Myanmar Buddhism in all its glory

Win Khant Maung
Myanmar Eleven March 23, 2015 1:00 am

When it comes to the Asian art scene in the West, Myanmar seems to play second fiddle to its neighbouring countries. Exhibitions on traditional Myanmar art are few and far between in places like New York City, USA, despite an array of exhibitions staged each month by more than 80 museums there.

Well, the good news is the trend is changing. Some museums are scrambling to grow its Myanmar art collections, with some ancient Myanmar artefacts recently added to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Hindu-Buddhist collection. In terms of grandness, nothing beats “Buddhist Art of Myanmar”, a new monumental exhibition being organised by Asia Society until May 10 at its headquarters in New York.

The exhibition is unique in that it’s not an exhibition of works by a particular artist. Instead it features rare collections related to Buddhism in Myanmar. On display are over 70 artefacts, most of which have never left Myanmar before and are on loan from the National Museum of Myanmar in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw, Bagan Archeological Museum, Sri Ksetra Archaeological Museum in Hmawza, and the Kaba Aye Buddhist Museum in Yangon. Other sculptures are from public and private collections in the United States.

The exhibition is spread across three floors of the Asia Society Museum, which is located at the corner of Park Avenue and 70th Street in New York. A curator is on hand to guide the visitors through the exhibition daily at 2pm. What I immediately like on my arrival at the museum is its serene environment and the simplicity of the exhibition layout. Visitors are greeted on arrival by a row of Buddha images, eyes downcast.

The exhibition features Myanmar’s religious treasures from various epochs from the Pyu era (AD 1-9) and Bagan era (AD 849-1287) to the Konbaung dynasty (AD 1752-1885). But the works are not arranged according to these periods.

On the surface, the collections on the second floor may look rather ordinary to those unfamiliar with Buddhism. Upon closer scrutiny, one would discover works from the Pyu and Bagan periods as well as private collections depicting key episodes in the life of the Lord Buddha, from the birth of Prince Siddharta to the Buddha’s entry into Parinirvana (enlightenment).

The curator explains that the big sandstone Buddha statue portrayed in the Dharmacakra Mudra hand position, on view at the entrance, is believed to possess great power. Ever since a Buddhist monk dreamt of the Buddha statue, the curators at the Bagan Museum had been giving food and flowers as offerings to the statue every morning right to the day the statue was brought to the US for this exhibition. She gives us fascinating insights into how the devout Myanmar people regard the Buddha statues to be more than just museum properties. This custom is unseen in the western world so all the visitors are amazed when hearing about it.

A painting of the Buddha’s footprint, a statue of Shin Upagutta and other statues of the Kinnara and ogres, folded paper writing tablets, and other ancient equipments are on display on the third floor.

Influences of India, China and Thailand are noticeable in these sculptures and lacquered works. The standing statues of the Ananda Temple in Bagan, for example, are quite Indian in style. The curator explains not only the historical facts about the artworks but the mindset of the Buddhist people who created these works as a form of merit-making, as well.

A picture of the Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda, also known as the Golden Rock, accompanied with its detailed history, is absolutely awe-inspiring.

“Buddhist Art of Myanmar” is the first exhibition in the western world after Myanmar opened its doors. According to an official from Asia Society, the organisation has built a relationship with the Myanmar authorities since 2011 to hold this exhibition. Various programmes will be held to accompany the exhibition. These include screenings of films made by the Taiwan-based filmmaker Midi Z, who was born and raised in Myanmar, a lecture on the relationship between art and religious practices in Myanmar and a Myanmar traditional dance performance by the Shwe Mann Thabin dance troupe.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.