Burmese Lacquer Tray 01

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Size: 18.25 x 15.25 inches
Material: Lacquer and Bamboo
Condition: Very Good Condition


This is an elaborately detailed Burmese black, red, orange and green lacquerware tray. The tray is densely decorated with the 'nan-dwin' (King at Court) design that depicts the king holding an audience, flanked by two courtiers. The king wears elaborate court costume and is shown seated in a courtyard in front of a wooden palace that is elaborately engraved. They are all shown seated in front of the palace, with two coconut trees on either side and an elephant on the upper panel. The scene is enclosed by an oval band of black with engraved red flowers. On the rim is another floral border with two panels of black at the top and bottom, with Burmese engraved writing of the master craftsman’s name and where it was made. On the right and left sides is a darker black and green floral design to offset these. The back of the tray is mostly black, with fine cream lined and a scalloped border. Beyond this is a red band with Tamil Initials added later - this is because the Chettiars typically belonged to large joint families, with each branch of the family owning very similar objects of their diasporic heritage. It was important to etch their belongings (valuable or utilitarian) with initials, clearly indicating ownership. In the centre of the back is a goldfish design with the name ‘Goldfish Brand’ next to it etched in Burmese writing. Curving around this in Burmese, it says ‘’The Best Lacquerware”.
  • ABOUT Burmese Lacquerware

    While Yun-de, or lacquerware in Burmese, is considered a minor art in most countries, in Burma, it has been a dominant industry for the last three centuries. Burma acquired the techniques of production from China, where lacquer has been in use for over 3,000 years. Burmese royals often presented lacquerware as gifts to foreign envoys, and food in their banquets was served on lacquer dishes. They used lacquer boxes to store jewellery and scarves. Objects embellished with lacquer even played an important role in Buddhist religious ceremonies. But the use of lacquerware was not restricted to royalty and monkhood; lacquer objects were used daily by commoners to store food, refreshments, clothing, cosmetics or even flowers. The importance of lacquer to the Burmese is probably equivalent to the modern use of porcelain, glass and plastic combined (source: Burmese Lacquerware, book by Sylvia Fraser-Lu).

    The lacquer (thit-si) is the sap tapped from the varnish tree (or thitsee) that grows wild in the forests of Myanmar (formerly Burma). It is straw-coloured but turns black on exposure to air. When brushed or coated, it forms a hard glossy smooth surface resistant to moisture or heat. Lacquer vessels, boxes and trays have a coiled or woven bamboo-strip base often mixed with horsehair. The sap is then mixed with ashes or sawdust to form a putty-like substance, which can be sculpted. The object is coated layer upon layer to make a smooth surface, and then polished and hand engraved with intricate designs. As the lacquer is very thin when applied, it requires many coats to provide an even finish. The preceding coat must be completely dry and highly polished before applying the next one. With some objects having as many as 100 such layers, the production of lacquerware was a time consuming and expensive business. It could take three to four months to finish a small vessel, and over a year for a larger piece.

    Lacquer pieces came to India, specifically Tamil Nadu, through the Chettiars - a community of Indian traders, merchants and land owners, some of whom had moved to Burma. “Indians had lived in Burma for centuries, but large-scale migration took place during British-colonial rule, when the country was part of British India, during the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were used as civil servants, traders, farmers, labourers and artisans – and came to be considered the backbone of the economy.” (Source: BBC) The Chettiars originated in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu (about 75 villages, east of Madurai), and have been credited with the expansion of Burma’s agrarian economy. Many were also private financiers, and these banking families, although based in Burma for several generations, maintained their links with Chettinad, returning there for family events such as weddings. The family houses were kept up for this purpose and were filled with fine materials from Burma, including lacquer vessels, some of excellent quality.

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