lacquer. When the final layer has been applied, designs may be cut into the lacquer to reveal layers of color beneath. Gold leaf patterns may also be applied to the object's surface. A single piece of lacquerware takes between six months and two years to produce, depending on its quality. Fine lacquerware bowls are made with very thin bamboo strips interwoven with horsehair. Even after the final layers of lacquer are applied, the bowl remains so flexible that its sides, when pressed together, can bend without cracking.
Myanmar gold leaf is traditionally used to gild items - such as lacquerware, musical instruments, religious images, and manuscripts storage chests - for royal or religious use.
Mandalay is the center of the gold leaf industry in Myanmar. In the manufacturing process, small lumps of gold are pounded into thin strips, then heated and flattened in a machine. The resulting sheets are repeatedly hand-beaten, then cut into small squares, placed between sheets of special paper, and wrapped in animal skin. Beaten again until they are no thicker than a layer of paint, the gold sheets are cut into squares of about 2 inches (5 cm), sandwiched between sheets of special paper, and sold in bundles.