Thursday, May 8, 2008

In red and black

Detail of a Chinese lacquer table 
Of the enduring craft traditions of south East Asia, Lacquer ware is most certainly my favorite. Its production is said to predate written history. In China excavations have unearthed lacquer bowls dating back to the Neolithic period.  In Japan, lacquer coated eating vessels were popular much before the introduction of ceramic tableware. Today, the tradition continues to flourish in idiosyncratic styles and methods throughout Asia. 
The naturally occurring plastic obtained from the lacquer tree (Rhus Vernicifula) native to Central and Southern China was the authentic raw material of choice to coat every day objects with glossy, richly textured and intricately patterned veneer.

Purse and offering holder from Burma

As opposed to Chinese lacquer, its Burmese counterpart is made from the sap of the Melanorrhoea Usitata, a tree native to South East Asia.  It is completely unrelated to the shellac used in India and Europe, which is made from the resinous secretion of the insect Coccus Lacca.
All this is information is of course gleaned from various sites on the internet. Most of what I really know about the craft is thanks to my Nani.

Assorted containers on a lacquer tray from Burma 
Having spent quite a few years in Burma, she has managed to amass an impressive collection of artifacts, lacquer ware being a good part of it.
Her possessions have been a source of endless fascination and conversation on long summer days during our vacations.  My love for objects and how they colour our imaginations and histories entirely grew out of there.  

 Burmese betel nut boxes  
Nani had endless stories about Burmese fascination for Betel. Each house has an assortment of lacquered betel nut boxes - a cylindrical box made of woven bamboo and fitted inside with a pair of shallow trays to hold betel paraphernalia.

Headrest from Burma 
In an embellished account, almost story like, she told us how one of her small bowls was fashioned out of real hair, probably alluding to a peculiarity of Burmese lacquer, a technique whereby objects are made of individual strands of horse hair woven around a frame of very Finley split bamboo.   The object is made sturdy with application of successive layers of lacquer before the final coating of embellishment and pattern can be worked upon.  Tediously made over months, objects thus produced are soft and pliable, unlike the containers made from coiled bamboo or  Jack fruit wood.

 Chinese Lacquer coffee table 
Taking a cue from early memories, I have naturally gravitated towards collecting lacquer from all over. The not too shiny, not to matte finish of Chinese lacquer, makes it suitable for coating furniture. Its incredibly polished appearance and strengthening properties make it an ideal choice for an array of very handsome looking furniture.

Lacquered spoons and platter from Burma and China
Thicker, textured and malleable, Burmese lacquer is great for turning every day objects into pieces of art.  Worth mentioning here are lacquer traditions from Vietnam and Japan.  The former has a history of about two thousand years. Newer than most other traditions, Vietnamese lacquer resins are harvested from the Rhus Succedanea tree and converted into natural lacquer which is then applied to paintings and fine art. Markets of Hanoi and Saigon boast the most colourful and glitzy display of lacquer ware from local artisans. With the addition of other materials like plant material ash, egg shells gold and silver etc, artisans are able to churn out innovative and vibrant lacquer pieces in almost all colours conceivable.

Burmese Lacquer bowls 

Called UrushiLacquer has been an integral part of the Japanese lifestyle. It has an impressive 6000 year history in Japan. Used to coat a range of articles including furniture and table ware, Japanese lacquer ware has long obsessed the imaginations of the West. So much so that the various methods developed in Europe beginning in the 17th century were instantly dubbed `Japanning'.


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