Nyein Nyein
BAGAN, Mandalay Division — Bagan is a destination with many draws, from ancient temples to quaint horse-drawn carriages that whisk visitors through an almost magical landscape. One attraction, in particular, is on the rise as tourism develops in the central Burma locale: fine, hand-crafted artworks. The subtle yet captivating art of sand-painting is blooming in Bagan, as craftsmen become more skilled and the costs of producing the area’s famed lacquer-ware become prohibitive. The practice of sand-painting originally evolved out of the much more intensive lacquer-ware production. Many craftsmen took up painting because it was popular among tourists and was a more mobile way to make a living; a painter can simply roll up his or her merchandise and set up shop at the feet of any interested buyer. Sand paintings, which are typically representational acrylic images painted over a sandy surface layered onto a cotton cloth, are a great medium for local artists because they appeal to both foreign and domestic tourists, said 49-year-old painter Maung Pa. [irrawaddy_gallery] “We are seeing more interest in hand-made things, not only among the foreigners but also the local tourists, since about 2010,” said Maung Pa. He used to work as a lacquer-ware seller, but for the past 15 years he has honed his own skills with the brush. His hopes that it would be a better source of income seem to have paid off recently, he said. “We can feed our family well.” Maung Pa now runs a small shop at the Gu Byauk Kyi temple near Myin Ka Ba village in Old Bagan, the part of town known for its dense cluster of beautiful and extravagant archaic structures. Every day he opens his shop by hanging each painting one-by-one in the early morning light. Business wasn’t always booming, he admitted. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that people started to notice the style emerging. The early methods of sand-painting were first explored by an artist named Sandar Khine, according to Burmese contemporary artists. Sandar Khine, who now focuses on nudes, became enamored with mural painting after visiting Bagan and experiencing the breathtaking wall paintings spanning the ancient, faded interiors. In the late 1990’s, she began trying to recreate the traditional motifs on canvas. She tried for years to capture the spirit of the murals, but her materials failed her. “I tried to express the art of the mural in sketches, at first,” she recalled, “but it didn’t work.” After years of experimenting, she finally found that one surface was able to recreate some of the aesthetic qualities and tactile seductiveness of Bagan’s enchanting walls. By 2003 she had mastered the art of sand-painting, and she introduced her technique to local artists who were already taking their craft to the canvas. The method quickly took hold among the artistic community, as painters continued to sharpen their skills and attempt to recreate the images of their kingly ancestors. Myo Thant peddles his own creations in a makeshift shop at the Thatbyinnyu temple. He said he strives to achieve the proficiency of Bagan’s masters. “Our creations are inspired by the original Yun [lacquer-ware] and from murals inside the temples,” he told The Irrawaddy. Born in Old Bagan, 30-year-old Myo Thant has been refining his art for the past 13 years. He grew up surrounded by the art of one of Burma’s most magnetic cultural attractions, but he received no formal training. With more than a decade of experience—and with a sudden spike in vistors—Myo Thant said he now makes a steady income from his vocation. “We made less money from sand-paintings during the politically complicated years, around the Saffron Revolution and cyclone Nargis. Foreign tourists were banned at that time,” he recalled. Now, he said, it has become a more stable profession. Not only is sand-painting in high demand, but the production costs are lower than creating lacquer-ware. “As lacquer prices became higher, most people couldn’t keep doing it,” echoed Maung Pa. He said he had tried to earn a living in several different mediums, including plain-canvas painting and sand-sculpture. Sand-sculpture, or sand-carving, is an intensive technique using at least three types of sand sourced from the Irrawaddy River and nearby streams. Sand-sculpture is also adhered to canvas, but adds depth and dimension to the image. While many artists sell their own paintings, some are sold on commission by shopkeepers, and more still are shipped to Rangoon for sale in larger markets. A sand-painting typically goes for US$8 to $20, sometimes as high as $50 for a sand-sculpture. Local buyers, however, still get the best deals.

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