Umbrellas that stand on ceremony
March 7 - 13,, 2011
PATHEIN umbrellas are one of the most recognisable tourist souvenirs in Myanmar and can be regularly seen poking through the carry-on luggage of foreigners leaving the country.
The umbrellas have mostly been replaced by cheaper, modern varieties though and are rarely used outside of ceremonial occasions. What hasn’t changed is where they’re made.
“For a long time almost all the households in my quarter depended on making umbrellas for their livelihood but the number of cottage industries declined from 1993 onwards,” says Ko Aung Win, owner of Myat Kyaung Taw, a small business making umbrellas on Tawyakyaung Road, Pathein.
Now, only three or four small businesses are making the umbrellas in his area.
“We have had some hard times. The retail price can barely cover the cost of the wood and transport, but if we can overcome this, the business will boom and local craftsmen will return to making umbrellas,” he says.
The decline can be attributed to the import of cheap nylon umbrellas. Now, traditional umbrellas are reduced to use in Buddhist novitiation and wedding ceremonies or as home and garden decoration.
Waxed umbrellas made with cotton are preferred by foreigners and monks for their traditional, rustic appearance whereas silk umbrellas are more often donated or used ceremonially. These are not liked by foreigners because of the shininess of the silk and bright, sometimes garish colours.
Although designs have shifted over the years, the manufacturing process is still largely done by hand, including the fixing of the cloth, dyeing of the fabric and painting of the floral or bird patterns.
Ko Aung Win is confident that the tradition will continue to thrive.
“Our tradition is not dying out because the art of making umbrellas is a local specialty,” he says. He expects sales to increase in 2011, especially to Europe, where his company will send 1200 umbrellas this year, despite increased competition from abroad.
“Some Asian countries have copied our umbrellas and produce exactly the same ones as we craft, but European buyers say that our quality is better.”
It hasn’t always been this way though.
“The quality suffered once when demand for umbrellas surged. Enormous quantities of them were ordered but we could only craft a certain amount. Some companies employed inexperienced workers to cope with the demand which in turn affected the quality,” says Ko Aung Win.
Ma Thin Thin Hlaing, an umbrella maker in Pathein argues that crossover between countries is an acceptable part of the creative process.
“I don’t think that Asian countries have copied our umbrella designs… They have their own traditions and sometimes we duplicate designs from Japanese umbrellas whilst adding a few of our own refinements. These are called wartalone umbrellas and have a flat umbrella shape while Pathein umbrellas are arched.”
Pathein umbrellas look set to continue their niche in the umbrella market. But Ma Nilar Win, who owns a small shop selling traditional handcrafts on the stairway leading up to Shwedagon Pagoda, argues that over time traditions are being lost.
“My mother said that Pathein umbrellas were once more splendid and classic [in their designs] than the ones crafted now,” she says, referring to depictions of Inle, Bagan and Mandalay that were painted on the umbrellas. Similarly, silver handles are no longer produced because of the high cost.
“People may not see the difference in beauty nowadays because the umbrellas were produced when they were very young.”