Many-hued Myanmar: Traditional Umbrella Making
The vivid traditional Burmese Umbrellas have always made for aesthetically rich artifacts, luxurious export goods, and souvenirs from South- East Asia, alluring backdrops and scintillating objects of photography. However what makes the craft illustrious is its opulent history, deeply embedded in the evolving culture of the region. At a point in time umbrellas were considered a mark a luxury and wealth and the aristocracy in South- Asian countries would only carry yellow and red umbrellas to mark their distinctiveness. Innumerable times have the classic paper umbrellas been part of fashion runway shows as a puppet representation of culture. As the traditional umbrella makers become fewer in contemporary times, there is a dire need to preserve the culture, not appropriate it and designate due respect to the people who continue to flourish this age-old tradition. The most popular traditional artifact is the Pathein umbrella deriving its name from the place of origin
The umbrella industry of Pathein, the capital of the Ayeyarwady Division of Myanmar’s delta region is known across the globe. This cottage industry was established in Pathein over a hundred years ago. While the Chinese variant was rooted in mythology and history to imbibe designs of mythological figures, nobles, and animal figurines, the Burmese umbrella is strong and sturdy and known for its quirky use of bold colors. The industry is said to have originated in Pathein more than a hundred years ago by a group of people who came down from Pyay, a settlement in the Bago Region, 260 km northwest of Yangon. Initially made from natural material such as eucalyptus leaves, the choice of fabric later became paper, cotton, and even silk, painted or embroidered with floral designs. By 3rd century AD, the umbrella saw multiple innovations like collapsible mechanisms and extendable shafts. In 1914, a group of about 30 people from king Thibaw’s court, traveled from Mandalay to Pathein. These were lured by the British to settle in the region and take up the industry as they didn’t want them to reunite with their king exiled to India. In Myanmar, umbrellas are not merely personal necessities that would be required in a tropical country but a symbol of high sacral knowledge and monastic traditions. The ornamented finial on the pagodas and temples is also called ‘Htee ‘ (umbrella).
With all the materials locally produced, the Burmese Pathein parasol is symbolic of its surroundings. The ‘Tin Wah’ bamboo cut out is used to cut out linear strips. The head and the sliding wheel of the umbrella is made out of teak. Traditionally, the radius for a man’s parasol‘s leaves is 16 inches, a woman’s parasol 14 inches, and the children’s parasol 10 inches. It is said that the task of covering the rib framework of the umbrella with the fabric is considered to be one of precision and skill which might take as long as three years to master. The special cloth is woven in Amarapura, near Mandalay. The monastic parasols are mostly painted in red which is representative of spiritual richness. The Myanmar insider gives a detailed description of the division of labor within the families that are engaged in the production of these cultural artifacts- “There is a division of labor in the making of a single umbrella. Each worker is assigned a different task with one responsible for making the framework of ribs and another for making the shaft while others make the canopy.” Firmly rooted in the cultural heritage of Myanmar and other shared cultures, this art must be connotative of a larger significance than a mere object of aesthetic appeal.
Bamboo is simultaneously a versatile and commercially viable raw material and a marker of south- Asian culture. But the depleting quantities of the kind of bamboo required to make Burmese umbrellas, are affecting the production and the state of affairs in the industry. The global supply chain breakage due to the pandemic has further aggravated the condition. “The Shortage of a special variety of bamboo is creating challenges for the handmade umbrella industry established a century ago in the Ayeyarwady Region capital, Pathein, by loyal subjects of Myanmar’s last monarch, King Thibaw,” said Frontier Myanmar, a few years back. The shortage in supply of the special ‘Tharagu’ bamboo has been a cause of concern to many umbrella makers engaged in the trade for decades now. The causes are the vast consumption of bamboo for traditional flooring, the paper industry, and consumption in the region. Business Innovation Facility program manager for Myanmar, Ms. Olivia Elson said Myanmar needed to change its perception of bamboo as a poor man’s timber and cultivate it sustainably. The umbrella-making industry needs to be recognized for its potential, in these precarious times, more than ever.
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