- Verging on Modernity: A Late Nineteenth-Century Burmese Painting on Cloth Depicting the Vessantara Jataka
This Burmese painted image was purchased in the Night Market on Chang Klan Road, Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, in November 2009. The style of dress of the principal protagonists is characteristic of the Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885), confirming its Burmese origin. Its subject, the Vessantara Jataka, is a popular Buddhist theme in Burma and in other parts of Theravada mainland Southeast Asia. In comparison to other paintings on cloth by Burmese artists from the mid-nineteenth century onward, however, the style in which this subject is portrayed is unique. Innovative painterly techniques, composition, and motifs signal that it may belong to a short-lived genre of painting of the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. Particular circumstances in Burmese life at that time inspired innovative developments, and these painters were in essence the forerunners of a new wave who could be designated “modernists.” This investigation aims to place this “Vessantara painted panel,” as it will be referred to in this article, in a cultural and historical context to determine its provenance and function. [End Page 79]
Detailed Description of the Vessantara Painted Panel
The dimensions of the painted portion are 428 by 82.5 centimeters including the narrow painted yellow border enclosing the composition. It is machine stitched into a floral-print cloth frame, just glimpsed here (fig. 1).1 This cloth frame considerably extends the overall dimensions of the entire panel to 490 by 188 centimeters. Thirty hanging tabs are stitched at 15-centimeter intervals along the upper edge of the panel and five slightly larger hanging tabs are stitched on the lower edge 123 centimeters apart. The paint medium is opaque watercolor. Remnant sequins, severely tarnished, are stitched onto epaulettes, chest- and arm-bands and sleeve edges of some of the painted jackets. Touches of gold paint survive.
The principal individual episodes, arranged from left to right in the painting, portray a number of events in the first seven segments of the complete Vessantara Jataka narrative.2 These are: Vessantara donating the white elephant to the brahmins, indicated by the pouring of water from the water jug (fig. 2); Vessantara and his wife Maddi together with their two children, Jali and Kanhajina, seated to the left of his father, Sanjaya, king of Sivi (fig. 3); Vessantara and his family, expelled from the kingdom, leaving in a coach pulled by two horses, confronted by two brahmins requesting the horses (fig. 4); with his family established in their forest retreat, Vessantara grants an audience to Jujuka, a brahmin who requests the donation of Vessantara’s children as servants for his wife (fig. 5).
Other episodes are depicted but reduced in size, including a disheveled Jujuka being chased up the tree by the Cetan [End Page 80]
[End Page 81]
[End Page 82]
[End Page 83]
hunter and his dog and a partly...