Echoes of a personal history: Shirin Niazi's Myanmar Collection.
Upon seeing the smartly dressed Shirin Niazi moving about in her drawing room full of Burmese traditional furniture antiques artifacts and Burmese art it was not difficult to imagine her chignon embellished with a string of pearls or jasmine flowers and her in a traditional Burmese logyi.
However Shirin Niazi President of the Pakistan Myanmar Friendship Association is very much a Pakistani today having lived here for almost forty years.
Born in Yangon Myanmar Shirin says that her family can recall more than six generations of their Burmese ancestors. Shirin's great maternal grandfather served as a minister to Thibaw Min - the last king of Burma who was coroneted in 1878. When Burma was defeated by the forces of the British Empire the king's reign ended in 1885. The king was exiled to India (to Ratnagiri in Orissa) and in exchange Bahadur Shah Zafar the last Moghul Emperor was brought to Burma" she explained.
In recent history in1989 to be more specific the military government of Burma officially changed the English translations of many names dating back to the country's colonial period including the name of the country itself and Burma was converted to Myanmar although across the globe people use both the names interchangeably.
Shirin's paternal grandfather hailed from Turkey who came to India and settled in Bengal before moving on to Burma and marrying a Burmese lady. Both of Shirin's grandfathers maternal and paternal were businessmen.
We always had a houseful of art in my parents' home in Myanmar" says Shirin Niazi of her own love for art and artifacts. My father was an art collector too but my husband (a Pakistani) who enjoys the art that I collect is mostly fond of books." A number of coffee-table books were also kept around the large drawing and dining room when I met the Collector.
A poster of one of Bashir Mirza's famous Lonely Girl series of oil paintings which he created in the early seventies is signed with a flourish by the artist for Shirin" - with the year '94 written next to his signature.
She has a portrait painted by M.F. Hussain but has reservations about putting it up or showing it to the world at large. Besides these Shireen has a sizable art collection that includes masters such as Sadequain M.F. Hussain F.N. Souza Bashir Mirza and others but most of it is stored away as she likes to keep rotating the paintings on the walls.
However it is her rich and varied collection of art and antiques from her country of origin that is very interesting to see as Myanmar today is known mostly for political turmoil and a discussion on its art and culture hardly surfaces.
The gems and jade so common in Myanmar can be seen in Shirin's furniture. Two striking chairs which have been crafted in Pakistan are based on old Burmese designs and are inlaid with gems creating beautiful sceneries of a Burmese garden. A rectangular side table's top is laid out with an indomitable jade dragon and another table top is encrusted with mother of pearl on which a large silver bowl with figurines attracts attention. On the same table stands a jewel-studded sword. When we tried to loosen the blade from the scabbard it couldn't come off; prompting the Collector to say that this was deliberate so that her grandchildren could not fiddle with it.
In a large wall-to-wall book cabinet with glass doors as well as on her coffee-table one finds a number of small artifacts created entirely from mother-of-pearl. As we know this easily accessible resource was a popular material for ritual objects from the Indus Valley to Aztec cultures. In Moghul India too following the tradition of the Ottomans compounded with a bounteous supply of pearl oysters from the Indian Ocean a rich tradition in the working of mother-of-pearl was developed.
An interesting collection of over a dozen antique 18th century opium smoke-pipes are kept in the same cabinet. These are fashioned in bronze and have fascinating animal figures such as elephants and monkeys as well as a few with human figures placed alongside a container that once held opium or the tobacco.
Shirin's mother's picture has been painted as a joyful young bride on her wedding day and her great grandfather's portrait in all his official regalia and traditional costume. Artist U Soe Tint who had studied sculpture in Dresden Germany for 12 years and was one of the greatest artists of Burma painted these two portraits" said Shirin. According to her the artist went over from Germany to teach in the UK before returning to Burma where he headed the Fine Arts Department at Yangon University. One of the first Burmese artists to study western art was Ba Nyan. Together with Ngwe Gaing and a handful of other artists they were pioneers of western painting style in Burma. Later most of the students learnt from masters through apprenticeship." (Wikipedia).
The watercolors on display depict the magnificent Buddhist temples of Myanmar and the figures of the Buddhist monks. The Collector also has antique lacquered wooden bowls that the monks used for begging food. The two of these displayed in her home are of completely different shapes but both have lids to keep the food warm and protected.
Her collection extends to other Asian countries as well as seen in the tall white and blue Chinese ceramic urns and large Chinese scrolls with paintings of royalty bought during her visits to mainland China.
Recently an exhibition titled The Land of Golden Pagodas - Myanmar showcased selected works from her collection at the VM Art Gallery. The objective was to share Burmese art as well as put some of it up for sale. This is quite a common practice among long-time collectors who reach a stage when they begin to experience the need to part with precious works and pass them on to other collectors who share their passion.