which are embroidered Burmese tapestries, have been around
for about 150 years. Some
of the techniques used in making kalagas are much older.
For example, the techniques of attaching gold thread
and jewels called "shwe-chi-doe" were known to
have existed in Burma over 1,000 years ago.
Items made using the "shwe-chi-doe" method
were and still are rare because they were made from real
gold and jewels, making them prohibitively expensive for the
common person or every day use.
Kalagas evoke in us a sense of the exotic and- for good reason.
Originally developed in the Mandalay court, they
reflected the designs found at that time in the palace and
in the pagodas. Popular
design themes for kalagas included art typically seen on
temple walls. Interestingly, these types of designs are still popular
today. This is
one reason it is common for people to think that the kalaga
art form is much older than it is since the most popular
subjects illustrated on these tapestries are taken from
tales and legends of ancient history.
By the way, a word of caution for the collector.
Even though the kalaga art form is only 150 years
old, you may come across kalagas that may be misrepresented
to you as antiques. The
authenticity of these pieces is doubtful.
The materials used to make kalagas 150 years ago were
not designed to withstand the test of time.
Some folks selling them distress them to make them
look old in the hopes that the kalaga will fetch a higher
The most popular stories illustrated on kalagas have some sort of
One popular theme is astrology; another is auspicious
animals. Elephants, especially white elephants are common.
You will also find the Burmese symbol for purity and
good character, the hintha (often confused with a duck),
popular animal is the peacock, which is a symbol of beauty
and also represents the sun.
Burma had both Buddhist and Hindu influences throughout its history, and
so stories from both traditions such as the Hindu epic
Ramaya stories and the Buddhist Jataka tales, often grace
kalaga art. The kalagas we see today were influenced by several factors
of the time. The
extensive use of sequins comes from the influence of
artisans brought from Thailand after the conquest of
Ayuthaya in 1767. The
materials used to make kalagas, which include wool, glass,
beads, and sequins were readily available then, resulting
from trade with British merchants.
Therefore, as kalagas became more popular, it was
relatively easy for artists to respond to the demand.
Kalagas are still made in the traditional mode.
Access to higher quality materials has improved
overall quality of the finished product as evidenced by
neatly cut glass, sequins that are rust and tarnish
resistant and durable backing cloth.
A kalaga begins by stretching a backing onto a frame
and attaching it. Next,
cloth is cut in the shape of the figures that will be
included in the design.
The figures are decorated and then attached to the
figures are raised by stuffing them with cotton or a similar
material, giving them a quilted quality.
The last step in making the kalaga is to fill in the
background. Kalagas are famous for having backgrounds crafted in
beautiful swirled patterns of sequins.
If you have the good fortune to acquire a kalaga during your travels or
as a gift from a considerate friend - here are some
suggestions on how to best display your treasure.
If you wish to frame your kalaga, do not put glass or
plastic over it. One
way you can display a kalaga is to hang it between a pair of
curtain rods, top and bottom. One feature of this art form that really stands out is how
the sequins and metallic thread reflect light.
This will create a wonderful effect, no matter where
in your home you place your kalaga.