Marvels of devotional sculptures

By JAMES HIPKISS, New Straits Times, May 17, 2007

Sculptures, which bespeak devotion in their making, are not merely attractive objects. They are devotional art, writes JAMES HIPKISS.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- WHEN looking at statues and sculptures of South and Southeast Asia, surely one cannot help being impressed by the craftsmanship, the artistry, the devotion even, which must have gone into their creation.

<< Simple Laotian artistry in wood

This is devotional art, but one does not have to be a believer or a follower, to appreciate the artistry; as in the same way one can admire the 16th century sculptures of Michelangelo, without being a Roman Catholic.

The pieces here are of Buddhist and Hindu origin, from India, Tibet, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Varying in price from around a couple of thousand ringgit to over RM100,000, they are made from a number of different materials, and to a collector, are a pleasure to collect, admire, marvel over and generally enjoy. These are not reproductions made in a factory to be sold in souvenir shops.

So what is available to collectors in Malaysia?

From Myanmar, Buddha statues can be found made from a number of materials. Some are carved from alabaster, the material giving them a sheen, a glow almost, making the material unique. However, because of the nature of the material — being so easily cracked — it does not lend itself to hold fine details.

Sometimes, these statues are painted or gilded, and traces may still remain. Papier mache is used in Myanmar as a medium too; likewise in some Thai statues. Papier mache is an easier material to work with, is normally painted or gilded, and again, by its nature, papier mache tends not to hold fine details. But because of its light weight, larger pieces are available.

Bronze is a material used in quality statues in Myanmar and the region generally. This material holds the finest details, and can also, when well prepared, cast and finished, have the smoothest and most delightful surface texture.

Some beautifully carved wooden statues are produced in Myanmar and throughout the region. Because wood is a cheaper and easily available material, the craftsmanship, though not the devotion behind it, can sometimes be crude or primitive.

Most pieces from Myanmar are Mandalay style, and can be distinguished by the broad band on the forehead below the hairline, and by the lack of a “flame” on top of the head.

Thai Buddha statues and statues of monks too are commonly crafted in bronze, though sometimes also in wood or papier mache, and, very occasionally, in terracotta.

Some of the bronze pieces can be breathtaking in the quality of their craftsmanship, the way the now long dead artist sculptors were able to capture the expression of pure serenity on the face of the Buddha is almost magical.

On some pieces, the way the artist has captured details of the human form is a delight, for instance, in the detailing of the hands. In some standing statues, the skills of the artist in imparting a sense of movement, for example, in the flowing robes, gives the heavy bronze the feeling of the lightest cloth. It is most awe inspiring!

Breathtaking Tibetan artistry  >>

Collectors particularly look for pieces from the Ayuthya or Sukhothai periods of Thai history. To the untrained eye, pieces from Laos, especially those in bronze, tend to have a similar style to Thai bronze statues, but on closer examination, the difference is apparent. Laotian pieces tend to be slimmer, have slimmer bodies and more elongated faces.

Carved wooden Laotian statues that one can sometimes find in Malaysia are of a very different style though. Produced in the villages by unskilled or lesser skilled carvers, they have a fairly crude, block-like appearance without much detail. One can even call the style “primitive”, but then again, that is their attraction. With a simple, down-to-earth honesty about them, they are statues without any trace of pretensions.

Tibetan-style statues are very distinctive, often very ornate, with fine detailing, gilding, and sometimes gold plated or in a silver alloy, especially if the piece was originally made for an important Lama or state official. The statues can be the familiar Buddha, also Tara, Avalokiteshvara (also known as Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy) or other revered figures from Tibet’s particular strain of Mahayana Buddhism, and different from the Theravada Buddhism practised in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.

Apart from often exhibiting the highest levels of artistry, some Tibetan statues with their content of precious metal, and sometimes being inlaid with stones, can command very high prices, to the tune of well over RM100,000!

The Buddhist statues of Cambodia often have many similarities to those of Thailand, the countries sharing a border and much history. However, Cambodia also had a very large Hindu influence in its past, and so many sculptures of Hindu subject matter exist. These are usually in sandstone, and are free standing, often damaged figures, or just heads, and sometimes decorative architectural pieces or fragments from buildings.

The forms of the figures can have pleasing shapes, though the details are often not very fine; but the texture and colour of the sandstone respond well to dramatic lighting when displayed.

Some architectural pieces from India and carved in sandstone are available in Malaysia. These usually take the form of characters and scenes from Hindu traditions, though some Jain pieces can be found too. These carvings often have a wealth of details in them; figures and animals deeply incised into the stone.

The figures often have an exotic voluptuousness, a feeling of music and movement to them. The architectural pieces respond well to side lighting that brings out the depth of the carving and their three-dimensional quality. The only difficulty with collecting stone sculptures is their massive weight when they are more than a few metres high.

Fascinating to collect and to research, and a delight to look at and admire, the statues of South and Southeast Asia offer much to the collector. They are a lasting legacy and tribute to the skills, craftsmanship and devotion of the region’s artists and provide an insight into the history and times these artists lived in.

Obviously, when buying pieces such as these, one can ask the question: are they original or reproductions? How old are they? Are they worth the price being asked?

All I can suggest is to buy from an established and reputable source. Price-wise, if you can afford it and really enjoy a certain piece, then surely it is worth the price to you!

Three established dealers I would recommend, whose pieces you see here, are:

  • Tomlinson (has a huge collection) located at 1/2 Jalan Ampang Utama, Ampang, Selangor.
  • Art House Gallery, Wisma Cosway, Jalan Raja Chulan, Kuala Lumpur
  • Ginger, 5, Lorong Yap Kwan Seng, Kuala Lumpur.