Music for the Divine

Curator, Dr. Catherine Raymond

8/28/12 – 11/17/12
Northern Illinois University
South Galleries, NIU Art Museum
DeKalb, IL

This exhibition coincided with the International Burma Studies Conference on October 5-7, 2012 at NIU.  It explored Burmese traditional music, past and present, ranging from the religious to the mundane, and from Royal Palace rituals to expressions of minority identity and cultural confidence. Its diverse facets are displayed here in four sections: Music Towards Nirvana explores specifically musical aspects, performed and recorded, of merit-making; Music from the Court investigates the role of music in Kingship, envisioned as the embodiment of the “Lord of Earth and Heaven;” Music and the Spirits examines music applied in gaining protection from the spirits; while Music and Ethnicity shows how the Karen, Shan and Chin peoples have come to display and conserve their “otherness.” 

Burma/Myanmar’s rich musical tradition evokes the country’s ethnically diverse peoples and geographical landscapes, ranging from densely-forested to semi-arid. Burmese musical traditions honor the Divine—in the animist world, intermediated through the occupants of the spirit realm; in the human world, through the Buddhist goal of attaining Nirvana and thereby being liberated from the cycle of reincarnation.

Migrating from Yunnan in southwestern China, beginning in the 9th century CE, the Burman people settled in central Burma, demographically submerging or displacing the previous lowland occupants, the Mon and the Pyu, while absorbing and retaining their musical traditions.

Bordering India and Bangladesh, China, Laos, Thailand, the Bay of Bengal, and the Andaman Sea, Burma was the epicenter of both landward and seaward trade routes. If China may have had some influence, India played a comparatively larger role in early Burmese musical history, especially so during the Bagan dynasty (1044-1287 CE), with its seat in the medieval Burmese capital Bagan, in the heart of the dry zone, on the left bank of the Ayerawardi River.  CR



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