A Mandalay Designer’s Journey From Currency to Cultural Homage

By Zarni Mann 3 August 2013

MANDALAY — As Burma shakes its decades-long isolation from the outside world and unleashes the forces of globalization and modernity, one artist says he fears for the resilience of the country’s traditional cultural mores.

“Although our country is moving forward to the modern world, we need to preserve our tradition and culture,” says Aye Myint, a respected Burmese designer.

Aye Myint, once responsible crafting the images on Burma’s currency, is now widely known for his traditional art designs, inspired largely by styles found in ancient stone carvings and murals in the country that date back to the sixth century.

Drawing on ancient artwork found around much of Mandalay and on the pagodas and stupas of the ancient Burmese capital Bagan, the 84-year-old told The Irrawaddy that his love for traditional Burmese wood and stone carving, blacksmithing, goldsmithing, and painting motivated him to become a designer himself.

“All of these traditional arts have their own designs,” Aye Myint said. “I first fell in love with the floral pattern wood carvings on the pagodas and temples of Ava and Sagaing. During a trip with veteran artists and my mentor U Khin Maung to Pagan [Bagan], I decided to be a traditional designer as I witnessed many beautiful traditional artworks there.”

In 1954, he began his career as a traditional art designer, joining the Saung Dar traditional weaving academy in Amarapura, Mandalay Division, where he studied screen printing. His artistic talents were eventually noticed by government officials, who enlisted him to design the country’s currency.

“It was around 1970 that I was appointed to draw the designs of the Burmese currency, notes and coins. Firstly, I had to go to Japan and England to learn about the designing of money. I had to draw the designs for one kyat notes, five kyats notes and 10 kyats notes with General Aung San’s face on them,” he said.

“Being a currency designer is full of secrets. You can’t even discuss the business with your family or colleagues for security reasons. I had to designs stamps, lottery tickets as well.”

Wazi, site of the national mint in Magwe Division, was a facility built with technological assistance from Germany under the former military government.

But Aye Myint’s gig as the country’s currency designer was not to last.

“I was forced to resign because of some misunderstandings with the generals of the time. They thought that I was too proud and assumed that I was a political activist,” he said. “Some of my colleagues urged me to submit an appeal, but I didn’t want to do that because I had done nothing wrong.”

With nothing left for him in Wazi, Aye Myint traveled to Rangoon, where he struggled to make a living but managed to secure steady work drawing cover designs for Buddhist literary magazines. After 11 years in Rangoon, he decided to settle down at Amarapura, located 11 km north of Mandalay city.

“I just wanted to live a simple life free from greed, stress and pride. The rise in the cost of living in Rangoon was another reason,” he said as he offered a tour of his modest home on the west bank of the famous Taungthaman Lake.

Starting in 1990, his design skills began appearing in the traditional ornamentation of some of Burma’s sacred Buddhist sites. One of his more prominent designs is the southern stairway of Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. The new golden umbrella of Mandalay’s Maha Myat Muni Buddha image is also his work.

Aye Myint is currently preparing to issue a collection of his magazine cover designs over the years, under the title “A Hundred Images and a Hundred Notes.”

“I always wanted to produce this book so the younger generation could learn to love the tradition and to hand over the heritage,” he said. “There have been some delays with the censorship board. There is no other problem at the board but just a delay due to their working style, as everyone knows. … But hopefully, I can get this book to readers very soon.”

Now a consultant for the preservation of Mandalay’s ancient Shwe Nan Daw Kyaung Monastery, Aye Myint said Burma’s heritage must be preserved with care and attention to history.

“Although every country is moving forward with development in every sector, it is essential to preserve the culture and heritage. Some may think that culture needs no preservation, but that is a bad idea for future generations,” he said.

He points to Mandalay, which has seen rapid change and development over the last decade.

“Mandalay has developed to the point where you can’t find traditional attire and customs among some youth,” Aye Myint said.

“On the other hand, there are youth who love the modern world but still maintain the culture and there are many areas that still maintain the tradition. For example, an industry such as stone carving is not going to fade away because we see orders from abroad for huge Buddha statues as the country now opens to international relations.”

Aye Myint urged young people to study their heritage, and called on government to encourage the preservation of Burma’s traditional arts and culture.

“As the country moves on amid globalization, youth must learn modern lessons but must not forget and must maintain what we have, and not regard our ancient heritage as rubbish,” he said.

“I would like to urge professionals to write books and theses as well. Our country needs many books on the culture and traditional arts. The lack of books with professional input is one of the weaknesses; it’s why we struggle to foster young generations’ interest.”