Fertile images from a remote border

Burma - Shwedagon
December 15, 2000

Richard Blurton praises a photographic record of change in Burma

Many people today know only two facts about Burma: there is a heroic, continuing struggle against the regime by Nobel peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; and perhaps the name - from the 1960s - of U Thant.

The first of these books provides further indication of the slow redressing of the scholarly neglect of Burma that has been a feature of the half-century since independence in 1948. This magnificently produced publication, from the Green Centre at Brighton Museum, is an earnest of the change, and of what we can expect from the centre in the future; it is rich in textiles as well as other photographic images.

The book is concerned with Burma broadly speaking, but also, narrowly, with the "frontier" of its title. The frontier traversed by James Henry Green was the remote northeast, the land of the Kachins, and other non-Burman border groups such as the Shan. It was here that he spent much of his working life. Five essays, illustrated by photographs from the Green archive, are followed by 126 captioned images of high quality and interest.

The essays begin with an introduction by the editor Elizabeth Dell, the Green Centre's director, that provides the chronological outline required to understand Green. He arrived in Burma in 1918, as an officer of the Indian Army and remained until 1937, mostly in the Kachin area. His major task was to recruit soldiers for the the army, binding the unstable groups on the Chinese border closer to British authority. When he arrived, some of these areas were outside the administration of British Burma, and it is clear that he quickly became absorbed in frontier life. This led him to anthropological study of the non-Burman groups, and in 1928 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute. In 1934, he submitted a dissertation for the diploma in anthropology at Cambridge University.

John Falconer charts the story of photography in Burma during the colonial period, which is less well known than in India. The idea of photography as a tool of government-sponsored information-gathering was important in the much later work of Green. This essay is followed by David Odo's discussion of Green's work as an anthropological photographer working within contemporary theories of race and evolution. Green's fieldwork produced some images in which the human subject is objectified and dehumanised in a way now considered unacceptable, but by far most of the photographs indicate Green's warmth and his personal involvement with the extraordinary communities in which he was privileged to work.

The last two essays, both by Mandy Sadan, are the most important. Her work, which has repeatedly taken her to Burma since 1996, documents the fascinating change that has taken place especially among the Kachin, who in a mere 80 years have moved from animism to devout Christianity. Indeed, she goes so far as to say that "Christianity has become one of the main symbols of ethnic identity in recent yearsI Christianity has been a particular symbol of Kachin nationalist resistance to the Rangoon government ever since prime minister U Nu attempted to make Buddhism the official state religion in 1961". She comments on the discomfort of modern Kachin at seeing in the photographs of the Green archive so many indications of their recent non-Christian past, though this is mixed with pleasure that the archive exists.

Sadan's first essay is concerned with the modern interpretation of the photographs in the Green archive using all sources available, in English and in Jinghpaw, published and oral - trying especially to access the traditional propitiatory language of the joiwa dumsa , the spirit priests of pre-Christian animism, to provide information capable of explaining complex images. In her second essay, she discusses and analyses what the photographs tell us about Kachin society in the first half of the 20th century and its interaction with British authority. Her treatment of Kachin political structures and symbols and the way in which they were used by the British, is of particular note.

All the essays are illustrated with remarkable images. They are followed by an album of photographs, beautifully printed and captioned with both Green's comments and a modern commentary. Burma: Frontier Photographs 1918-1935 is that rare item, an exquisitely produced and designed book that is also of scholarly worth.

The second book, about the most famous monument in Burma, the Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon, came about through the recording - again photographically - of this great structure on a single day. Pages 11-98 show these images of the pagoda as the centre of a devout and busy cult, rich in variety and meaning; each image is briefly captioned. They are followed by 50 pages of discrete texts dealing with subjects as diverse as the approach to the pagoda, the Buddha images on the platform, the architectural elements and the link between the Shwedagon and the shrine at Kyaiktiyo; this is also illustrated with colour photographs. U Win Pe then provides a brief survey of Buddhism in Burma, illustrated with archival photographs. Compared with the Green Centre book, this volume is useful but appears a little pedestrian and lacking in analysis. The Shwedagon is one of the most important and complex of living centres of devotion in Asia. The time for complete elucidation of its complicated history has not arrived. This book does not claim to do this, and no foreign scholar (perhaps even no Burmese scholar) could undertake such a project under the present political regime. But I cannot help wanting it!

T. Richard Blurton is assistant keeper, department of Oriental antiquities, British Museum, where he curated the recent Burma exhibition, "Visions from the Golden Land".

Burma: Frontier Photographs 1918-1935

Author - Elizabeth Dell, John Falconer, David Odo and Mandy Sadan
ISBN - 1 85894 103 2
Publisher - Merrell
Price - £29.95
Pages - 192

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