Myanmar is a country of interesting contrasts and paradoxes, which has attracted many inquisitive minds. Its turbulent history and volatile politics are accompanied by serene landscapes and timeless architectural beauty. Beyond these, the country is host to many traditional and indigenous art forms, which have been passed from one generation to the next, constituting its rich cultural tapestry. Folk traditions are clearly visible in its crafts, theatre and songs along with oral narratives which, in a subtle manner, inform us of an alternative way of looking at the world. These traditional arts make us take note of the hegemonizing tendencies that we have allowed to creep into our everyday existence. The ritual based rural art forms often over-power our city-centric sensibilities, with the ‘silent subaltern
’ speaking through their unique creativity. It is important to not only recognize the value of these folk artists but also to support them financially so that they can build sustainable livelihoods out of their artistic pursuits.
Myanmar is home to various traditional art forms like Panbu
(the art of sculpture), Panchi
(the art of painting), Panyun
(the art of making lacquerware) and Pantaut
(the art of making floral designs using masonry). The influence of Buddhism is evident in its various crafts like stone carving, bronze casting (representing ancient spiritual practices), lacquerware (depicting Buddha’s life using intricate designs) and pottery making. Exquisite vases, bowls, boxes, bells, and gongs are created in important artistic centres such as Bagan and Mandalay
. In the past, the melody of folk music
used to be heard during the harvesting season when the sound of big drums would add to the rustic charm. The dance images in the temple murals and wooden reliefs of Bagan seem to be similar to the Buddhist traditions of Eastern India and Sri Lanka, with their Jataka stories and dancing musicians. Interestingly, some of Manipur’s professional contemporary dances (Manipur is a North Eastern state of India, bordering Myanmar) also remind us of the dancing musicians of the past. Even the dance form Yodayar,
which is prevalent in Myanmar, is influenced by Thailand and refers to Ayutthaya, the old Thai capital city. Zat Pwe (
Zats or stories)
is another dance form based in ancient Buddhist scriptures with Hsaing Wang
(live percussion and gongs) accompanying the dancers.
Marionette puppet theatre tradition (yokhte pwe
) is a dying performing art in Myanmar. Although its main goal was to popularize the Buddhist Jataka stories, with Burmese literary sources stating its presence from the 15th
century, much of it was neglected during the colonial period. Even though it saw a revival in the 1980s and religious festivals conduct all-night pwe
performances, it requires financial support. It might also disappear like nibhatkin
which was like a Buddhist professional theatre (which evolved between the 14th
and the 16th
centuries), where villagers would carry the tableaux depicting the life of the Buddha and his incarnations from one village to the other on ox-driven carts. Today the nat pwe
ritual performances are still staged in Myanmar
. Benedicte Brac De La Perriere
, in her work on nat rituals, points to not only the role of the 37 Lords who are honoured in the annual public festivals but also the spirit mediums renewing their relationship to their nat on these occasions. The brother-sister pattern in the nat stories is also quite unique and, as Perriere says, ‘representative of the ethos of Burmese local cults to tutelary spirits’. The traditional folk theatre or a-nyeint pwe
uses the same costumes (of the prince and the comedian) as those used in the marionette theatre. Both bring the entire team of musicians, costume designers, comedians and set designers together for their stage performances.
The puppet theatre in Myanmar also uses the Shwe Chi Doe
to decorate the backdrop as well as the costumes of the marionettes. The Mandalay Shwe Chi Doe
(literally meaning “gold thread sewing”) wall hangings have folktales on their intricate borders and are prized throughout the world for their workmanship. This art of Myanmar has again been influenced by cultures of China, India, and Thailand..
Like Myanmar, the puppet theatres of Rajasthan in India and the wayangs
of Indonesia, accompanied by haunting folk Rajasthani songs and gamelan
(traditional Indonesian orchestra) respectively are hugely popular. The costumes worn by the local puppeteers and the elaborate decorations on stage display the full grandeur of folk ingenuity. Puppets are often used in India as tools to spread awareness amongst the people on social issues like education, health, or the concerns of women. Myanmar could possibly use this traditional art form (puppet plays) to bring artists and social welfare organizations together to promote healthy causes.
If one looks back at history, it seems that pre-Buddhist religious cults and folk beliefs in astrology, alchemy and Nats existed in Myanmar before a single kingdom was created by King Anawrahta of Pagan in the 11th
century, along with the introduction of Theravada Buddhism. Chronicles also state the presence of Tantric Buddhism. Even the Chinese chronicle of the 9th
century, the Manshu
mentions the presence of many fortune tellers and astrologers in Burma, with the cult being Hindu in origin. Whether this was imposed on a pre-existing native cult is something which is still under consideration.: 
One cannot but observe that in India too, the connection between Tantric Hindu tradition and folk culture is a theme which runs throughout Bengal’s rural narrative, with many scholars studying the link between the two. Whether it is the dancing images or the dancing musicians, whether it is the puppet theatre or the old native beliefs, the trans-national folk connections of Myanmar with its regional neighbours are quite evident.
Folk tales are considered as one of the oldest forms of oral art and Burmese folk tales bring humour, romance and wisdom into its folklore.
One comes across ‘Folk Tales of the Plains,
’ which constitute the folk tales of the Bamar (Burma’s majority ethnic group) which in turn are divided into animal tales, wonder tales, humour tales, proverbial tales (that illustrate particular proverbs), ghost tales (to amuse, not to frighten) and law tales (a mythical woman judge is the main character). The ‘Folk Tales of the Hills
’ are folk tales of other ethnic groups (Arakanese, Mon, Chin, Shan, Kachin, Karen and Kayah).
In Shan tales, the story is either about the hero who was the chieftain or the simple commoner who became the king, whereas the mythical woman judge found her place in the law tales. The titles of the folk tales evoke immense interest like Why the Snail’s Muscles never Ache?, The Four Drums of Destiny, The Cat who Pretended to be a University Professor, Why Female Elephants Hate Pregnant Women, When the Gods Played Hide and Seek
, and The Egg Born King
Although the native myths slowly disappeared, there are approximately 1000 proverbial tales in Burmese literature which were originally mostly folk tales, although some are from the Jataka stories, whereas others are adaptations from Pali or Sanskrit sources.