Newsletter Vol-3

The Lacquer Tradition in Lanna

It had been a tiring journey. The roads which had been built recently made travelling much easier but still the journey through the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) Delta had been a long one, covering four towns and innumerable villages. The members of the group were happy to be back in Yangon and they felt exhilarated. Project RUSOVILIV Phase II was well and truly launched!
Project “Historical Development of Rural Societies and Villagers’ Livelihood in Myanmar: From Tradition to Modernity” had begun in May 2001 as a joint project of SEAMEO CHAT and the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) of Kyoto University with the Universities Historical Research Centre (UHRC) and Yangon University as participating institutions. Project RUSOVILIV Phase I, which had ended in March 2003, had concentrated on a rural environment on the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal, Gwa township in Rakhine State.
In the past two centuries quality lacquerware has been produced mostly in northern Thailand, specifically in and around the Chiang Mai area known as “Kreung Kuen.” Chiang Mai lacquerware is produced by a community of craftsmen in the southern part of the city in the area called Ban Kuen or “Kuen village.” The Kuen are an ethnic group who speak Tai and live in the vicinity of Kengtung, a major town in eastern Shan State in Myanmar. Kuen craftsmen were brought to Chiang Mai about two centuries ago. The lacquer products which they made became very popular and they were in great demand throughout the country.
Like other Southeast Asian peoples, the Lanna people of northern Thailand traditionally lived in bamboo stilt houses. In these bamboo houses the use of heavy wooden furniture and heavy utensils was not practical and preference was given to the use of light baskets and lacquered objects. This resulted in the production of a great number of light household and ceremonial objects to serve daily needs and cultural functions. Among the articles of household use, woven bamboo and wicker baskets were considered to be of lesser status while lacquerware, with its greater grace and refinement, enjoyed an elevated position.
The people of Lanna sat on matted floors and their lacquer utensils helped to elevate things of importance to a higher level and served to define space. Food and betel condiments were always served to guests on lacquered trays, not to do so was considered rude and insulting and resulted in a face-losing situation.
Black is the natural colour of the lacquer sap. Cinnabar powder is added to create red lacquer, the colour indicating wealth and ceremonial propriety. Aristocrats and Buddhist monks of high rank used red lacquerware exclusively, which was further improved by gilding with a gold-leaf design. In Lanna culture, it was required that all ceremonial utensils, whether used in Buddhist or animist functions, be at least of red lacquer. Beyond that, the use of gilded lacquerware was restricted to royal personages and the Lord Buddha, although gold sprinkles were allowed to others, although with restraint.
With a matrimonial society, it was common for the groom to go to the home of the bride. The procession of the groom going to the bride’s home required a display of wealth, which was accomplished by the members of the groom’s family ostentatiously carrying lacquered boxes. The contents of the boxes did not much matter, it was the look and the design of these boxes that carried the pride and the prestige of the family.
Similar questions of prestige came into play when families attended Buddhist rites at the temples. To show that your family was of an important lineage and an elevated status, the lacquer trays for the offering of flowers at the altar and in front of the devotees had to be magnificent. But it was not only in such ceremonies that lacquerware was used for ostentatious display. Even in ordinary life, it was used to indicate the status of and wealth of the owner. Traditional merchants and caravan traders proudly displayed the lacquerware in their possession in its various forms – the tools of their business, such as weight-scale cases, articles of personal use, such as snuffboxes and tobacco cases, and also paraphernalia, such as gunpowder horns.
With lacquerware of quality closely associated with ceremonial and religious use, there is in Buddhist temples a rich display of ritual furniture and utensils gleaming with bright red cinnabar. Some of these also have a coloured-glass decoration, traditionally reserved for temple objects. There is a profusion of symbolic designs and decorative techniques, used to enhance the religious and sacred function. In this display of temple furniture are offering trays for various uses, candle stands, pulpit, symbolic throne, and royal regalia, and, of course, the highly revered Buddha image and the amulets. Besides these, there are also scripture chests, palm-leaf book covers and bookmarks, all of which are beautiful pieces of lacquerwork. In fact, the building itself, painted with cinnabar and gilded in places, is lacquered architecture crafted by monk-craftsmen.
The traditional techniques used in the decoration of Lanna lacquerware are:
(1) painting
(2) engraving
(3) goldleaf-gilding
(4) moulding and impressed decoration.
Painting is a technique found in all the major lacquerware producing areas of northern Thailand and in the past was used in practically every village for the decoration of lacquerware. In painting, the utensil is first coated with several layers of natural black lacquer sap. Then, after drying, a mixture of liquid sap and colouring agents is applied as decoration on the surface.
The popular colour is red and it is obtained from cinnabar. The liquid lacquer is gently dripped and the design drawn slowly on the surface using a Chinese writing brush. Because the liquid lacquer is sticky, the shapes formed look like tadpoles. This basic form is repeated over and over again to create the design patterns which are uniquely Lanna and which are used as decorative motifs on all forms of craft, such as ceramics and paper stencils.
The painting of designs is done freehand and is completely spontaneous. The designs are highly individual and it is impossible to find any one design exactly repeated. The beauty of the painted decorations depend greatly on the skill of the craftsman as well as on his sense of design, his manipulation of the graphic forms and his knowledge of the materials.
Sometimes the red-painted motifs are highlighted by goldleafing at the edges of the design. This results in a brightening up of the ware in conditions of dim lighting.
In the technique of engraving, the ware is given several coats of lacquer so that the surface becomes very smooth and is almost flawless. Then, using an iron stylus, designs and patterns are created by engraving grooves which are deep enough for filling in a mixture of colours. The whole surface is then polished and coated with clear lacquer.
The technique of engraving is a time consuming process, with each colour applied separately and each coating of colour dried before the application of the next coat. But the results are worth the trouble because the technique of engraving creates very fine decorative lines of colour which cover the surface of the ware with silky motifs of subtle beauty. It is a technique much loved by the Kuen people of Chiang Mai.
The technique of goldleaf-gilding of lacquer surfaces flourishes within the setting of the great popularity in Asia of gilding, especially of royal palaces and religious monuments. In the Lanna region three methods are employed in the gilding of lacquerware.
In the first method, the goldleaf, which comes in squares, is applied to cover the whole lacquer surface while it is still tacky. A metal needle is then used to etch the drawings on the gold surface. The result is a faint design with thin black lines on a golden surface. From a distance, this design is barely noticeable, particularly because of the bright golden overall effect.
In the second method, the goldleaf is applied on the lacquer surface using paper stencils, creating repeated patterns. Usually, the use of stencils does not allow for fine details, and the designs are bold and large for most objects. Looked at from a distance the designs produce a good effect and the technique is most often used for the decoration of architecture, temple furniture and utensils. It is much loved by the people of Lanna and is a characteristic decorative technique of the region’s lacquer craft.
In the third method, a mixture of fine orpiment with water soluble gum is applied with a fine brush to draw on the lacquer surface which is very smoothly finished. This drawing is in reverse, leaving the places which are to be gilded unpainted. A thin coat of clear lacquer sap is then applied to cover the whole surface and this is followed by goldleafing. The surface of the object is then soaked in water to loosen and wash away the orpiment mixture and the gold leaf which is on it. The goldleaf is retained only on the desired parts and with a final rinsing with water the golden motif appears bright and clear. This technique is capable of creating very delicate gold designs on lacquerware and is most suitable for small objects and utensils which come under close viewing. Skilful craftsmen make masterly use of this technique to produce exquisite results.
In the technique of moulding and impressed decoration, a mixture of crude lacquer sap, fine clay, ashes, and sometimes white lime powder is used for moulding decorations on the object. Usually the mixture is rolled into long strings and applied to the drying lacquer surface to create patterns and motifs. Sometimes large impressed pieces are applied on the exterior of the object, creating an interesting texture and surface. Goldleaf is also used to highlight the mouldings. Often shining glass and mirror studs are applied as decoration to go with the moulded lacquer motifs. This technique is used mostly for the decoration of ceremonial objects rather than for articles of secular use.
The Lanna tradition of lacquerware has fallen into decline with the advent of westernisation. Tin, brass and other metal objects, and, more recently, plastic products also, have come to replace lacquerware.
In the early part of the 20th century, the trend developed in Lanna of lacquerware being produced as souvenirs rather than for everyday use. Items like water jugs, cigarette cases, lady’s purses, soap trays, snack trays and other paraphernalia of modern life were produced for export. Most popular was lacquerware with engraved red and black floral designs.
By the 1930’s silverware had almost entirely replaced lacquerware. Sporadic attempts were made to revive the lacquer craft but they were unsuccessful.
The contemporary trend is for the production of inexpensive imitations of lacquerware for interior decoration making use of synthetic paints. Perhaps this provides a hope for the revival of the craft and the continued creation of a lacquer art with a higher status in a global society.

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Last Modified : 10 Feb 2011 (NWA)

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