Sand painting is a subtle art form in Bagan, but it seems to lie in tatters these days. As a popular souvenir of Bagan, sanding paintings - costing around Ks 5,000 (U$5) apiece - have spawned fakes and copies. Sand painters themselves are also vulnerable
Sand paintings are the replicas of Bagan-era murals that are enormously complex and little understood mainly because of their mind-boggling diversity. They show Theravada interpretations of texts, but also many Mahayanist elements, as well as Vedic, Hindu, and alleged Tantric imagery. These ancient paintings attest to Bagan as an early centre of Theravada Buddhist culture in Southeast Asia.
While Jataka tales and stories of the life of the Gautama Buddha predominate in the Bagan paintings, there are secular images of mortal beings like gorgeous ladies, dancers and musicians.
The ancient personalities have invariably found their way to sand paintings that are on sale at stalls at most pagodas and monasteries in Bagan. Tourists like this sort of kitsch because they are not allowed to take photos of the actual murals.
Sand paintings are the pride and joy of the people of Bagan. According to sand painter Poe Thar, there are around 300 sand painters and sellers in Bagan.
These traditional, grand-looking sand paintings depict young novices, monks and nuns and the 12 Myanmar lunar months. “Most of the sand paintings from Bagan are cheap paintings displaying beautiful workmanship for the tourists,” he said.
The making of a traditional sand painting takes between three days to ten weeks depending on the number of colours and the complexity. The process involves the sketching of replicas of the murals on a piece of white cloth using a stylus. The cloth is then covered with acrylic glue. In the past, the painters used the glue made from acacia and margosa trees, but 'milk glue' is now commonly used. Sand can then be sprinkled over the surface at least three times through a sieve but following the exact lines of the drawing.
The vivid colours depend on types of sand used, with the white sand sourced from the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River and yellow from the creeks.
These sand paintings are being copied shamelessly by painters from other cities who sell the copied artworks at a much higher price.
According to Min Naing Aung, owner of an art studio in Bagan, while many painters love sketching ancient Bagan images with their own artistic flair, there are those modern artists who are disgracing the art of sand painting by copying other sand painters’ artworks and making a huge profit out of it.
Sand painters are also being exploited by art sellers from Thailand who resell the art in Bangkok at outrageously high prices despite paying the artists a paltry sum. As a result, sand painters are left with a profit of Ks 1,000 (US$1) or Ks 2,000 (US$2) per piece.
Min Naing Aung struggles to make ends meet by selling his masterpieces at low prices.
“Some of the sand paintings are better than the ones created by modern Myanmar artists though the latter’s paintings are worth thousands of dollars. But they are copying other people’s works instead of creating their own. It is such a waste," said Min Naing Aung, adding that he’s dreaming of opening an art gallery in Yangon.