Calendar Pages -- Lecture: Ralph Isaacs - Textile Texts, or The Woven Word: Burmese Manuscript Binding Tapes

January 17th, 2009

Lecture: Ralph Isaacs - Textile Texts, or The Woven Word: Burmese Manuscript Binding Tapes

Time: 10:30 a.m.
Fourth Floor, The Siam Society, 131 Asoke Rd, Sukhumvit 21;
BTS - Asoke; MRT- Sukhumvit

The Thai Textile Society, in association with the Siam Society, invites members and the public to a lecture on “Textile Texts, or the Woven Word: Burmese Manuscript Binding Tapes” by Ralph Isaacs on Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 10:30 a.m. The lecture, which will be in English, will be held at the Siam Society’s Fourth Floor lecture room.

Mr. Isaacs will describe and celebrate a craft extinct in Burma since 1970 – the tablet-weaving of text-woven tapes for winding around bundles of palm-leaf manuscripts called sazigyo. He also invites attendees to bring their sazigyo for display and discussion.

Measuring up to 9 meters long, but only 11 to 35 mm wide, many sazigyo are woven with long texts of a prayer naming the donors of manuscript and binding tape, and recording their deed of merit. Neat geometrical motifs and little woven images of beasts, birds and fishes punctuate the text. All relate to the meritorious deed of donation. Devotional objects used in pagoda visits, such as bells, flag posts, and fig-trees also appear on the tapes. Some of these images are woven with breathtaking skill. Many tapes are dated, and some are signed by the woman weaver, who may even add the price she charged for her work.

Mr. Isaacs developed his interest in sazigyo while he worked with the British Council in Burma from 1989-1994. A lifelong collector, he and his wife, Ruth, first formed a collection of lacquerware, which they gave to the British Museum in 1998. The museum reacted with a special exhibition in 2000 “Visions from the Golden Land: Burma and the Art of Lacquer”. Mr. Isaacs was co-author of the catalogue, which took three years to write. One exhibit was a lacquered and gilt manuscript, with its own sazigyo.

His interest in tablet-weaves started in 1990, when in a curio stall on the steps of the Shwedagon Pagoda he was shown some dirty plastic bags containing a tangle of tough tapes or ribbons, mixed with termite earth. Some of these tapes had areas of script or lettering. Mr. Isaacs bought them and over the next few months cleaned and sorted them. He learned their name, ‘sazigyo’, and purpose – binding the leaves of palm-leaf manuscripts. Over many more months he began to learn about these texts and their importance for devout Buddhists. With their help he slowly began to pick out bits of text that he could read.

Mr. and Mrs. Isaacs presented their collection of over 50 sazigyo to the Henry Green Centre for World Art at the Brighton Museum. The late British master weaver Peter Collingwood studied these sazigyo, analyzing the weaving techniques used in each tape. Mr. Isaacs drew on this study to write an article on sazigyo for the book Textiles from Burma (Brighton 2003). Mr. Isaacs’ presentation updates and expands the illustrated essay which forms Chapter 5.2 of Textiles from Burma.

Since 2003, Mr. Isaacs writes, he has seen many sazigyo in museum and in private collections, photographing or scanning the woven images, and transcribing and trying to translate the texts. His understanding of the beauty and subtlety of this craft, and his admiration for the weavers keeps on growing. He considers that it is “a privilege” to share this understanding with the Members of the Thai Textile Society.

A native of Glasgow, Mr. Isaacs holds degrees from Gonville & Caius College Cambridge (Modern Languages and Archaeology & Anthropology); London University (PGCE); and Essex University (MA Applied Linguistics). He was an educator in East Africa in the 1960s and 1970s when he collected insect and sea shells, with expert guidance on cataloguing such collections.

The suggested donation is 100 baht for members of the Thai Textile Society and the Siam Society. Members of the public are asked to donate 200 baht.

For more information, please contact