U Kan Khyun, right, with a woodcarver at Shwe-nandaw Kyaung.
Blog Post

A Master Returns to Shwe-nandaw Kyaung

U Kan Khyun, right, with a woodcarver at Shwe-nandaw Kyaung.

At seventy-one years old, U Kan Khyun remains humble and pleasant. He is an elder statesmen of woodcarving (also known as ‘Panpu‛)—a living legend amongst Mandalay’s traditional arts community. Fortunately for World Monuments Fund, he has found a new perch on a big teak log under a toddy leaf tent, a kind of coincidental woodcarvers’ throne and baldachin, at the teakwood monastery of Shwe-nandaw Kyaung. From there he supervises woodcarvers on the site’s conservation, working alongside architecture historian Francois Tainturier and office manager Thandar Phyo to help revitalize Konbaung Dynastic traditions by re-carving the veranda’s missing wood elements.

U Kan Khyun grew up in a community populated with woodcarvers, near the city’s most famous site, Mahamuni Pagoda, in Mandalay’s Myaut Ywar Thit quarter. As a child on his way to school each day, he heard the music of the woodcarvers’ rhythmic tapping with ‘lat kaing dote,’ a sort of small, bowling pin-shaped hammer made of polished tamarind wood. With the hammer’s companion chisel, his neighbors created artistic magic out of wood. At first he assisted with the small things they needed. Unbeknownst to him at the time, this was U Kan Khyun’s first step to becoming a professional woodcarver. At the age of 12, he left school and devoted himself to carving. He was fortunate to study under the wing of the great Sayarkyi U Paw and quickly became the apple of his master‛s eye because of his curiosity and enthusiasm. After three years of apprenticeship, he was finally paid a salary.

U Kan Khyun and Ko Phone Kyaw prepare stencil drawings.

Since that time, U Kan Khyun has specialized in many kinds of Panpu—from straight-forward floral motifs to the fantastical figure Pyin-Sa-Yu-Pa, imaginary creatures created out of parts from multiple animals. But it was his rendition of ‘namatekyilaypar’ figures depicting the four sights of Buddha for a monastery in Kyinetone that turned heads. The quality of work from such a young man was unexpected. Commissions started pouring in, getting the attention of the Ministry of Culture.

U Kan Khyun helps a woodcarver plan a carving.
U Kan Khyun helps a woodcarver plan a carving.

In 1995, the Ministry of Culture, the Department of Archaeology, and the National Museum selected U Kan Khyun as the leader of 70 woodcarvers to restore the Konbaung Dynastic Shwe-nandaw Kyaung monastery. During that time, government focused on restoring monuments from historical periods that celebrated national unity. It was a golden moment for woodcarvers, and employment opportunities grew. It took approximately one year to re-carve the missing decorative standing barge boards that surround Shwe-nandaw’s rooflines. Upon completion, U Kan Khyun took his crew on the road to restore other important monasteries in Magwe and Salin.

U Kan Khyun eventually returned to Mandalay and began a series of consignments with his apprentices, including many masterpieces that were exported and sold in the shops at Mahamuni Pagoda. But the country’s commercial success gradually came to a halt and its domestic economy tanked. U Kan Khyun’s students turned to less desirable markets, where they were paid well creating motifs and furnishings for emerging local and international consumers. He decided it was time to retire but remained concerned about the future of traditional woodcarving and the rapid commercialization of the economy that ushered in cheap substitutes for the craft. U Kan Khyun was afraid people would forget the country‛s history and identity.

U Kan Khyun discusses woodcarving quality with fellow project leadership.

When World Monuments Fund invited U Kan Khyun to lead carving of the missing elements at Shwe-nandaw Kyaung, a place he cherishes because of his work in the 1990s, he gladly accepted and came out of retirement. Today, he says he likes that WMF views the importance of preserving Shwe-nandaw Kyaung and its associated professions as equal and inseparable, especially as it relates to investing in traditional crafts to secure a sustainable future for the profession and Myanmar’s heritage at large. Through support from the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and the US Embassy in Rangoon, WMF has provided new opportunities for U Kan Khyun’s students, an ideal hands-on experience that shows there is a future in the field of Panpu. For the rest of his life, if there are young people who desire to learn Panpu, U Kan Khyun says he will teach them. He says he feels privileged to have another chance to work on this important monastery and revitalize an invaluable part of his Burmese ancestors’ cultural heritage for future generations.

U Kan Khyun's Shwe-nandaw Kyaung woodcarvings from the 1990s are now being conserved.