Bagan is well known for its lacquerware products. These elegantly and tastefully designed lacquerware products are both used locally and exported. They can be used for a variety of purposes – cups, plates, decorative items, trays, cabinets and furniture to name a few.
As expected, making good quality lacquerware is both time consuming and requires handiwork that takes years to perfect.
We visited one lacquerware workshop which shared some details about how the lacquerware are meticulously made:-
Lacquerware is known as Yun-de in Burmese and the art is called Pan yun. The base of the lacquer ware is made from three products – (1) bamboo (used for round shapes) (2) horse hair (final product is soft and flexible – can be used to make cup for drinking and (3) wood (teak) – for square and rectangular shape such as tray or large furniture such as cabinets and wardrobes.
When made with bamboo, the thin strips are gracefully wrapped around each other in a spiral and pressure is put to hold it into place and lock it into each other.
(Use Cane) (Using Horse Hair)
The lacquer is tapped from the varnish tree Melanorrhea usitata or Thitsee that grown wild in the forests. The sap that comes out from the tree is a whitish cream (not black initially). Through the oxidation process it gradually becomes black.
The lacquer remains sticky and dries slowly. It requires humidity to dry properly. So a special space has to be made – a basement or cellar of sorts - where there is little light and more humidity.
After lacquer is applied on the base product, it is kept in the cellar. It takes about one week for each layer to dry completely. The process is simple but tedious. The lacquer has to be applied on the base material 18 times – 9 layers inside and 9 layers outside. Each time it is kept for one week. So, it takes about 18 weeks. The process from the initial step of shaping the product to completing the lacquer process takes about five months.
For the decoration – it is not a simple process of painting or drawing. It has to be carved in free hand with a sharp carving knife. Then color has to be put into the carving. Natural colors from minerals are used. For the red color, lacquer is mixed with the red mineral and applied all over. After drying, it is wiped/washed off so the only color that remains is the one in the carving. To protect the earlier color (red in this case), resin from the acacia tree is mixed with water and the clear transparent mixture is applied to cover and protect the first color. If more colors are to be added, it is once again carved, and the new color is applied again and the entire process is repeated.
Depending on the intricacy of the carvings, it could take another month to finish with the decoration. All in all, from start to finish it takes about six months to make a small lacquer product. For larger items, such as cabinets it can take up to a year.
The final product is a hard-glossy smooth surface resistant to the effects of exposure to moisture or heat. The lacquerware is mostly exported though it is also used for daily local purposes such cups for drinking as drinking and for decoration purposes.
The workshop cautioned that there are many lacquer ware of inferior quality where artificial color is used. In these cases, there is no carving but rather designs printed on the base. To differentiate between the meticulously carved products and the ones that are done quickly, in the latter one will not be able to feel the fine carvings. Furthermore, in some cases chemical colors are used which in some cases dissolve when exposed to water.
One additional process which this workshop used (not in traditional works) was that cotton cloth mixed with lacquer was pasted on the base bamboo product. They explained that bamboo and cotton can expand or contract and this process helped to keep bamboo firm and at the same time is adaptable to the different climates and weather. In addition, ash from the peanut shell can be used. It has calcium properties and when mixed with lacquer and applied on the cotton, it makes the final product stronger and harder.
Lacquerware is not just a product. It is an art. It is the gift which the people of Bagan share with the world. Not only is the final product beautiful but it is also strong and durable and if cared for properly can remain as a family heirloom for a long time.