Bagan, the centre of Myanmar's lacquerware production.
We found ourselves in Bagan, an expanse in Mandalay Region where ancient pagodas sprawl as far as the eye can see. Although Bagan has been the centre of Myanmar's lacquerware production for at least two centuries, the area has seen a recent decline in the handicraft due to rising resin prices and decreasing numbers of visitors.
We were guided along a dusty track into a small courtyard for an impromptu meeting with Mr Tin and his family of artisans. Their courtyard was shaded by the canopy of a large tree, under which the artisans were busy making lacquerware from ornate temple pieces to simple tea cups. A young man sat in the shade expertly stripping lengths of bamboo into equal sized strips, millimetres wide, using no more than a sharp knife and his hands.
A family workshop.
Mr Tin proudly showed us a vast offering bowl being made for a large hotel as a commissioned decorative piece. The thin strips of bamboo had been coiled and glued together to make the form needed - amazingly without the use of a mould. When positioned on its stand, and with all its component parts in place, the bowl would stand an impressive 1.5 metres high with a diameter over 1 metre. It would soon begin to be lacquered using the finest black lacquer called ‘this-si ayaung-tin’ harvested from the Melanorrhoea usitata, a tree native to Southeast Asia. In order to obtain the highest gloss finish, the lacquer can only be harvested in the dry season and not when the tree is in fruit. Storing the lacquer can reduce it’s quality so Mr Tin uses it as soon as it becomes available, and then has to wait for the next harvest to go into production again.
Deeper in the workshop another member of the family carefully warmed this season’s resin and worked it through several layers of material to ensure the lacquer was silky smooth and without any impurities. Nothing was added to achieve the final lustrous black finish, just layer upon thin layer of lacquer, applied by hand and left to dry in between each coat. It will finally be buffed to a glass like shine with a soft leather cloth. The whole process takes 8 months of painstaking work.
Straining the resin
Applying the first layer of lacquer
Each piece is constantly checked and lovingly tended, being turned and dried in specially built storage rooms where the temperature and humidity is assessed by Mr Tin, using his decades of experience. To rush the process would result in a dull and blistered finish, something that Mr Tin would not dream of allowing!
Mr Tin showed us circular trays, mirror-like with their smooth surfaces reflecting anything placed on top of them, dainty teacups and beautifully rounded teapots with delicately curved spouts. The tea set comprised of these items and small lidded sugar pots. As we were leaving we caught sight of Mr Tin’s mobile phone case. He shrugged as if it were nothing remarkable, just something he had made for himself. Completely bespoke it too had been beautifully lacquered and festooned with intricate scrolls, birds and flowers, like the plaques decorating the ancient temples. Mr Tin and his family were not only artisans but accomplished artists whose work was influenced by their surroundings and quite rightly highly prized in the area.
Trays drying in the open air.
Cutting the bamboo into strips.
Mr Tin was kind enough to present us with a lacquer dish as a parting gift and to say thank you for visiting his workshop. He told us his ambition was to keep lacquerware as the family's trade for generations to come.
Perfectly proportioned, the lacquer's simplicity and finish speaks volumes about their origins and the people who made them. Find the lacquer here, direct from Mr Tin's family, and other homewares made entirely by hand in Myanmar.