Kalagas, 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 price.
The most popular stories illustrated on kalagas have some sort of religious significance. 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), depicted. Another 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 backing. 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.