Portrait of a young girl reclining on a table with floral cloth covering - 2010.69.32_1


Portrait of a young girl reclining on a table with floral cloth covering

Maker: Unknown photographer
Medium:Silver gelatin glass plate negative
Geography: Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar)
Date: c. 1900
11 x 8.5 cm
Object number: 2010.69.32
Credit Line: Gift of Cyrus Jhabvala
Not on view

This glass plate negative shows a young girl reclining across a table with her head propped up in one hand, a pose likely composed by the photographer. She wears a long silk patterned jacket over a lungi. The table has a bold floral-print fabric covering and is against a painted backdrop. Her dark eyes gaze directly at the camera and have a penetrating effect.

This image is part of a series of 99 negatives (2010.69.1-.99) from a single, unknown commercial photography studio in Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar) most of which are dated to 1890-1910. They are largely studio portraits of Indian and Burmese men, women, and children as individuals, couples or groups from diverse social, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Some are taken in a photography studio with props and painted backdrops, while others are taken outside against walls or simple fabric backdrops. Some of the same props can be seen in multiple images. Some images show the streets of Mandalay in which graves, store fronts, horse drawn carriages, and railway cars are visible. Interestingly, over half of this collection represents negatives that were most likely never printed due to overexposure and blurriness, reflecting attempts at early photography that went wrong. Normally, these ruined negatives would have been discarded or sold and reused for their raw materials, making this intact collection rare and quite interesting. Several of those that were fit to be reprinted show indications that the negative plates were hand painted on the hands and/or faces to lighten and smooth the appearance of the sitter’s skin. Overall, this collection preserves a body of work (rather than only single surviving images) by an unknown Burmese photography studio, making visible a migrant Indian community and the ways in which they occupied a hybrid cultural space in colonial Mandalay.

Britain began its colonization of Burma in 1824 and, by 1885, had also colonized Upper Burma, which encompassed Mandalay where this photo was taken. Burma joined the larger British Empire being administratively and politically governed as part of colonial India. Thus, the British controlled Burma’s commercial sphere, bringing in migrants from its other colonies, especially India. As noted by Amarjit Kaur (2006), by the 1860s, Burma’s rice export had exploded, becoming increasingly profitable due to rice supply disruptions during the American Civil War, steam powered shipping and the opening of the Suez Canal making transport easier and cheaper than it had ever been. All these factors made Burma the world’s largest rice producer, necessitating migrant labour to keep up with the increased rice production. Due to India’s close proximity, Indian migrants from factories, urban centers and ports were recruited to fill the labour shortage. The British manipulated migration policies to ensure that Indian migration was often temporary with geographic and social isolation in their places of work exasperated by linguistic, cultural and religious differences between Indian migrants and the local Burmese population. Kaur argues that these factors almost completely ensured that assimilation and/or acceptance of Indian migrants by the native Burmese was highly unlikely and that it allowed low wages and racial disparities in the workplace to go virtually unchecked. As such, Indian migrants in the 19th century rarely settled permanently in Burma especially since the ratio of women also able to immigrate was prescribed at 25 women to 100 men in 1864, meaning that it was difficult for many to start families. It was only by the 1930s that the ratio was allowed to increase along with wages, allowing for more permanent settlement.


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