Rhythms of Folk Traditions

Reshmi Banerjee considers Myanmar’s artistic heritage in regional context.

Myanmar is a country of interesting contrasts and paradoxes, which has attracted many inquisitive minds. Its turbulent history and volatile politics are accompanied by serene landscapes and timeless architectural beauty. Beyond these, the country is host to many traditional and indigenous art forms, which have been passed from one generation to the next, constituting its rich cultural tapestry. Folk traditions are clearly visible in its crafts, theatre and songs along with oral narratives which, in a subtle manner, inform us of an alternative way of looking at the world. These traditional arts make us take note of the hegemonizing tendencies that we have allowed to creep into our everyday existence. The ritual based rural art forms often over-power our city-centric sensibilities, with the ‘silent subaltern’ speaking through their unique creativity. It is important to not only recognize the value of these folk artists but also to support them financially so that they can build sustainable livelihoods out of their artistic pursuits.

Myanmar is home to various traditional art forms like Panbu (the art of sculpture), Panchi (the art of painting), Panyun (the art of making lacquerware) and Pantaut (the art of making floral designs using masonry). The influence of Buddhism is evident in its various crafts like stone carving, bronze casting (representing ancient spiritual practices), lacquerware (depicting Buddha’s life using intricate designs) and pottery making. Exquisite vases, bowls, boxes, bells, and gongs are created in important artistic centres such as Bagan and Mandalay. In the past, the melody of folk music used to be heard during the harvesting season when the sound of big drums would add to the rustic charm. The dance images in the temple murals and wooden reliefs of Bagan seem to be similar to the Buddhist traditions of Eastern India and Sri Lanka, with their Jataka stories and dancing musicians. Interestingly, some of Manipur’s professional contemporary dances (Manipur is a North Eastern state of India, bordering Myanmar) also remind us of the dancing musicians of the past. Even the dance form Yodayar, which is prevalent in Myanmar, is influenced by Thailand and refers to Ayutthaya, the old Thai capital city. Zat Pwe (Zats or stories) is another dance form based in ancient Buddhist scriptures with Hsaing Wang (live percussion and gongs) accompanying the dancers.

Marionette puppet theatre tradition (yokhte pwe) is a dying performing art in Myanmar. Although its main goal was to popularize the Buddhist Jataka stories, with Burmese literary sources stating its presence from the 15th century, much of it was neglected during the colonial period. Even though it saw a revival in the 1980s and religious festivals conduct all-night pwe performances, it requires financial support. It might also disappear like nibhatkin which was like a Buddhist professional theatre (which evolved between the 14th and the 16th centuries), where villagers would carry the tableaux depicting the life of the Buddha and his incarnations from one village to the other on ox-driven carts. Today the nat pwe ritual performances are still staged in Myanmar. Benedicte Brac De La Perriere, in her work on nat rituals, points to not only the role of the 37 Lords who are honoured in the annual public festivals but also the spirit mediums renewing their relationship to their nat on these occasions. The brother-sister pattern in the nat stories is also quite unique and, as Perriere says, ‘representative of the ethos of Burmese local cults to tutelary spirits’. The traditional folk theatre or a-nyeint pwe uses the same costumes (of the prince and the comedian) as those used in the marionette theatre. Both bring the entire team of musicians, costume designers, comedians and set designers together for their stage performances.[i] The puppet theatre in Myanmar also uses the Shwe Chi Doe to decorate the backdrop as well as the costumes of the marionettes. The Mandalay Shwe Chi Doe (literally meaning “gold thread sewing”) wall hangings have folktales on their intricate borders and are prized throughout the world for their workmanship. This art of Myanmar has again been influenced by cultures of China, India, and Thailand..[ii]

Like Myanmar, the puppet theatres of Rajasthan in India and the wayangs of Indonesia, accompanied by haunting folk Rajasthani songs and gamelan (traditional Indonesian orchestra) respectively are hugely popular. The costumes worn by the local puppeteers and the elaborate decorations on stage display the full grandeur of folk ingenuity. Puppets are often used in India as tools to spread awareness amongst the people on social issues like education, health, or the concerns of women. Myanmar could possibly use this traditional art form (puppet plays) to bring artists and social welfare organizations together to promote healthy causes.

If one looks back at history, it seems that pre-Buddhist religious cults and folk beliefs in astrology, alchemy and Nats existed in Myanmar before a single kingdom was created by King Anawrahta of Pagan in the 11th century, along with the introduction of Theravada Buddhism. Chronicles also state the presence of Tantric Buddhism. Even the Chinese chronicle of the 9th century, the Manshu mentions the presence of many fortune tellers and astrologers in Burma, with the cult being Hindu in origin. Whether this was imposed on a pre-existing native cult is something which is still under consideration.[iii] One cannot but observe that in India too, the connection between Tantric Hindu tradition and folk culture is a theme which runs throughout Bengal’s rural narrative, with many scholars studying the link between the two. Whether it is the dancing images or the dancing musicians, whether it is the puppet theatre or the old native beliefs, the trans-national folk connections of Myanmar with its regional neighbours are quite evident.

Folk tales are considered as one of the oldest forms of oral art and Burmese folk tales bring humour, romance and wisdom into its folklore.[iv] One comes across ‘Folk Tales of the Plains,’ which constitute the folk tales of the Bamar (Burma’s majority ethnic group) which in turn are divided into animal tales, wonder tales, humour tales, proverbial tales (that illustrate particular proverbs), ghost tales (to amuse, not to frighten) and law tales (a mythical woman judge is the main character). The ‘Folk Tales of the Hills’ are folk tales of other ethnic groups (Arakanese, Mon, Chin, Shan, Kachin, Karen and Kayah).[v]

In Shan tales, the story is either about the hero who was the chieftain or the simple commoner who became the king, whereas the mythical woman judge found her place in the law tales. The titles of the folk tales evoke immense interest like Why the Snail’s Muscles never Ache?, The Four Drums of Destiny, The Cat who Pretended to be a University Professor, Why Female Elephants Hate Pregnant Women, When the Gods Played Hide and Seek, and The Egg Born King.[vi] Although the native myths slowly disappeared, there are approximately 1000 proverbial tales in Burmese literature which were originally mostly folk tales, although some are from the Jataka stories, whereas others are adaptations from Pali or Sanskrit sources.[vii]

Photo credit: Creative Commons
Photo credit: Creative Commons

Ironically, the division between ethnic groups is culturally embedded also in the ‘live storytelling’ performances with each generation passing on its cultural values to the next. Is there any scope for internal cross-cultural sharing of myths, legends and narrative structures? There is a need for comparative studies, not only internally within Myanmar across communities but also between neighbouring countries that are most likely to be cultural partners. We find the presence of impressive folk traditions throughout the region, thus enveloping Myanmar with their impact.

Tibetan folk religion is a mixture of Buddhism, Bon, and various local faiths, with Tibetan chronicles stating the conflict between Buddhism and Bon. Bon was the dominant animistic religion in Guge province in western Tibet where the kingdom of Shangshung existed long before the emergence of Buddhism although many feel that it originated from an Iranian ethnic group. Many of the teachings of Buddhism were later adopted by Bon.[viii] This is quite similar to the quiet collision that Myanmar witnessed between Buddhism and pre-Buddhist folk beliefs, with the latter merging its identity with the former. In Thailand, people wrote folklore on palm leaves (bai larn) and zalacca toys/animal dolls were bought by parents for their children during festivals and at temple fairs. However, this folk craft might become extinct as the younger generation displays no interest in learning the skills of making them.[ix] Similarly in China, the Chinese Communist Party used folk art traditions like papercuts (zhen xian bao– meaning a “needle thread pocket” – is an unusual folk art form of making a container out of folded paper) to promote their ideals, but this is dying too because of lack of interest in carrying it forward. Even ethnographic museums have not shown sufficient interest, with exceptions being the Zeng Xianyang Collection in Guizhou and the Yunnan Nationalities Museum in Kunming.[x]

The Indonesian cities of Yogyakarta, Cirebon and Surakarta (Central Java) are important centres of folk art. The kris carved handle (ukiran), dance masks (barongan), folk bronzes, slit drums, terracotta art and glass paintings (of Cirebon) – all fall within the ambit of folk tradition.[xi] It is believed that the Javanese folk game Nini Thowo/Nini Towong has its origins in animistic beliefs along with dakon or conglak which has folk origins, with the latter being used to settle land disputes in olden times. Children’s art is being encouraged in Ubud, Bali as an important source of folktale and myth with art being seen as a medium for communicating tradition.[xii] Similarly Bangladesh has been innovative in promoting rural artistic sensibilities through ‘art mistris’ as the rickshaw owners-painters call themselves with each painting a ‘masterpiece on moving wheels’. Rickshaw art or transport art in the streets of Dhaka and Chittagong is a vibrant expression of migrants wanting to stay connected with their rural roots (there are regional variations based on local cultural traditions). It has redefined art and resisted labels. Is it modern folk art or pop art; traffic art or social art? Most importantly, it is art trying to create a dialogue between the rural and the urban dwellers, between the masses and the elites, hoping that the distressed rural voices would find a popular and meaningful medium of self-expression.[xiii] India too has a rich heritage of folk-culture. Whether it is the diverse folklores of North East India or the popular folk dances of northern and western provinces (Bhangra, Garba, Ghoomar and Lavani); whether it is the weaver folk traditions in southern India or the Patua scroll painters and Baul singers of Bengal, each state has its own folk vocabulary.

Myanmar needs to constructively tap this regional energy to revive its art, including folk art, which is often seen through the prism of primitivism. One needs to also create a niche market for folk crafts as they tend to get sidelined vis-à-vis the traditional arts. The Ministry of Culture, set up in 1952, aims to promote national unity and patriotism but the main pillars of cultural spirit (i.e. experimentation, questioning, individuality and research) are still not actively promoted. Lack of institutional infrastructure has been replaced by artists trying to build their networks and linkages, as visible in the independent art movement in the late 1980s in the cities of Mandalay, Yangon, and Taunggyi. The contemporary artists are making a concerted effort to inform and educate themselves on critical thinking, aesthetics, art history and international art movements. By the mid 1990s, exchange programmes, events and dialogue-sharing were an integral part of the art space with festivals like Beyond Pressure Performance Art which was started in 2008. A performer needs constant affirmation and appreciation from the audience, as that is the ultimate inspiring force for path-breaking artistic performances. Myanmar is witnessing new ways of involvement by its citizens, as was seen in the Mingalabar multi-disciplinary festival in Yangon in December 2016 which included street art and social workshops. The National Museum in Yangon also has separate sections dedicated to traditional folk art and performing arts. Myanmar has been participating in the world’s largest folk art exhibition in the United States (the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe) since 2013, with professional puppeteers getting an opportunity to interact with other artists in the world. Children’s literature is also becoming an instrument through which the country is trying to promote its country poems and old lullabies.

Art has no boundaries nor should it be imposed with restrictions. Rabindranath Tagore (the 1913 Nobel laureate in literature) not only emphasised indigenous traditions as the foundation of the new but also pointed to the need to amalgamate the best of both worlds (the East and the West) without creating any artistic hierarchies of techniques, practices, philosophy, visibility or market. Henry Moore, the 20th century British artist, rightly stated that “To be an artist is to believe in life”, a life which cherishes diversity, interactive-learning and unstructured existence. Both physical and mental maps have to be removed in order to realize the potential of Myanmar’s artistic paradise. The country should not only strengthen its own fraternity of artists within Southeast Asia but also explore its place and contribution in the global contemporary art world.

 

[i] Cummings, Joe (1998), “The Pagoda Alley Market” in Falconer, John, Moore, Elizabeth, Kahrs, Daniel, Birnbaum, Alfred, Di Crocco, McKeen Virginia, Cummings, Joe, Myanmar Style- Art, Architecture and Design of Burma, London: Thames and Hudson, p.218.
[ii] Thein, Tin Myaing (2000), Old and New Tapestries of Mandalay, Kuala Lumpur; Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 1-18.
[iii] Aung, Maung Htin (1978), Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism, Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, (1978) c 1962, pp. 4-20.
[iv] Lwin, Soe Marlar (2010), Narrative Structures in Burmese Folk Tales, Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, pp. 1-2.
[v] Ibid., p.23.
[vi] Aung, Maung Htin (1976), Folk Tales of Burma, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, pp. 5-9.
[vii] Aung, Maung Htin (1962), Burmese Law Tales- The Legal Element in Burmese Folk-lore, London: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-2.
[viii] Kelenyi, Bela (2003), “Religion of men?” in Demons and Protectors – Folk Religion in Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism (ed), Budapest: Ferenc Hopp Museum of Eastern Asiatic Art, pp. 11-12.
[ix] Sukphisit, Suthon (1997), The Vanishing Face of Thailand- Folk Arts and Folk Culture, Bangkok: Post Books, pp. 157-158.
[x] Smith, Ruth and Corrigan, Gina (2012), A Little Known Chinese Folk Art Zhen Xian Bao, Sarisbury Green, Southampton: Ruth Smith; Bury: Gina Corrigan, pp. 7-17.
[xi] Fischer, Joseph (1994), The Folk Art of Java, Kuala Lumpur; Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 14-50.
[xii] Ibid., pp. 83-95.
[xiii] Lahiri Dutt, Kuntala and Williams, David J (2010), Moving Pictures – Rickshaw Art of Bangladesh, Ocean, NJ: Grantha Corportion; Ahmedabad, India: Mapin Publishing Pvt.Ltd, pp. 24-83.

Author: reshmioxford

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is currently an Academic Visitor in the Asian Studies Centre in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. She was previously a research associate in the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) in SOAS, University of London where she worked on land conflicts in Myanmar and on the political economy of the Indo-Myanmar frontier. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations in the University of Indonesia (UI) and was a researcher in the Economic Research Center, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Jakarta.She is a political scientist with specialization in food security and agricultural policies and has an M.Phil and Ph.D in the subject from the Centre for Political Studies (CPS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.