Thursday, 4 July 2013

Sepia Saturday 184: Burmese Days


Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett and Kat Mortensen

The Sepia Saturday prompt this week is, rather unusually, an image of a bas relief sculpture. I'm stretching the third dimension somewhat, but I think my offering fits the bill quite well.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Unidentified man in colonial uniform, Burma, c.1920s-1930s
Loose silver gelatin print (91 x 115mm) by unknown photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

It was the 110th anniversary of George Orwell's birth last week, so what better opportunity to use this loose paper print from my collection. Sadly it has lost all provenance, and I have no idea who the colonial wallah in his solar topee and tropical khaki uniform was, but the inscription on the back clearly identifies it has having been taken in Burma. I estimate it to have been taken in the 1920s and, since Orwell (aka Eric Arthur Blair) served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma from October 1922 until July 1927, they were quite possibly colleagues and may well have known each other.

I've looked at several hundred images of seated Buddhas in arched niches trying to find this particular one to no avail, so I'm hoping that a reader will one day be able to identify where this snapshot was taken.

Image © and courtesy of the Tauranga Heritage Collection
No 3 Autographic Kodak Model G
Image © and courtesy of the Tauranga Heritage Collection

The 3¼" x 4¼" format implies it was printed from 118, 119 or 124 format film, which in turn suggests that the photographer used a roll film camera such as the No 3 Autographic Kodak Model G (above) or the Blair No 3 Folding Hawkeye Model 3 (below).

Image © and courtesy of the Tauranga Heritage Collection
Blair No 3 Folding Hawk-Eye Model 3
Image © and courtesy of the Tauranga Heritage Collection

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

I hope you will like this Photo better than the last one it was taken by my mate
the figure by which I am standing is one of the Budhas which the Burmese worship


Eric Blair (back row, 3rd from left), 1923
Police Training School, Mandalay, Burma

In an essay written some years later, Orwell makes it clear that he spent five formative years working in a job he despised, and in a position which left him feeling incredibly uncomfortable.

I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better ... All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty

... when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.

George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant



The British Club in Katha, Myanmar (Burma)
Image © Aung Shine Oo and courtesy of The New York Times

In 1927, during sick leave in England, Orwell finally made the decision to resign from the service to become an author and never returned to Burma. His experiences there formed the basis of his first major work, Burmese Days and, some would argue, were instrumental in developing the political beliefs which pervaded all of his subsequent work.

... it is a corrupting thing to live one's real life in secret. One should live with the stream of life, not against it.

George Orwell, Burmese Days

Most have heard of, if not read, Orwell's seminal works, Animal Farm and 1984. If you haven't already done so, I think his lesser known works, such as Burmese Days, Down and Out in Paris and London, Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia are well worth adding to your reading list.

References

Quotes from Burmese Days by George Orwell, on Goodreads.

Orwell, George (1936) Shooting an Elephant, New Writing, 2, Autumn 1936.

Perlez, Jane (2013) In Myanmar Outpost, a Fading Orwellian Link, The New York Times, 23 May 2013.

George Orwell [The Characteristics of Burmese Days], on Ba Kaung, 17 Oct 2007.

38 comments:

  1. George Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant" was in a textbook I used when I was teaching college freshman writing. Unfortunately, it went over too many heads and it was easier to drop it than force a meaningful response. That said, I appreciate the passages you highlighted -- really the essence of Orwell.

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    1. I guess the original photograph didn't have much to do with Orwell, did it, but that's the fun of Sepia Saturday - we can spin this any way we choose.

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  2. I think if he had heard you refer to him as a Wallah he would have been more than a little displeased !!

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    1. Yes, I imagine so, but he was just as much a servant of the colonial administration as the punkahwallah who kept his fan going on hot nights.

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  3. To My Shame, I know little of Orwell's Life.Thank You For Filling In Many Gaps.One Of The Finest Englishmen.

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    1. I've read two biographies of Orwell, and have just ordered a third - a fascinating man.

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  4. Oh, you got a dog there too. I've been looking at finishing Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four since the Snowden story hit the news. Nowadays the Burmese side of the Burma-Thai border has become busy flea markets.

    Hazel

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    1. Everyone seems so surprised by Snowden's "revelations," but I don't really understand why - didn't we know all that already? I've not been to Burma, but have visited Thailand, although the furthest north I got was Chiang Mai and the Doi Inthanon National Park. One day ...

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  5. Oh those pith helmets. My husband was issued one when he was with the USAF in St. Antonio at OTS. I love the uniformed man photo and the quotes from Orwell you selected. "Punkahwallah" is a new word for me and I can hardly wait to use it on the husband referred to above as he (and he alone) is in charge of the air conditioning (and therefore, the fan). Would I be stretching a bit here?

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    1. Not at all Helen - I think it would be a perfect use of the word, and I'm all for Sepia Saturday stretching our vocabulary a little.

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  6. I'm feeling more and more Orwellian these days, what with events unfolding here in the USA...1984, indeed!

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    1. We have our own debate about similar issues going on at the moment in New Zealand too.

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  7. I read Orwell's books when I was in high school, but that was a long time ago and I don't remember them.

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    1. I think it's time I read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four too - it's been about that long for me, although I remember at least parts of them very vividly.

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  8. I read them long ago too but recently heard a reading of 1984 on bbc4 which reminded me of the parts I had forgotten. I didn't know anything about Orwell's real life. Glad he gave up the colonial service and wrote.

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    1. Yes, he did a good job exposing the inequalities of English society, but who knows what he might have got up to had he remained in Burma. I'm about to read Finding Orwell in Burma, which has just arrived in the post, so perhaps that will give me some more insight.

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  9. I found myself mesmerized by the expressions of the man in the photo and the Buddha -- back and forth, back and forth -- almost like a secret going on there. Strange what photos do to me.

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    1. Me too. That's why I snapped this one up - lucky nobody else was interested, as the seller might have extracted quite a bit more than the usual from me.

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  10. An interesting photo that took you down an interesting path. I confess little knowledge of Orwell's life, but read the required Animal Farm in high school. We have a large Burmese refugee population here. Many with little to no education because of years spent in refugee camps in Thailand. Some of the sweetest people I have had the pleasure to meet.

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    1. I don't think I've ever met someone from Burma, but I've been to the north of Thailand.

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  11. I guess I'm a 1984 and an Animal Farm only reader too. But I did read his essay on Donald McGill's saucy postcards. (The Art Of Donald McGill)

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    1. Yes I read that one too, Bob. It's part of his Collected Essays which I bought last year, I think for $1 at a book fair.

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  12. That is a very intriguing photo and link to Orwell, Brett. I like how the gentleman sports an air of casual dress with shorts, collarless shirt and rolled sleeves, but the belt, leggings, and helmet add a formal colonial quality. I see him as more the classic British scholarly adventurer than a military man. I note a bump on his right leg. An old wound, perhaps?

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    1. Thanks Mike. Those puttees suggest officialdom to me, although I could be wrong. I hadn't noticed the bump on his leg - it does look like a scar, doesn't it. Shall we say that it was the result of an encounter with a tiger?

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  13. This is so interesting. I haven't read any of his work from start to finish, but I will get started soon.

    Thanks so much for the history lesson.

    Kathy M.

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    1. I think it's as relevant as it was the day it was written, and therefore well worth reading.

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  14. You're going to be busy with all that Orwell!

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    1. Finding George Orwell in Burma arrived in the post yesterday, and I'm well on my way already.

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  15. Wow, the British Club in Katha looks like it could one sitting in New Orleans. Excellent story, and photos as well!

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    1. When I found it I was thinking it had almost a French colonial look about it, so perhaps we're thinking along similar lines.

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  16. Love that photo. The man in the photo is probably the type of colonial officer that Orwell hated. He sure looks the type.
    I'll have to read those books about Burma. I've read lots of books about the British in India. Now I'll have to graduate to Orwell in Burma.
    Thanks for the reading list.
    Nancy

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    1. Yes I think the moustache looks particularly officious ;-) Enjoy your reading Nancy.

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  17. You know, it's been so very long since I read Orwell (high school decades and decades ago) that you've enticed me to read him again. Now I won't have a grade hanging over my head.

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    1. I think I read 1984 in school, but the rest in my 20s.

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  18. Well, well, I certainly didn't expect to hear from Orwell, given the prompt. Great spin. Isn't the note on the back of that first picture a little condescending? A byproduct of Imperialism...

    I do like Orwell's reflection upon tyranny as I find it somehow fits the previous government we had here and the actions of the police forces against the people during the many protest marches we had for about a year and a half. The government has since changed and the marches have died down quite a lot as well. But the brutality of some resonates with his words. His work remains pertinent to this day.
    :)~
    HUGZ

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    1. Bruno: I suppose that's the attraction of these weekly Sepian image prompts. There are so many directions to take them. The first image attracted me when I saw it on eBay because I've long been a fan of Orwell, and it's not that long ago that I read Burmese Days. I think that's the first I've read about colonial Burma since reading some Somerset Maugham short stories in my 20s, and it struck me how similarly post-colonial Burma and Indonesia ended up. Of course, I touched on Indonesia in another recent Photo-Sleuth article.

      I think many of us can relate to aspects of that tyrannical power. Having grown up in minority white-ruled Rhodesia (now the absolute mess that is Zimbabwe), I've seen the terrible downstream effects that colonial oppression and tyranny can have. I don't know much about Quebecois politics, but I'm off to have a read now!

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    2. Let me sum it up in a few words:
      the new world, a french colony,
      abandoned by the French king and left in the hands of Anglos... Ever since, a society with an identity crisis, fighting to survive on a continent mostly anglophone. We have a separatist party since the 1970s that has achieved power occasionally but never won a referendum when the question of separation was asked. We will eventually vanish, a mere shadow of our previous selves.
      C'est la vie, as they say...
      :/~
      HUGZ

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    3. OK, I get the drift, or at least I have a platform on which to build, thanks.

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