Saya Chon

The Last Royal Painter of Myanmar

M.T. Htoon

  • Even though I cannot draw nor paint nor draw a straight line or curved line, I was always enthralled whenever I stood before a good painting. Also, I have read some literature on painting and am quite used to Van Goh, Picasso, Modigliani and many others, but I must confess that I know very little about ancient Myanmar painters.
  • I have visited many art galleries and to my astonishment and joy I found that our present painters are getting level with their contemporaries from abroad and gaining their grounds. There is boldness in their techniques that can easily be discerned from their work.
  • Recently I discovered an old book written by Sayagyi U Min Naing about the Royal Painter Saya Choan. As usual he wrote well but it was not only his style of writing that captivated me but also the paintings by this last of our Royal Painters. His hard work and patriotism also held me spell bound.
  • Saya Choan was made Royal Painter at the tender age of 17. He was still a child when he gained the Royal commission and received the Royal Salary of thirty-five kyats a month.
  • To become a Royal Painter was no easy task even though one had talent. The training and apprentice-ship he had to undergo made me remember the younger days of Michael Angelo in the house of Medici. Our Myanmar painting was still in its very early days. A painter must know not only learn to paint, but he must learn to make for himself various paints as well as various painting brushes of all sizes. He had to collect very soft hairs of animals, the hair from the inner side of the ears of rabbit, squirrel and the like, and to make stronger brushes from the hair on the tip of the tails of cows and bullocks and even feathers of birds.
  • At the same time using bits of charcoal, he had to practice on ‘pay’ and ‘parabeik’ till he had mastered the act of drawing an outline. Here you can see for yourself the outlines made by Saya Choan of an elephant. The more you watch it the more you will become fascinated by it. How many sketches did he make to be able to draw this many? How great was his input to become the master of his trade?
  • There were no cameras in those days and nearly every article of the Royal household had to be recorded and put on parabaik. So you can imagine for yourself the amount of work our ancient royal painters must have done. Various hairstyles of the queens, the lesser queens, ladies in waiting, the robes and headwear of the ministers, other royalties, extraordinary presents like mermaids and twins joined bodily to each other (Siamese twins?), the maps, armoury, swords, spears, the pagodas, images of Buddhas, everything that was interesting to the king and everything that was deemed fit to be recorded were recorded by those royal painters. Many were burned by the barbaric soldiers during the last days of King Thibaw.
  • Saya Choan was a very devoted pupil. He looked after his mentor Sayar Sar when the latter lost his sight and position.
  • The lives of royal painters were shattered with the loss of our sovereignty. There was no more work for them in the palace for them. From the peaceful shade of the palace, they had to venture out to earn a living. Many ended up forming partnerships (which was called “sut”) with people who built mandat (pavilions for celebrations) and the like. The status was of course very degrading compared to their former position. Even though Colonal Sladin offered him a job to paint for him Saya Choan refused and one early morning he stole away from Mandalay. Here also you can see the patriotism of Saya Choan. Then for the time being he settled down in a small township in the delta. He made many friends there and accepted many jobs concerning on a “sut” basis. His prestige, honesty and leadership was at once recognized. When he received a job he shared and worked with others. He would call those who were in Upper part of the country to work with his present associates. Thus he formed a bridge – a firm one too between those from Upper Myanmar and Lower Myanmar.
  • Later he moved to Yangon and became one of the earliest commercial artists. His talent was discovered by owner of the Tiger Balm Company. Saya Choan’s picture of a leaping tiger became well-known trade mark and from them on Saya Choan life became economically secure. Even then Saya Choan continued his “sat work” and he ventured to new fields. He worked on sculpture and made many drawings too. It was really saddening that many of these were lost.
  • I have only seen a very few pictures of Saya Choan and the one that impressed the most was the portraiture of Ku Koan Sayadaw of Ma Lat To Village. The picture was excellent in its detail. Although he used western techniques mainly, his traditional method of painting was present as well. That was what impressed me most. I regret that I can produce only a copy, a because I was unable to produce the picture in colour. The picture is really superb. He, Saya Choan could really draw and was a man of great talent and was full of devotion to his Reverend benefactor, who is the subject of the painting. The picture was so beautifully done and one can see it was a work of enjoyment itself.
  • I hope that one day we shall be able to collect these famous pictures of our ancient master painters in one place for the appreciation and enjoyment of the public and future generations.