As travel photographers, we try to capture the spirit of a place and usually end up falling in love with that spirit. Total strangers invite us in, share their lives and the beauty of their culture with us. They honor us and hopefully, our images will in turn honor our hosts. David Heath, a very gifted artist and photographer, allowed his spirit to merge with that of Myanmar. Its people, stories and culture, strength and landscape wove its enchantment into David’s heart and brought him back over 16 times. As the UK Daily Mail related, “Immersing himself into the rhythm and culture of villages that had never before been visited by a Westerner, the intrepid explorer managed to create a breathtaking photo series which acts as a tribute to the land clinging to its traditional ways, whilst aiming to embrace the new modern world.”
This photo series became a beautiful, leather bound book entitled, “Burma, An Enchanted Spirit,” The book notably includes a handwritten endorsement by renowned 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi, Chairperson of the National League for Democracy: “Truly an enchanting book – the pictures reflect the beauty and diversity of Burma faithfully.” A percentage of sales from each book sold are used to fund the building and development of schools in the city of Yangon. The Inwa School is the first of these. The Inwa School of Performing Arts is a new cultural high school in Mandalay that prepares young artists to perform Myanmar classical dance and music to professional standards. It provides continuity for excellence in classical arts and extends their reach to world audiences. The school connects master teachers with students in their teens who aspire to careers onstage. The Inwa School operates The Mintha Theater, where students and professional artists present spectacular dance repertoires nightly in central Mandalay. The Mintha Theater is a social enterprise that maintains quality and authenticity of the arts in a contemporary setting while preparing students for live stage careers. Proceeds from the theater benefit the school.
The goals of the school are the following:
To provide opportunities for talented low-income students to train as arts professionals in the authentic traditions.
To create employment opportunities for teachers able to provide the rigorous training required for high caliber arts performance.
To develop an intensive course of study in Myanmar performance, dance, singing, music, and storytelling from classical sources.
Being able to travel to the Inwa School with David was definitely another highlight of my trip to Myanmar. As a teacher, I loved getting to know the very talented students and teachers and as a photographer, I loved the opportunity to witness their daily practice session. In one afternoon, I saw that beautiful continuity of cultural traditions across generations. While I was filming, I asked one student what the school meant to her and immediately tears welled up in her eyes as she related, “The school is most important in my life.”
“I want to become a dancer for myself and my parents and dance to well known works.”
“I want to be happy with the arts and my appearance.” In order to honor her privacy as she so openly shared from the depths of her heart, I did not include her name or that video footage but wanted to share in words one of the most powerful experiences for me. The Inwa School, its dedicated teachers and students are truly a part of a unique, beautiful transformation which is exactly education’s highest calling.