Burmese Harp

Accession Number

Burmese Harp


Object Creation Date
20th century

Medium & Support
lacquered wood, deerskin, and silk strings

33 in. x 37 in. x 5 in. ( 83.82 cm x 93.98 cm x 12.7 cm )

Credit Line
Gift of Patricia Matusky and Clifton Monteith

Label copy
Gallery Rotation Fall 2013
The Burmese Arched Harp
The distinctive arched harp (saùng-gauk) is central to the musical traditions of Burma (Myanmar), with a history that dates back 1,300 years. This harp form was probably introduced from the southern coast of India sometime before the sixth century. In ancient sculpture it is often connected with the Buddha, who appears as a harpist in certain of his incarnations, and the instrument’s neck is meant to resemble the leaf of the Bo (Bodhi) tree under which the Buddha is said to have been sitting when he attained enlightenment. During the time of the Burmese monarchs, which ended with the British conquest in 1885, harp music was extremely popular at court, but after the court’s exile it became quite rare. Today performance of the Burmese classical song repertory with harp accompaniment is carried on in the State School of Fine Arts, established around 1962.
The Burmese arched harp comprises an elongated body that serves as a resonator and a long arched neck that supports the strings. When played, it is held horizontally in the lap with the arch to the left. The fingers of the left hand move up and down the arch with the thumbnail pressing the strings to raise the pitch or to play melodic ornaments. Simultaneously, the right forefinger and thumb pluck the strings, singly or in pairs. The body is carved from a block of paduak wood in the shape of an elongated bowl and the neck is made from the root of the sha tree, which often grows in an arch. A piece of deerskin is tacked to the top of the body and a long, narrow piece of wood with small holes is inserted beneath it. Strings of twisted silk (or nylon in the modern period) are tied to the holes in this spine and then attached cross-wise to the neck. Each string is tuned by stretching and securing it with an intricate tying pattern. Harps are often decorated with a plain lacquered lower body and raised applications around the upper portion covering the joint between the lacquered deerskin top and the wood bowl. The decoration may be highlighted with gold leaf, semi-precious stones, and small pieces of glass. A stand carved of white teak, decorated or not, supports the harp when not in use.
In 2005 this harp was carefully repaired and restored in to its original appearance by artist Clifton Monteith, who has considerable knowledge of and experience working with Japanese lacquer.
Burma, 20th century
Lacquered wood, deerskin, and silk strings
Gift of Patricia Matusky and Clifton Monteith, 2011/2.3

Subject matter

Physical Description
A Burmese harp painted red and black with red tassels and gold inlay. Rests on a gold and red stand.

Primary Object Classification
Musical Instrument

Primary Object Type
stringed instrument

If you are interested in using an image for a publication, please visit http://umma.umich.edu/request-image for more information and to fill out the online Image Rights and Reproductions Request Form.

harps (chordophones)
musical instruments
stringed instruments (musical instruments)

& Author Notes

All Rights Reserved