Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mandalay Artisans

Mandalay is the artistic capital of Myanmar. While you can find artisans at work all over the country, the greatest concentration is found here. In addition to gold beating, there is a marble carving, bronze casting and tapestry making.

The most noticeable of the craft shops is an entire area of the city devoted to stone carving. Buddhas and Nat deities carved from marble, line the small road on both sides, some ready for shipping, some still incomplete. While most of them are lifesize and slightly smaller, a few tower three meters or more in height.

Workers squat beside their statues. The sound of electric grinders drown out the tapping of the chisels as the carvers prepare the marble.  A surprising number of statues are completely carved except for the face. This remains as a rough block of stone. Presumably, a more skilled artisan would complete the face. Perhaps it requires some customization such as to carve it into the appearance of the buyer?

The whole area is covered in marble chips and dust. The ground near the carvers is a gravelly beach of marble rocks and sand. The air, too, is full of marble and it takes only a few minutes to start accumulating white dust on clothes and hair.

The artisans work in small teams, each person specializing in a particular technique or a particular part of the sculpture. Men do the actual carving while the women generally do the polishing and finishing. The statues are nearly all Buddhas and the local Burmese deity, the Nats. They all take a similar form, the traditional poses of "The Enlightened One." The Nats are a bit more novel as the finished version is usually given some paint highlights.

Not far from the marble carving area is the bronze foundry area. A dozen small shops cast everything from souvenirs to prayer bells to larger than life bronze Buddhas. There are few statues on display here; probably because the work is created to order. There are, however, plenty of brown clay models and molds.

Most shops use an in genious makeshift apparatus for polishing the metal. The device consists of an electric motor turning a cable inside a stiff hose. To the end is attached a wire wheel or whatever abrasive/polishing device they need. Sometimes they'll take the electric motor, pop a polishing wheel to the end of it and just use the whole contraption by hand. While not as powerful or versatile as a regular grinder, it gets the job done cheaply.

Tapestries are also big in Mandalay. Small teams of women gather around wooden frames stretched with red fabric. By the light of the window, they guild threads of bright color and gold through the cloth.

The complete tapestry is a rectangle about one by two meters. It contains Hindu and Buddhist scenes from history or allegory.

See the larger images here.

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