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Tuesday, June 27, 2000

Myanmar's artistic splendors

MYANMAR STYLE: Art, Architecture and Design of Burma. Asia Books, Bangkok. Baht 1,695.

About 12 years ago, a coffee-table book titled "Thai Style," with beautiful photos and elegant accompanying text, enjoyed great success in the wide and expanding circles of admirers of Siam.

Recently, a publication of similar shape and scope appeared. This time, however, it is dedicated to Myanmar; it is enjoying the same happy success.

"Myanmar Style," also published by Asia Books, is a collective endeavor by six international scholars with a deep interest in Myanmar: John Falconer (curator in the British Library), Elizabeth Moore (senior lecturer at the University of London), Daniel Kahrs (expert on Burmese architecture and crafts), Alfred Birnbaum (writer and editor), Virginia Di Crocco (expert on Burmese art, especially ceramics), and Joe Cummings (author and art historian).

These specialists divide among themselves the various themes covered in the book: religious, secular, early modern and contemporary architecture, arts and crafts, textiles and costumes and the "Pagoda Alley Market," those miscellaneous treasures in the vicinity of pagodas.

The well-known Asia lover, photographer Luca Invernizzi Tettoni again provides the visual coverage of this vast artistic panorama. In addition, the book provides us with the first-ever chronology of Burmese ceramics.

There are three ways to enjoy this book. One could be a meticulous reader, and go from page to page, studying in detail the text, the photos and the captions that explain them. Alternatively, the reader could concentrate on the beautiful photos, taking only occasional glimpses at the text. Or one could do a little of both, alternating between the photos and the text, depending on mood and stamina.

What I am trying to say is that all three parts of the work -- photos, text and captions -- are not only first-rate, but autonomous and self-sufficient. They are able to match the mood, knowledge and time of just about any reader.

This type of collective work belies the condescending undertone in the phrase "coffee-table book." The shape may reflect the definition, but the contents are very well-researched and scholarly, and it targets the learned reader.

I find it very difficult to praise one section of the book and leave out others, particularly when I find a basic similarity running through both the style and the approach used by all the contributors.

Still, let me make a few particular comments.

The photography is superb, not only technically, but also as an expression of a deep inner sensitivity and empathy toward the country and the region. Both the sweeping panoramas and the shots that focus on minute details are dynamic invitations to come visit monuments and places and discover for oneself the fascinating things that are described so well in the text.

Virginia Di Crocco captures the theme of the book when she writes that "Arts and crafts are synonymous with life in Myanmar. Life in turn is so closely intertwined with Buddhism that Buddhist devotion determines, in large part, the production of Burmese artisans . . ."

Indeed, Buddhism permeates everything in this really exotic country, where "time is measured by cycles of crops and celestially regulated religious ceremonies," as Daniel Kahrs explains.

I am reluctant to offer criticisms after having so enthusiastically endorsed this book, but I think a few are in order. First, it could use a general map of Myanmar to orient the reader, as well as a short glossary. There is an index, but a glossary would have provided a quicker way to become familiar with terms. Terminology is an unavoidable hurdle in books of this type, and readers may jump over the relevant explanation of a term when it is first given.

A basic chronological table would also have been useful.

Finally, it seems that a small photo is missing on page 78; if not, the captions need restructuring. And it would also have been interesting to see a clarification of whether the Kammavaca manuscripts are only extracts of the Thereavadin Vinaya in manuscript form in Myanmar and why, or if there are others, given the Vinaya's extended corpus.

George Sioris, a former ambassador of Greece to Japan, is president emeritus of the Asiatic Society of Japan and president of the Center for Japanese and Asian Studies in Athens. He is a contributing adviser to The Japan Times.

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