Portraits of Old Burma

Kyaw Phyo Tha The Irrawaddy

RANGOON — With many predicting that Burma is set to see rapid change in the name of development over the coming years, more than three dozen monochrome photographs now on display in Rangoon provide a glimpse into what the Southeast Asian country looked like three centuries ago.

The photo exhibition highlights just a small selection from the extensive Burma-related holdings of the British Library, but “Collections from Myanmar at the British Library” nonetheless features some of the earliest images taken of Burma, dating from the 1850s through to the early 20th century.

The mixture of black-and-white and sepia-toned images includes photographs from the historic diplomatic mission by authorities in British India to the court of King Mindon at Amarapura in upper Burma, as well as depictions of everyday life and officialdom of the time. Visitors also have a chance to see a rare picture of the former capital Rangoon in 1855, three years after the Second Anglo-Burmese War but before the city’s development into a European trading center.

All of the pictures were taken by professional photographers or by the notable amateur shutterbug Sir James George Scott, a Scottish journalist and colonial administrator who helped establish British colonial rule in Burma and, less controversially, also introduced football to the country.

The showcase, hosted by Universities’ Central Library on the Rangoon University campus, was first brought to Burma by a team from the British Library in mid-February, for the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay. Following the festival, the library allowed for the images’ display at the Universities’ Central Library (UCL) “to let people see pictures they have rarely seen before,” according to Su Su, a librarian at the UCL.

“We will exhibit these pictures around the library to give a chance for people to see our old Burma photos,” she said.

San San May, the curator of Burmese Collections at the British Library, was not immediately available for comment.

Another attraction of the exhibition is the display of photographed covers and pages of books published in Burma in the 19th and early 20th centuries, in the nascent days of printing technology in the country. These include images from the Burmese translation of “Aesop’s Fables” (1873) and “A Dictionary of the Burman Language,” the first-ever Burmese-English Burmese dictionary, compiled by an American Baptist missionary in 1826. The cover of the first book ever printed in the Burmese script, printed in Rome in 1776, is also on show.

The British Library’s Burmese Collections has approximately 2,000 Burmese manuscripts, 20,000 printed books and collections of newspapers, photographs, prints and drawings related to Burma, according to an information leaflet provided at the exhibition.

The exhibition, “Collections from Myanmar at the British Library,” is open to the public at the Universities’ Central Library in Rangoon from Feb. 19-28.