THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

09 February 2017

New collections online - February 2017

This month we have three new collections added to the EAP website: Buddhist manuscripts from Laos, and Tamil and Burmese studio photography.

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EAP737/4/4/31 - Studio Portrait Photo Prints [1955-1978]

EAP737: Representing Self and Family. Preserving early Tamil studio photography

Photography arrived in India in the 1840s with the first photographic society in South India being created in Madras in 1856. During the early decades of Indian photography, the constraints and costs of acquiring photographic equipment meant that photography was accessible almost exclusively to the colonial administration and Indian elite. However by the 1880s, commercial photography studios had found their way into the bazaars of the Presidency’s medium size towns, and family portraits started to appear inside Tamil households. In South India, prior to the arrival of commercial photography, there existed no local forms of popular portraiture aside from the representations of divinities. The early Tamil commercial studio photographers created their own visual language to represent south India selves and families, combining the uses of props, accessories, backdrops, over-painting, collage and montage.

There is a real urgency in preserving these photographs. Many of the earlier photographs produced by the commercial photo studios are showing signs of deterioration due to some of the chemical processes used for developing and printing during the first decades of photographic production. The climatic conditions of South India are extremely detrimental for photographic prints and negatives, even for those printed from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. With the advent of mechanised processing and printing followed by the digital revolution in photography, many of the old photo studios have closed down and their archives of glass-plate negatives and film negatives have been destroyed, either through lack of interest or space to conserve them.

The project team were able to conduct fieldwork in the eight target towns (Chennai, Coimbatore, Cuddalore, Karaikudi, Kumbakonam, Madurai, Pondicherry, Tirunelveli), and were also able to carry out surveys in an additional six towns (Chidambaram, Jayamkundan, Meencuruti, Pollachi, Tindivanam, Villupuram). In each locality, the oldest photo studios where sought out and in total 100 photo studios were approached over the course of the pilot project. In many instances, but not all, the owners of the photo collections have given their consent for future digitisation of their archives. Also, family members of studios which have closed down over the last 30 years were also sought out as some of them still hold the archives of the old family business.

This survey has confirmed that these unique photographic productions are severely endangered by chemical, climatic and human factors and their digitisation is urgent. The team members have noted that in most of the cases, either the owners had destroyed whole collections for lack of interest or lack of space, or the remaining photographic material is in a state of severe degradation due to poor conservation conditions.

The project team were able to digitise a sample of around 1000 photographs from some of the studios surveyed, from private family collections, and from those purchased by the team in local second-hand shops.

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EAP737/4/3/8 - Events Negatives Box 30 [1962]

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EAP737/4/4/31 - Studio Portrait Photo Prints [1955-1978]

EAP691: Rare manuscripts of great Buddhist thinkers of Laos: digitisation, translation and relocation at the 'Buddhist Archive of Luang Prabang'

The project was able to describe and digitise the personal collections of manuscripts used by several great Buddhist abbots of Luang Prabang in Laos. The manuscripts present valuable insight into the diverse intellectual interests of leading Theravada thinkers of the 20th century in one of the least known Buddhist cultures in the world. Notwithstanding its rich culture, deeply influenced by Theravada Buddhism, Laos is still one of the least researched countries of Southeast Asia. During the second half of the 20th century, significant parts of the country’s cultural heritage have been destroyed, or seriously damaged, due to foreign interventions, civil war, and revolution. As a great surprise to international researchers, Buddhist monks of Luang Prabang, the ancient Royal capital, managed to preserve important parts of Lao heritage.

The project was able to describe and digitise the personal collections of manuscripts used by Pha Khamchan Virachitto (Vat Saen Sukharam), Pha Khamfan Silasangvara (Vat Suvannakhili), and Pha Bunchankeo Phothichitto (Vat Xiang Muan). Colophons and other paratexts (such as prefaces and titles) were transcribed into modern Lao. Roughly half of the manuscripts have such colophons which in most cases mention not only the date when the writing of the manuscript was finished, but also the names of sponsors and donors of the manuscripts and, more rarely, the name of the scribes. Preservation work has also been carried out on the original manuscripts which are now stored under safer and more accessible conditions

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EAP691/3/2/18 - Thanakhan Ban Pai ( fascicle no.5) (ທານະຂັນບັ້ນປາຍຜູກ 5) (1674)

EAP898: Myanmar negative record

This project aimed to set out to investigate the remaining negative archives and collections of local Burmese photographers. The project was able to identify two studios in Yangon that agreed to have some of the negatives in their archives digitised. The majority of the negatives come from the Bellay Photo Studio, with a smaller collection digitised from Asia Studio.

The owner of the Bellay Photo Studio, Tun Tun Lay, agreed to the digitisation of some of the negatives taken by his father, Har Si Yoi, starting in 1963, only one year after General Ne Win’s coup d’état. The images taken in the studio capture life during the so-called ‘lost decades’ and present a unique insight into this time period, as there are no archives in Myanmar or abroad that hold a comprehensive collection of images from those decades. Bellay Photo Studio is run by an ethnically Chinese family and many of the clients were Chinese-Burmese as well. A community that suffered greatly during Ne Win’s Burmese Way of Socialism; they were persecuted, their properties were nationalised, and finally a ban on Chinese-language education was issued, which forced a major exodus of Burmese-Chinese to other countries. The negatives at the studio used to be stored in two large wooden cabinets which were destroyed by termites and humidity along with more than 50% of the negatives. The loose negatives, which had been kept in envelopes, have been stored in plastic bags since 2012.

Another small but important archive of 134 negatives, including glass plates, was archived on the outskirts of Yangon. The grandson of the famed Asia Studio proprietor, U Kyawt, allowed the project to digitise a small section of his collection. The negatives and plates are stored in a wooden box without any kind of protection. The images include press photography capturing Aung San who is considered to be the Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar and a hero for his struggle for independence. He is also the father of politician and current Minister of Foreign affairs, Aung San Suu Kyi. The images were taken in the 1940s; Aung San was assassinated in 1947. The Asia Studio archive holds many more valuable images that are at risk due to the storage environment.

The digitised negatives form a very important record from after Myanmar’s independence and will allow not only researchers in the West but also Burmese to access the unique photographic culture of their past that documented everyday life and how Burmese citizens wanted to be portrayed. This is especially true for the images from Bellay Photo Studio, as they represent various communities of Yangon in the late 1960s and 70s.

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EAP898/1/1 - Asia Studio [1940s-1950s]

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EAP898/1/1 - Asia Studio [1940s-1950s]

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EAP898/2/1 - Bellay Studio [1969-1982]