When Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem, On the Road to Mandalay, in 1892, he painted a picture of Burma as an exotic, far-away country that delighted both him and his readers. Born in India in 1865, he loved the East, returning later as a journalist and writer to evoke all the romanticism of colonial days - of elephants hauling teak, the sun setting over the rice fields and the tinkling of temple bells in the thousands of pagodas that thronged Burma’s ancient cities.
Burma became a sovereign state in 1948 after more than 100 years of British colonial administration. However, soon after gaining independence the country fell under the rule of a military junta that has isolated it from the world until the present day. Although in 1990 pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in Burma’s first multi-party elections for 30 years, she has never been allowed to govern and still remains under house arrest.
Despite the difficult political situation, life in the Burmese countryside continues peacefully in the same way as it has for centuries. Ironically, the isolation imposed by its repressive regime has resulted in the country remaining frozen in time. Villagers still travel by bullock cart and gather the harvest by hand. Today, an artist like Tin Tun Hlaing can depict the beauty of Burma’s ancient culture and civilization, its charming and devout Buddhist people, and daily life in the countryside, in paintings on canvas, much as Kipling did in words over a century ago.
Tin Tun Hlaing was born in 1969, in the town of Nyaung Lay Bin, in Karen State, about 100 miles from the capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon). The third of six children in the family, he started to paint at the age of 11, but did not receive any encouragement from his parents. Luckily for Tin Tun Hlaing, the artist U Than Win, who lived in the same town, became his first teacher when he was 13 years old. In 1987, he gained admission to the prestigious State School of Fine Art in Yangon and studied there for three years, graduating in 1990. Since then he has been a full-time professional artist, painting in a realist style in acrylic on canvas.
Inspiration for Tin Tun Hlaing’s paintings comes from what he knows best: Burmese culture, tradition and daily life in the countryside. Life in Burma still centres on Buddhism and the yearly cycle of seasons and festivals. Even in the centre of Yangon, the visitor becomes accustomed to the ubiquitous monks and novices in their crimson robes, carrying alms bowls and sheltering from the sun under red umbrellas. Tin Tun Hlaing depicts them going about their daily rituals, or performing devotions at the great Shwedagon Pagoda, to which every Burmese must make a pilgrimage at least once in his lifetime, and where every evening hundreds of Buddhist devotees can be seen circumambulating the shrine beneath the golden roof gleaming in the setting sun. His paintings portray scenes that have been acted out for centuries and show the deep tradition and spirituality of the Burmese people.
Burma is a large country (the size of Britain and France combined) bordered by Bangladesh and India to the west; and China, Laos and Thailand to the east. Tin Tun Hlaing travels widely to every region to gain inspiration for his paintings, taking photographs and making sketches that he will later develop into paintings in the studio. A favourite destination is Pagan, the ruined ancient city in central Burma where more than 2,000 pagodas and shrines still rise from a vast dry plain. Here Tin Tun Hlaing paints monks in their crimson robes walking in file against a backdrop of the ethereal towers and spires of Pagan rising out of the early morning mist. In another painting, he chooses the close-up view, focusing on a Buddha statue encased in a niche for centuries and illuminated by shafts of sunlight.
The River Irawaddy, one of the great rivers of Asia, flows from north to south through the heart of Burma, and is the lifeblood of the country. Tin Tun Hlaing depicts life on the Irawaddy, the boat people carrying their wares to sell, women bathing or washing clothes near the riverbank, others unconsciously elegant in their brightly coloured sarongs, carrying heavy water pots on their heads as they make their way back to their village in single file. In his paintings of boats, Tin Tun Hlaing often uses a bird’s-eye perspective that heightens the poetic element of his compositions.
From Pagan, it is a day’s journey upriver to Mandalay, the ancient cultural capital of Burma, today a busy city but still with its ancient palaces and some of the most sacred temples and pagodas in the Buddhist world. Tin Tun Hlaing’s paintings describe the elegance and imposing scale of the ancient temples, sometimes by featuring a small bird perched among hundreds of Buddha statues, or a novice monk quietly studying the Buddhist scriptures, resting in the shade of a pagoda.
Tin Tun Hlaing excels at painting water, both river scenes on the Irwawaddy and the picturesque landscape of Inle Lake, beyond the forests of the Shan Plateau to the west of Pagan. Here whole communities live on the lake, with its floating gardens, ancient markets and the famous fishermen who propel their narrow boats along the waterways by paddling with one leg wrapped around an oar. Tin Tun Hlaing captures the almost balletic grace of their movement, both rowing and casting their huge cylindrical nets into the mirror-calm waters of the lake in the early morning sunshine.
Tin Tun Hlaing’s paintings of Burma are based on personal experience, and his aim is to show the beauty of the country. “I am proud of being a Burmese artist and aim to present Burmese customs and the daily lives of the Burmese people,” he says simply. “I also want to show Burmese art to the rest of the world.” Despite Burma’s recent turbulent history, Tin Tun Hlaing succeeds in capturing the “Golden Earth” that lies beneath the political upheaval.