Asian and African studies blog

17 posts categorized "Photography"

04 July 2022

A Historical Narrative of the Kaʿba and the Hajj Season Reflecting on the Visual Materials Found in the IOR

The India Office Records (IOR) contain some fascinating visual materials, mainly photographs capturing the Kaʿba and the Hajj Season (pilgrimage) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These visual materials are provided with short descriptions without any further elaboration on the history of the places or people captured. Displaying a number of those photographs along with some external materials, this blog presents a historical narrative of the Kaʿba, its physical features, and the development of its religious status before becoming the site of Muslim pilgrimage.

The Kaʿba and the Great Mosque during the Hajj season in the 1880s
The Kaʿba and the Great Mosque during the Hajj season, 1888. Photographer: al-Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghaffar  (British Library, X463/1)
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The Kaʿba is the holiest site in Islam. It is known as al-Bayt al-Haram (the Sacred House), and the second qibla (direction). It is located at the centre of the Great Mosque in Mecca. Although other Kaʿbas existed in the pre-Islamic period, such as the Kaʿba of Petra and the Kaʿba of Najran, the Kaʿba of Mecca was the most popular, hence taking over the name without the need to specify its location (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 380).

The city of Mecca
The city of Mecca. Photographer: H. A. Mirza & Sons, c. 1907 (British Library, Photo 174/3
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Muslims in general believe that the Kaʿba was the first structure on earth. Behind its majestic cubic shape hides an interesting story of its construction. Its foundation is believed to go back to the Day of Creation, when Prophet Adam built it as a house of worship.

إنّ أولَ بيتٍ وُضعَ للنّاسِ للَّذي ببكَّة مباركاً وهدىً للعالمين
The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka [Mecca] full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings. (Qurʼan 3:96)

It was, however, during the time of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) that the Kaʿba acquired its current shape and characteristics. Following God’s instructions, Ibrahim and his son Ismaʿil (Ishmael) raised the walls of the building on the foundations that were already in place since Adam’s time. The first Kaʿba was without a roof and there are different traditions concerning the number of its doorways.

وإذْ يَرفَعُ ابراهيمُ القواعدَ منَ البيتِ واسماعيلُ ربَّنا تقبلْ منّا إنكَ أنتَ السميعُ العليمُ
And remember Abraham and Ismail raised the foundations of the House (with this prayer): “Our Lord! accept (this service) from us for thou art the All-Hearing and the All-Knowing” (Qurʼan 2:127)

The significance of Ibrahim’s Kaʿba is in establishing of most of the features present in today’s Kaʿba. These are, al-Hajar al-Aswad (the Black Stone), Maqam Ibrahim (the Station of Ibrahim), Hijr Ismaʿil (the Lap of Ismaʿil), Biʾr Zamzam (the Well of Zamzam), and al-Mataf (the circular space around the Kaʿba).

Situated in the eastern corner of the Kaʿba, al-Hajar al-Aswad is believed to have descended to Ibrahim from heaven. He then set the stone as the starting point of tawaf (circumambulation) around the Kaʿba. When pilgrims pass by the stone, they know they have completed one round. Maqam Ibrahim on the other hand, is named after the place that is believed to have “miraculously” preserved the marks of Ibrahim’s feet when standing at the spot to build the Kaʿba. Today, the Maqam is in a multilateral structure made of glass and brass bars.

Main physical features of the Kaʿba
A photograph showing the main features of the Kaʿba (British Library, 1781.b.6/2)
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Hijr Ismaʿil refers to the place where Ibrahim left his wife and son in Mecca. The Hijr is situated on the north-western side of the Kaʿba, and is marked by a wall surrounding it. Biʾr Zamzam, on the other hand, is believed to have sprung in the place where Ismaʿil stood, thirsty, while his mother engaged in finding water for him. Although it was subject to periods of dryness, the well continues to provide pilgrims with water until today. Al-Mataf refers to the courtyard around the Kaʿba and starts from a fixed point: al-Hajar al-Aswad.

Kaʿba during the Hajj season
Kaʿba during the Hajj season. Photographer: H. A. Mirza & Sons, c. 1907 (British Library, 174/5)
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Announcing the Kaʿba as the House of One God, Ibrahim is considered the founder of tawhid (monotheism) in Mecca, and the one who set up the pilgrimage ritual. It is believed that, pilgrimage performed by Muslims today is very similar to the one practiced during Ibrahim’s time. The Kaʿba continued its status as a place of monotheistic religion under its new guardians, the Yemenite tribe of Jurhum. The Jurhum claimed ‘they were related to Ismaʿil by intermarriage, hence their right to the guardianship’ (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 100 and 222). They were powerful in the region and greatly contributed to the prosperity of Mecca. Pilgrims brought expensive gifts to present to the Kaʿba, which eventually became full of treasure.

Pilgrims camping near Mecca in the 1880s
Pilgrims camping near Mecca in the 1880s. Photographer: al-Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghaffar, 1886-9 (British Library, X463/8)
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The major change to the Kaʿba occurred when the head of the Khuzaʿa tribe, ʿAmr bin Luhayy al-Khuzaʿi, took over the guardianship from the Jurhum. During his trading expeditions, al-Khuzaʿi came across numerous idols (assnam); worshipped by the locals. He brought some of those with him to Mecca and placed them inside and around the Kaʿba. Al-Khuzaʻi was thus the first to introduce paganism to the region (Ibn al-Kalbi, Kitab al-Assnam, 8-9). Eventually, each of the region’s tribes began to install its own idol in the courtyard of the Kaʿba, which housed over three hundred of them (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 366). The most popular of these were Hubal, Manat, Allat, and al-ʿUzza.

Relief_of_the_Arabian_goddess_Al-Lat _Manat_and_al-Uzza_from_Hatra._Iraq_Museum
Manat, Allat and al-ʿUzza, from the 5th temple at Hatra, Ninawa Governorate, Iraq. Parthian period, 1st to 3rd century CE. Iraq Museum, Baghdad
Wikimedia Commons

Another exterior addition to the Kaʿba under the Khuzaʿa was the tradition of hanging poems on its walls. These were chosen during literary ceremonies usually performed during the pilgrimage seasons. One of these poems was the muʿallaqa of Zuhair bin Abi Sulma, which has a reference to the Quraysh and the Jurhum tribes performing pilgrimage:

فأقسمتُ بالبيتِ الذي طافَ حولَهُ         رجالٌ بنوهُ من قريشٍ وجرهم
And I swore by the House, men of Quraysh and Jurhum built it and performed circumambulation around it

Later on, a new tradition was instituted, namely, the covering of the Kaʿba called Kiswa (also Kuswa). There are different accounts about the first person who put the Kiswa on the Kaʿba, the majority of which agree on the name of the King of Himyar, Tubbaʿ al-Himyari. During his pilgrimage, al-Himyari brought the first Kiswa made of the finest of cloths from Yemen as a gift to the Kaʿba. This influenced many tribes to follow his example up until the time of Qussay bin Kilab of the Quraysh tribe.

Kiswa fragment
Kiswa fragment. Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888 (British Library, 1781.b.6/32)
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When Qussay bin Kilab, the Prophet Muhammad’s fourth grandfather, came to power he announced himself the new guardian of the Kaʿba, and established the Quraysh power in Mecca. Qussay rebuilt the Kaʿba with stronger walls and for the first time in its history, the Kaʿba was roofed. He allowed the Kiswa to be placed over the Kaʿba only by the head of a tribe, and each year by a different tribe. The covering of the Kaʿba with a Kiswa continues to be a significant custom today.

Drawing of a 19th century ceremonial mahmal carrying the Kiswa to Mecca
Drawing of a 19th century ceremonial mahmal carrying the Kiswa to Mecca, 1888  (British Library, 1781.b.6/5)
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Qussay was also the holder of the key to the Kaʿba, which was transferred to his descendants until it reached its final destination in the hands of a Meccan family called, the Banu Shayba who are still the key holders today.

Sons of Banu Shayba
Sons of Banu Shayba. Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888  (British Library, 1781.b.6/22)
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A few years before the advent of Islam, between 600 and 607 CE, Quraysh decided to rebuild the Kaʿba, adding more facilities to the building. According to the Sira (Prophet’s biography), when the Quraysh tribes rebuilt the Kaʿba, there was a debate on who would replace the Black Stone back on its wall. Muhammad bin ʿAbd Allah (later Prophet Muhammad) was chosen to do so. He placed the stone in the middle of a robe and asked for one man of each tribe to hold onto the robe while he placed the stone to the wall. This way all the tribes participated in placing it into the wall (Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham, 33-35).

Muhammad and the black stone. Eul.Or.MS.20.f45r
Muhammad helping in placing the Black Stone. From Jamiʻ al-tawarikh by Rashid al-Din.Iran, c.1314 (Edinburgh University Library Or.MS.20, f. 45r)
©The University of Edinburgh

During the ascent of Islam, Prophet Muhammad and his followers conquered Mecca and captured the Kaʿba in the eighth year of the Hijra (629-30 CE). The Prophet’s first mission was to revive the function Ibrahim built the Kaʿba for. He himself broke the idols inside and around it (Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham, 234-235 and Kitab al-Assnam, 31). As the Kaʿba was recently built, the Prophet decided to keep the old building, announcing the Kaʿba as the House of the One God, where Muslims are to perform their annual pilgrimage. One of the Prophet’s companions, Bilal bin Rabah, was the first to raise the adhan (the call for prayer) from the roof of the Kaʿba.

From that day on, the Kaʿba continues to be Islam’s holiest place of worship. Today, over two million Muslim worshippers from all over the world, gather around the Kaʿba to perform their annual ritual of Hajj during the month of Dhul-Hijja of the Islamic Hijri calendar.

Zanzibar pilgrimsPilgrimsPilgrims
PilgrimsPilgrimsZanzibar pilgrims
Pilgrims from Morocco, Malaysia, Java, Sumbawa, Baghdad, and Zanzibar. From ‘Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka.’ Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888 (British Library, 1781.b.6)
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To mark the conclusion of the ritual, pilgrims sacrifice animals in the name of God and start their celebration of ʿEid al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice), which this year falls on Saturday July 9th.

Day of ʿArafa followed by animal sacrific and ʿEid celebration
Day of ʿArafa followed by animal sacrific and ʿEid celebration (British Library, Photo 174/6)
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Primary Sources
Album of 'Views of Mecca and Medina' by H. A. Mirza & Sons, Photographers ‎ (c. 1907). Photo 174
‘Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka’, by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje ‎ (1888). 1781.b.6
‘Bilder aus Mekka’, by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1889). X463
Ibn Hisham, Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham: al-Sira al-Nabawiyya. Ed. Muhammad ʿAfif al-Zuʻbi. Beirut: Dar al-Nafaʼis, 1987.
Ibn al-Kalbi. Kitab al-Assnam. Ed. Ahmad Zaki Pasha. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya, 1995.
The Holy Quran translated by A. Yusuf Ali

Secondary Sources
Ahmed Hebbo. Tarikh al-ʿArab qabla al-Islam. Hims: Manshurat Jamiʿat al-Baʿth, 1991.

Ula Zeir, Content Specialist Arabic Language and Gulf History/ British Library Qatar Foundation Project
 ccownwork

 

 

30 May 2022

The Nomadic Chemist: Alfred Sercombe Griffin (1878-1943) and Burma

Griffin in the doorway of his Weston-super-Mare pharmacy after his return from Burma
Griffin in the doorway of his Weston-super-Mare pharmacy after his return from Burma. Griffin family archives.

The Burmese collection at the British Library has recently received two donations of fascinating memorabilia that belonged to Alfred Sercombe Griffin. He is known for his adventure novels for boys, but made his main living as a pharmacist. He described himself as a “nomadic chemist”, and was drawn to work as a locum pharmacist around England and in other parts of the world. In 1906 he accepted a post at the English pharmacy in Rangoon. As a result, many of his adventure novels are set in Burma. He also wrote extensively of his work as a pharmacist in Burma in the Chemist & Druggist and the Pharmaceutical Journal.

He writes in “Avoiding the humdrum”, Pharmaceutical Journal, 1925, under the pen name “Sasayah” (Burmese for writer): “My father spent the greater part of forty-five years within a small chemist’s shop, looking out on a dull grey wall. I was apprenticed to him, and early vowed that such an existence should not be mine, though I might be a chemist and I might be poor.”

Port of Henzada
Port of Henzada. Alfred Sercombe Griffin, 1906-08. British Library, Photo 1402(15)

Born in Bath and apprenticed by his father, Alfred Sercombe Griffin moved from Bournemouth to London and on to San Remo in 1904-05. After returning to England and working as a locum pharmacist in many parts of the country, he applied for posts in Uganda and China but was not successful. He then found an advertisement for a vacant position in the Supplement of the Pharmaceutical Journal, and was accepted for the post at the pharmacy of Mesrrs. E.M. de Souza & Co., Dalhousie Street, Rangoon, where he arrived in December 1906 after a long boat journey.

Travellers coming on board a boat at Martaban, 1906-08
Travellers coming on board a boat at Martaban, 1906-08. Alfred Sercombe Griffin. British Library, Photo 1402(28)

He writes in one of his novels, Burma Road Calling! (1943): “An intensely varied crowd surged along the road for the early morning shopping and promenade: Burmese women gay in pink silks with the daintiest replicas of themselves beside them; shaven-headed monks in yellow robes, bearing golden sunshades; sturdy Shans with enormous plantain-leaf hats from the hills; tall Paloungs with black robes and tight skull-caps who had brought tea from over the border; an English soldier or two from the barracks; Chinamen in blue pantaloons; Kachins of wild appearance, Karens of gentler aspect; and half a dozen races that even Mr Wrekin himself could not identify. ‘Just come from Babel?’ inquired Roger as he listened to the many languages being spoken all round him.”

In "Avoiding the humdrum" Griffin gives a similar description of his work place: “In the pharmacy in Rangoon fifty languages were spoken everyday; my dispensers and assistants were Burmese, Chinese, Goanese, Hindoos, Brahmins, and Eurasians…”  Griffin aimed to avoid the English circles with its bridge parties and English plays that he found rather boring, and much preferred a Burmese pwai instead, sitting leisurely on a mat and passing down a betel box to chew. He however also describes in the letters to his family Friday evenings and parties at the Rangoon YMCA. Griffin was also involved with the Boys’ Brigade (or new Scouts) and attended their camp at Kokine (Rangoon) in 1907. He was also part of the Boys’ Work Committee. Two of his adventure novels, The Scouts of Ching’s Island and Scouts in the Shan Jungle are about boy scouts based in Rangoon and lodging at the YMCA (“Ching’s Island” was located at Kokine Lake). Griffin clearly enjoyed similar literature himself, as he asked for the Boy’s Own Paper to be sent regularly to him from England. Later on he would write stories for the paper himself.

Alfred Sercombe Griffin
Alfred Sercombe Griffin (1878-1943). Griffin family archives.

Griffin was soon appointed the manager of the dispensing department, but like many British in Southeast Asia at this time soon fell gravely ill (with dysentery or malaria). In late 1907 he was sent to the branch in Maymyo, Shan States, to recuperate. With a more temperate climate than Rangoon, Maymyo was a favourite hill station for the British. Griffin used his own experiences in Burma to provide colour and detail to his adventure stories, and even the Maymyo pharmacy features in one of them: “Roger went up the steps and passed into a marble-floored pharmacy which had rows of medicine bottles, glass show-cases, and a smiling young Englishman behind the counter.” (Burma Road Calling!, 1943).

Griffin (with his Burmese name Maung Na Gyi) journeyed back to England in late 1908 due to his health, and was apparently banned from returning to the Tropics on medical grounds, which he greatly lamented. From his many writings it becomes clear that he sincerely loved his time in Burma and had a soft spot not just for the Burmese, but also for the variety of people who inhabited the country at this time. Despite staying in Burma for only  two years, one of them while very ill, the experience left a lasting impression on him, which he revisited via his writings in pharmaceutical journals, illustrated lectures, and adventure stories, published decades later.

After returning to Europe Griffin continued work as a locum pharmacist in Paris, but returned to Bath to take care of his father’s pharmacy in 1910. A few years later, he took over a bankrupt pharmacy in Weston-super-Mare, which he transformed into a thriving business, and then married and settled down there. In 1917 he built a bungalow in Sidcot, Winscombe, named Wingaba (according to Griffin Burmese for a beautiful view). He retired to Sidcot in 1925 early at 47 due to his poor health. He became a Quaker in the early 30s and subsequently travelled to Palestine, where one of his novels is set (Where the Master Lived, 1936).

Griffin writes in “Avoiding the humdrum” (1925): “In the duller days when I was to become a proprietor of a pharmacy of my very own I could jump out of the humdrum of income-tax returns and N.H.I. by picking up one of my books on Burma and fly instanter to a land of brilliant sunshine and kindly memories.”

Cover of Scouts in the Shan Jungle, 1937
Cover of Scouts in the Shan Jungle, 1937. Illustrator Richard B. Ogle. British Library, 20059.f.26

Griffin’s novels are light, entertaining stories of adventure replete with snakes and man-eating tigers, kidnappings, rides through waterfalls, lost cities, mystery and intrigue as well as a varied collection of personalities. The international group of Scouts that also includes Burmese, Shan, Indian and Chinese members nevertheless dress in khaki breeches and sun-helmets, and never miss their coffee and rolls in the morning, a tiffin and a siesta in the afternoon, and a wholesome dinner in the evening. Inevitably, the stories are written from an English perspective, and enjoy the stereotypes of the time, whether European or Asian. All of Griffin’s writings, however, relay an enjoyment of travel, wonder and humour in the small moments of life, as well as the joy of telling a story. The stress is firmly on the character of the individual.

Griffin’s interest in illnesses and their cure has also been included in the stories. Leprosy features in several novels, where a knee-jerk fear of contagion is dismissed with new medical knowledge. Snake bites can be dealt with the right treatment and some characters even catch malaria and recover.

A little girl infected with leprosy near temple steps walking towards Griffin
A little girl infected with leprosy near temple steps walking towards Griffin. Alfred Sercombe Griffin, 1906-08. British Library, Photo 1402(37)

The two donations that the British Library has received were given by Michael Bruce, the maternal grandson of Alfred Sercombe Griffin, and a traveller and an author himself (Malta: A Geographical Monograph, 1965). The donations include a box of 50 photographic glass slides that Griffin took and collected while in Burma. Once back in Europe, he would give illustrated 'lantern lectures' of his travels with these slides. This lecture is still included with the glass slides and the numerous times the lecture was given between 1910-1941 are recorded on the inside lid (33 times altogether). Some of these slides were used as a basis for illustrations in Griffin’s novels.

Medical prescription in Burmese inscribed for Alfred Sercombe Griffin in Maymyo in 1907
Medical prescription in Burmese inscribed for Alfred Sercombe Griffin in Maymyo in 1907. Photograph by Michael Bruce. British Library, Or 17020.

The second donation is a framed palm-leaf prescription with the cure for “tropical sprue”, custom-made for Griffin while he was recuperating in Maymyo. He received it from a young monk who resided in the temple across the road from Griffin’s pharmacy, which he visited, with the aid of his walking sticks, for Burmese lessons. The prescription was given to him in return for a picture of the Shwedagon Pagoda that Griffin had found at the back of a pharmaceutical catalogue. Griffin describes watching the inscription being made, and indeed one of his glass slides depicts the young monk in question. A description of the process can also be found in Burma Road Calling!: “Roger was particularly interested in the monastery scribe who was making the holy books – from start to finish.” “First there were dried strips of palm leaf, eighteen inches long by two and a half inches deep, stretched taut on a special sort of frame. On this dried leaf the words were slowly inscribed with an instrument like a knitting-needle; letter by letter in the round script of the Burmese alphabet the young monk cut into the outer tissue of the palm leaf.”

Shan scribe working on a palm leaf inscription
Shan scribe working on a palm leaf inscription. Alfred Sercombe Griffin, Maymyo, 1907. British Library, Photo 1402(31)

Griffin framed the prescription and wrote about it in the Druggist & Chemist and other medical papers, trying to find help in translating it. Apparently a portion reads: “Take the leaves of the Juju tree, plucked at midnight when Mars is in the ascendant. Pound them intimately with the dried tail of a rat and the sting of a cobra…” The inscription is undeciphered as of today and is still awaiting translation.

School boys saying their alphabet
School boys saying their alphabet. Alfred Sercombe Griffin. 1906-08. British Library, Photo 1402(35)

Bibliography of Alfred Sercombe Griffin’s monographs:
The Scouts of Ching’s Island, 1929. Set in Kokine (Rangoon), with the Kemendeen Scouts.
The Treasure of Gems, 1934. Set in 16th century Martaban and Pegu, where an English boy Roger ends up in King Tabinshweti’s court.
Fetters of Freedom, 1934
Within the Golden Globe, 1934
The Crimson Caterpillar, 1935
Where the Master Lived, 1936
Scouts in the Shan Jungle, 1937. Kemendeen Scouts’ adventures in the Shan States.
Burma Road Calling!, 1943. A journey from Rangoon to Chungking during the second Sino-Japanese War.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  Ccownwork

This blog was written courtesy of Michael Bruce and Christopher Griffin (both grandsons of Alfred Sercombe Griffin), who generously provided information, articles, letters and photographs from the family archives.

04 October 2021

Khadija Saye’s Art and the ‘Toothbrush Tree’

The British Library exhibition ‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ (3 Dec 2020–7 Oct 2021) shows nine self-portraits by this talented and innovative Gambian–British artist. In each, she displays a particular artefact associated with Gambian culture. In this blog, Kadija Sesay, the exhibition’s external curator, explores the cultural and scientific uses of one of these objects.

The multiple properties and uses of the Salvadora persica, commonly known as ‘the toothbrush tree’, can be sourced from every aspect of the tree - the seeds, bark, stem, leaves and flowers - for food, medication and scientific purposes. Wherever it is native to a region, which is most of the African continent, South Asia and the Middle East, it has claimed a significant position within society. Its many uses seem to bestow near-magical properties on it, and it is thought to provide solutions and remedies for everyday problems and ailments.

Sothiou (Chewing-sticks/toothbrush), Khadija Saye (2017)

The botanical description of the Salvadora persica is of a large, well-branched evergreen shrub or tree, from the Salvadora species. As well as the Salvadora persica (known as Khari Jaal in India), this species includes the Salvadora oleoides (known as Meethi Jaal in India).

Salvadora, from Lamarck’s 1823 collection of botanical illustrations
Salvadora, from Lamarck’s 1823 collection of botanical illustrations: Encyclopédie méthodique, ou par ordre de matières par une Société de Gens de Lettres, de Savans, et d'Artistes. Botanique. Recueil de planches. Vol. 1. (Paris, 1823).  British Library, J/12215.r.1/12a. Noc

Medical and other scientific elements feed into the tradition and culture of those societies where it is found, as the health benefits of using the miswak for oral hygiene are well known. They have been used for cleaning teeth for centuries. They are cheaper than imported toothbrushes and toothpaste, and scientific studies have shown them to have antibacterial properties that maintain and enhance oral hygiene, contributing to strong teeth and healthy breath. For these practical, economic and health reasons, they have been recommended for regular use by the World Health Organization within the communities in which they grow.

In The Gambia, the longer branches of the tree carry varying spiritual meanings within African indigenous faith: they may be used to make proclamations or promises to God, to invoke the spirits of the ancestors, or to claim protection from Satan.

The shorter branches, as well as being used for toothbrushes at home, have cultural attributes specifically for women as they also symbolise, when seen in public, that they are women who are due respect. As sothiou is known to have cleansing properties, the visual symbol of a woman using it reflects on her personal cleanliness, not only with respect to her mouth and body, but in the way that she leads her life. This in turn reflects on the raising of her daughters, showing that they maintain their personal cleanliness and virginity.

Khadija Saye working on silkscreen prints of ‘Sothiou’ with Matthew Rich, 2017
Khadija Saye working on silkscreen prints of ‘Sothiou’ with Matthew Rich, 2017.
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London. © The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Clean teeth are a symbol of beauty, too. Therefore, older married women in The Gambia known as ‘Jegg’ (younger married women will be referred to as ‘small Jegg’) can be seen publicly with sothiou in their mouths when they attend high-end events and family ceremonies such as weddings. For these reasons, it is common to see women who use sothiou more than men.

The commonly known attributes of the Salvadora persica have led to further research and investigation of its properties, some of which are highlighted briefly here.

For culinary use, the fruit of the tree is an edible sweet berry which can be fermented into a drink. In East Africa, the leaves are cooked in a sauce as a vegetable dish and although bitter in taste, the shoots and leaves can be included as part of a salad.

The plant’s potential pharmaceutical and other scientific uses are many. The seeds, for example, are commonly used as a diuretic and the oil from the seeds is used to ease rheumatism. The bark and root, apart from producing antiplaque agents, are also being investigated by scientists for a number of other apparent qualities including analgesic, anticonvulsant and antibacterial properties. The stem bark, for example, is used for gastric problems.

The use of Salvadora persica has shown that reliance on natural organisms supports the communities in which they grow, where they simultaneously become woven into local cultures and traditions. In her artwork, Khadija Saye has captured culture, history, tradition and science simply by focusing on and drawing our attention to an object which simultaneously reinforces the importance of our natural environment locally and globally. As her work so powerfully testifies, the information and knowledge that local communities carry in their family, traditions and culture should be recorded so that more research can be undertaken.

Other objects in the work of Khadija Saye were discussed in the British Library event ‘Cowries, Incense and Amulets’ on 17 May 2021.

Further reading

Basil H. Aboul-Enein, ‘The miswak (Salvadora persica L.) chewing stick: cultural implications in oral health promotion’, The Saudi Journal for Dental Research, 5, 1, (2014), 9-13.
World Health Organization, Prevention of oral diseases. WHO offset publication No. 103. Geneva: World Health Organization; 1987), p. 61.
M. Khatak, S. Khatak,1 A. A. Siddqui, N. Vasudeva, A. Aggarwal, and P. Aggarwal, ‘Salvadora persica’, Pharmacognosy Reviews 4, 8 (2010), 209–214.

Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, 'Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe' Ccownwork

 

18 February 2021

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library

On 3 December 2020, the British Library opened its exhibition of Khadija Saye’s last photographic series: ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’.

The opening had been postponed from its original date in May because of the pandemic. With great good fortune, we emerged from the second national lockdown just in time to hold the virtual private view on its rescheduled date. For nearly two weeks thereafter, the nine beautiful, challenging and intricate photographs in the series were open to the public. But then London went into Tier 4, and we had to close again.

Curators seated in front of the Khadija Saye exhibition
Setting up for the virtual private view, 3 December 2020
Photographer: Luisa Elena Mengoni
CC Public Domain Image

The exhibition reopened at the British Library in May 2021 and the exhibition run has been extended to 7 October 2021. Advance booking is no longer necessary.

Photo of display of four works by Khadija Saye with accompanying text
‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library
Photographer: Jean-Philippe Calvin
© British Library corporate events

Khadija Saye (1992–2017), an artist of extraordinary promise, was British-born and of Gambian parentage. She was tragically killed in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, at the age of just 24. At the time, she was exhibiting works in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and on the cusp of major success. Her mother, Mary Ajaoi Augustus Mendy, also died in the fire.

This blog reproduces all nine of the powerfully evocative self-portraits in this series, along with the captions for each work which we, as curators, researched and wrote as we explored the multi-layered meanings the artist presents.

Into these eloquent photographs, Saye weaves symbols of her Gambian heritage, most with spiritual significance. The nine works form an extended meditation on spirituality, trauma and the body. They reference both The Gambia and religious faith as sources of strength in the face of trauma – which, for Saye, included the experience of racism in Britain. As she wrote: ‘In these questionable times we need positive imagery to push against the vile xenophobia and trash headlines.’ The works also weave connections to indigenous religion, and to her Christian mother and Muslim father and their ancestors.

Photograph developing in chemical bath, held by Khadija Saye
Khadija Saye developing her work
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The works have a particularly atmospheric quality, created by Khadija Saye’s decision to use the wet collodion photographic process, invented in 1851. This is laborious, involving the use of glass plates and unstable chemicals, and its results are unpredictable.

Saye wrote about this process: ‘…Image-making became a ritual in itself. [In] making wet plate collodion tintypes no image can be replicated and the final outcome is out of the creator’s control. Within this process, you surrender yourself to the unknown, similar to what is required by all spiritual higher powers: surrendering and sacrifice.’

Saye printed these photographs onto metal sheets, producing artworks known as tintypes, which were digitally scanned before the Grenfell fire. The six tintypes on display in Venice survived the fire; others were destroyed in it, along with a suitcase containing some of the objects featured in the artworks. The tintype of ‘Peitaw’ will be on display in our major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, until 23 August.

In 2017, Khadija Saye worked with master printer Matthew Rich to produce ‘Sothiou’ as a silkscreen print. The remaining prints were made after her death. It is the artist’s proofs of these prints, on loan from the estate of Khadija Saye, that are displayed in the British Library exhibition of the ‘in this space we breathe’ series.

The artworks below are presented with (in slightly edited form) the labels and quotations that accompany them in the exhibition.

Khadija Saye, her back to the camera, regards different-sized sticks in her left hand
Sothiou
(Chewing-sticks/toothbrush)
Khadija Saye (2017)
Printed by Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye photographs herself here with branches of the salvadora persica, the tree from which chewing-sticks, used as toothbrushes, are taken. These signify purification, as well as invocation of the spirits of the ancestors. She was introduced to indigenous ritual practices in The Gambia by her mother.

Sothiou was the first of six works in this series displayed by the artist in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.

The artist associated the photographic process with the idea of purification, writing that ‘The process of submerging the collodion-covered plate into a tank of silver nitrate ignites memories of baptisms, the idea of purity and how we cleanse in order to be spiritually sound.’

The titles of the works in this series are in Wolof, a language of The Gambia and Senegal.

Khadija Saye with three small light-coloured squares, strung together, across her closed eyes
Tééré
(Amulet)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The string of protective amulets Saye uses in this image belonged to her father. Wearing amulets – words from the Qur’an written onto paper, here sewn into leather packets – is a common Islamic practice in Africa. In this work, Saye openly displays items usually concealed under clothing.

The artist’s pose and expression suggest a moment of prayer. Saye said that she created this series ‘from a personal need for spiritual grounding’.

Khadija Saye holds a pot to her ear
Andichurai
(Incense pot; usually andi churai)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a red clay pot with white decoration, made using techniques specific to the SeneGambia region. Universal in Gambian homes, the andi churai burns incense to drive away evil spirits in order to provide protection. In Gambian culture, the strong scent of the incense is closely associated with women and femininity.

Khadija Saye with several dark and light oval shapes in front of her face
Limoŋ
(Lemon)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

In this surprising and ambiguous image, the artist holds a string of plastic lemons in her mouth. In The Gambia, the lemon is seen as a Western fruit, but it also implies cleansing the body and protection from evil spirits.

Saye may have intended a reference to Beyoncé, one of her role models, and her influential 2016 album Lemonade, with its historical vision of a liberated, Black, matriarchal society.

A person only partially visible places a cow horn on the back of Khadija Saye’s neck
Nak Bejjen
(Cow’s horn)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Gambian healers use cows’ horns in rituals to suck impurities from a person’s body. Cows’ horns are also associated with desolation and famine, when cows cannot survive. This work may speak of both trauma and healing.

The ‘healer’ in this image carries a small bag, perhaps containing medicinal equipment. The illusion of smoke from the horn may be a result of the wet collodion photographic process.

Khadija Saye wrote of the relationship between her art, the body and trauma: ‘We exist in the marriage of physical and spiritual remembrance. It’s in these spaces…[that] we identify with our physical and imagined bodies. Using myself as the subject, I felt it necessary to physically explore how trauma is embodied in the black experience.’

Khadija Saye’s hand, palm outward and with small goat horns on her thumb and fingers, obscures her face
Ragal
(Fear)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye wears goats’ horns on her fingers as she shields her face. These objects are used in divination, the process of discovering the reasons for life’s events and problems, and what can be done to change them. This image may suggest both fear of the future and the possibility of drawing on Gambian knowledge and spirituality to find a way through difficulties.

Throughout this series, the artist wears black – an unusual choice for a young Gambian woman.

Khadija Saye, only her arm and the side of her body visible, holds a long string of beads
Kurus
(Prayer beads)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

These Muslim prayer beads reference spiritual support in a time of difficulty. Prayer beads are also used by Christians. The mingling of Islam, Christianity, Rastafarianism and, in Saye’s words, ‘African spirituality’ is common in The Gambia.

Women are not usually seen in public with Muslim prayer beads in The Gambia. In her work Saye, who ‘thought a lot about the traditional roles African women take within the male-dominated space’, subverts expectations around gender roles.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, holds a large bunch of cowrie shells in her mouth
Peitaw
(Cowrie shell(s))
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a bunch of cowrie shells, strung together, in her mouth, and wears a cowrie-shell bracelet on her arm. In Gambian culture, her pose, supporting her chin on her hand, suggests unhappiness or discontent.

Used as currency for centuries, cowrie shells represent wealth and fertility and are used in divination as well as jewellery. For Africans in the diaspora, they symbolise connection with the continent.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, with the blurry outlines of plastic flowers found her neck
Toor-Toor
(Sprout, grow)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The artist has draped herself in strands of plastic flowers. These are often used to decorate homes in The Gambia, found on shrines, and worn by practitioners of indigenous medicine. The flowers may also link with Saye’s interest in popular culture, particularly her love of RuPaul, who plays with floral drag.

This work experiments with contrast and balance between her life in Britain and The Gambia, and between her personal and professional growth.

In conclusion, we quote Khadija Saye’s own moving words on her legacy: ‘Whether it’s now or ten years down the line, I have this idea of opening doors – like previous artists of colour… I feel I have the potential to do the same.’

Khadija Saye has unwittingly spoken for so many young people struggling to find themselves in the world today. The resounding message of her work is that if she can do it, others can too. Visits with her mother to her Gambian home enabled her to embrace her family and cultural heritage to weave into her art, root herself, make herself stronger and map out where she was going.

For more on Khadija Saye and her art, watch this film.

The British Library’s set of Khadija Saye’s ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’ series (shelfmarks P3394-3402) will be available to researchers in the Print Room of our Asian and African Studies Reading Room – appointment necessary (please contact apac-print@bl.uk).

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ runs at the British Library until 7 October 2021. Find out more.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, British Library
Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe
CCBY Image

The British Library would like to thank all those who made the exhibition possible: The Estate of Khadija Saye, The Family of Khadija Saye, David Lammy, Nicola Green, Lucy Cartledge, Ana Freitas, Marloes Janson, Hassum Ceesay, Njok Malik Jeng, Victoria Miro, John Purcell Paper, Erica Bolton, Jealous, Almudena Romero, Christie’s and M.A.R.S.

The Khadija Saye Arts programme at IntoUniversity provides schoolchildren with visual arts experiences and education in her memory.

26 October 2020

Libraries and manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)

This blog post is written by guest contributor Prof. Dr. Volker Grabowsky, who has been Professor for the Language and Culture of Thailand at the University of Hamburg since 2009, and advisor to the Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang Since 2006.  Grabowsky’s blog looks at the photographs taken by Hans Georg Berger of libraries in Laos, that were acquired by the British Library in August 2020.

 The ancient and exceptional manuscript culture of Laos has survived colonial rule, war and revolution as well as rapid modernization in a globalized world. Unlike in many parts of the world, production of manuscripts did not stop during the 20th century in Laos, where traditional ways of writing have been preserved by monks and lay scribes until present times. The oldest dated manuscript, a mono-lingual Pali palm-leaf manuscript containing parts of the Parivāra of the Vinaya Piṭaka, was made in 1520/21 and is kept at the National Museum of Luang Prabang (formerly the Royal Palace). It is also the first documentary evidence of the Dhamma (Tham) script in the Lao Kingdom of Lan Sang. This sacred script is a special feature of Lao literature. It originated in the neighboring northern Thai kingdom of Lan Na – probably as a derivative of the ancient Mon alphabet of Hariphunchai - in the late fourteenth century and made its way south through the Mekong river basin. As its name indicates, this script was used for the writing of the Buddhist scriptures and other religious texts. Next to this script, the Lao also developed a secular script nowadays called “Old Lao script” (Lao Buhan script).

Cabinet with palm leaf manuscripts
Opening of a cabinet with palm-leaf manuscripts, Manuscript Preservation Project of the National Library of Laos, Vat Muen Na Somphuaram, Luang Prabang, 1996. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(6). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Lao manuscripts were mostly inscribed with a stylus on rectangular cut and cured palm-leaf sheets varying in length. Each sheet had two holes; a cotton string was passed through the left one, making it possible to bind several palm-leaf sheets together as one bundle, or fascicle (phuk). Recent research estimates that more than ninety percent of Lao manuscripts are “palm-leaf books” (nangsü bai lan). The number of leaves in a given fascicle depend on the length and/or the number of text pages. All fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts are fastened by a string (sai sanὸng). Generally, numerous fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts which contain the same version of a literary text are fastened together in bundles, called sum. Two wooden boards are frequently added to such a bundle for protection. The bundle usually is wrapped in a piece of cloth and tied with a cotton string. It is called mat.

Palm-leaf is not only the most widely used but, in this region’s subtropical climate, also the most durable “soft” writing support of the Lao cultural area. It was mostly used for Buddhist text. The leporello format was used for secular texts such as chronicles, legal texts, medical and astrological treatises, official documents, non-religious literary works, and only occasionally, Buddhist texts. For these leporello manuscripts, a cardboard-like paper made out of the bark of the sa tree (Broussonetia papyrifera L. vent.) was used. The grayish sa paper was inscribed on both sides, often with black ink. Sometimes it was first painted with a layer of lampblack and then written on with yellowish ink, or white chalk. The covers of both phap sa, as such leporello manuscripts are called in Lao, as well as palm-leaf manuscripts, were often decorated with lacquer and gold. The manuscripts were kept in elaborately fashioned wooden boxes. In addition, bound books exist, notably in the Tai Lü areas of northern Laos, such as Müang Sing, where each piece of paper has been folded over once vertically, so that it becomes much longer than it is broad. By folding the paper, both the front and the back page of one sheet can be used for writing. These sheets of paper are sewn together along one of the vertical sides. This kind of manuscript is called phap hua. In the manuscript tradition of the Tai Lü, pap sa manuscripts play a very important role and are even more widespread than palm-leaf manuscripts, the latter being restricted to the writing of religious texts.

Sa-Paper manuscripts
Sa-Paper manuscripts of the Lü of Müang Sing at the collection of Vat Mai Suvannaphumaram, Luang Prabang, 1994. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(12). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

The vast majority of Lao manuscripts are not kept in private households but in monasteries. The most precious manuscripts are stored in small and elegant buildings devoted solely to the conservation of manuscripts. They are called hò tham (“House of the Dhamma”) or hò trai (“House of the three [baskets]) because they are dedicated homes to Buddhist scriptures. These libraries are integrated into the monastic site (vat) of which they embrace the organization and architectural style. According to traditional Buddhist belief, no matter whether they were written carefully or not, manuscripts should not be treated disrespectfully, or kept in a demeaning place. The texts that manuscripts contain, especially the ritual ones, should not have any insertions or other writing added to them. Any person who breaks this rule would lose the respect of devout Buddhists. Traditionally, laywomen were not supposed to touch religious manuscripts directly, even if very often they were the persons who donated them to the monasteries. This tradition came to an end during the country-wide effort of manuscript preservation of the National Library of Laos since the 1990s, where laywomen were prominently involved.

Historic wooden Library of Vat Nong Lam Chan photograph by Hans Georg Berger
The historic wooden library of Vat Nong Lam Chan at Ban Nong Lam Chan, Champhon District, Savannakhet Province, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(21). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

It is the sponsor or donor, not the scribe, who is called the “maker” (phu sang) of a manuscript. Usually, its “making” is recorded in the colophons following the end of the text. Here, the names of the leading monastic or lay supporter(s) or mūlasaddhā who took the initiative in commissioning the writing of the manuscript is mentioned. This person provides the writing support and pays the scribe, usually a learned monk or ex-monk. The main aim of that pious deed is to help support the Teachings of the Buddha to endure for 5,000 years. As such, it is expected to bring in return to the sponsors, donors, and – in the case of manuscripts – scribes important karmic benefit. Scribes were exclusively male; recent research found that a surprisingly high number of principal donors were women. In the case of Luang Prabang, we noted a substantial number of manuscripts donated by royalty and members of the aristocracy.

Between 1992 and 2002 the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme, run by the National Library of Laos and supported by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, surveyed the manuscript holdings of 830 monasteries all over Laos and preserved almost 86,000 manuscripts. Of these, around 12,000 manuscripts were selected for microfilm recordings which are now accessible in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts. More recently, a number of digitization projects supported by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP)  and the Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts (DREAMSEA) focused on the particularly rich manuscript collections in Luang Prabang’s monasteries, the royal city which since the 14th century has been the centre of Lao Buddhism.

1018-07
A novice reads from a palm-leaf manuscript written in Tham Lao script, Vat Ban Müang Kang, Champasak Province, Southern Laos, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(19). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Hans Georg Berger, a photographer and writer born in 1951 in Trier, Germany, surveyed the situation of Lao manuscripts in the context of his photographic documentation of Lao ceremonies, rituals, meditation and everyday life since 1993. From 2006 to 2011 he was grant-holder of three projects of the Endangered Archives Programme which resulted in the digitization, identification and safe storage of more than 33,000 photographs taken and collected by the monks of Luang Prabang for over 120 years.

His collaboration with the Buddhist sangha, the National Library of Laos and the Buddhist Archives of Luang Prabang created a unique corpus and overview on Lao manuscript culture from which 60 photographs, both digital and printed, were acquired for the Library's Visual Arts collections. Hans Georg Berger's work for the Endangered Archives Programme was documented in the short film "Theravada Vision".

 

By Volker Grabowsky

 

Further reading

Berger, Hans Georg: The floating Buddha: the revival of vipassana meditation in Laos. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009, c2006

Berger, Hans Georg. Meditation colors: nine digital color photographs. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Berger, Hans Georg. Sacred dust from the Buddha's feet: Theravada Buddhism in Laos. Ulbeek: Salto Ulbeek, 2010

Berger, Hans Georg. My sacred Laos. Chicago: Serindia Contemporary, 2015

Berger, Hans Georg (photographs), Christian Caujolle et al. (texts). Het bun dai bun: Laos - Sacred Rituals of Luang Prabang. London: Westzone, 2000

Berger, Hans Georg, Khamvone Boulyaphone. Treasures from the Buddhist Archive of Photography : historic photographs taken or collected by the monks of Luang Prabang between 1890 and 2007. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2010

Farmer, John Alan. The Self-in-Relation: on Hans Georg Berger's photographs. New York / Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2011

Lingham, Brian (ed). The learning photographer: scholarly texts on Hans Georg Berger's art work in Laos and Iran. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Pha One Keo Sitthivong, Khamvone Boulyaphone; foreword by Hans Georg Berger. Great monks of Luang Prabang 1854 to 2007. Luang Prabang: Publications of the Buddhist Archive of Photography; Anantha Publishing, 2011

 

22 July 2020

Bombay Plague Visitation, 1896-97

In the collection of the British Library, an extraordinary photo album (Photo 311/1) titled Plague Visitation, 1896-97 documents the city of Bombay at the onset of the devastating bubonic plague pandemic of 1896, which would spread throughout the entire Indian subcontinent until finally subsiding in 1914. The British Library's album was commissioned by the Bombay Plague Committee and compiled by the British photographer Francis Benjamin Stewart. Apart from the British Library, the Wellcome Institute (fig. 1) in London and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles each hold an album with very similar photographs in their collections. While the British Library album contains 142 prints in total, the Wellcome volume contains 125 prints and the Getty album contains 138.

Wellcome_Plague Visitation Album Cover cover
Figure 1. The cover of the Plague Visitation, Bombay 1896-97 photo album held by the Wellcome Collection. noc

    In the British Library album, Stewart contributed 8 albumen prints, while the remaining gelatin silver prints have been attributed to Captain C. Moss of the Gloucester Regiment. The albums appear to have been distributed to various British government officers. For instance, it is likely that the British Library’s photo album had been given to Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Peers Dimmock, the Director of the JJ Hospital in Bombay, by the Bombay Plague Committee. In addition, the images circulated within a larger public sphere (see catalogue record). Photographs from the albums were reproduced in the British weekly-illustrated newspaper The Graphic not long after the production of the album (fig. 2).

The Graphic Newspaper showing the reproduced photographs from the Bombay Plague Visitation album
Figure 2. Reproduced photographs in The Graphic, September 18 1897, p. 394. (c) Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library

    The third pandemic of the bubonic plague began in Yunnan province in southwestern China around 1855 and reached Hong Kong in 1894. From there, the disease spread to other parts of the world, including India, Brazil, Madagascar, and the United States, primarily through maritime trade, resulting in an estimated fifteen million deaths across the world. Twelve of these fifteen million deaths occurred in India. From the very onset of the epidemic, the British government in India invested its full powers to prevent the spread of the disease, implementing invasive and destructive plague control measures at an unprecedented scale. To bring the plague under control the Bombay municipality implemented draconian measures, increasingly so as the epidemic continued to spread through the subcontinent. The colonial state sanctioned British and Indian troops to enter into the private homes of the city’s residents to locate afflicted or deceased persons. The infected were dragged to various hospitals within the city where they invariably died, while their clothes and belongings were burned at street corners. Others were directed into plague camps where they received inoculations while their houses were flushed, fumigated, and lime washed, effectively destroying their possessions in the process (Arnold 1993). Yet, despite these strategies of control, the colonial state failed to contain the disease. As the disease spread across the world, it not only left a long trail of casualties but also a substantial visual archive on the first large-scale bio-political crisis to be captured through the photographic lens in colonial India and worldwide.

    Scholars have identified epidemiological photography as a new genre of photography that emerged at the turn of the century—one that brought together the conventions of ethnography and documentary photography to document the broader ecology of epidemics, including factors relating to their outbreak, their modes of transmission, and their destructive consequences (see Lynteris 2016 and Englemann 2017). Indeed, rather than following the conventions of nineteenth-century medical photography, which focus on the physical manifestations of disease, the photographs in the Bombay photo-albums highlight the effects of the plague in the city alongside the colonial state’s role in preventing the propagation of the disease. One sees medical staff and hospitals, preventative measures such as the cleaning of streets and houses, health inspections, corpses and burial grounds, and infantrymen on duty (fig. 3 and 4).

‘House to House Visitation. Burning Infected Bedding’. Photograph by Captain C. Moss. 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(91)
Figure 3: ‘House to House Visitation. Burning Infected Bedding’. Photograph by Captain C. Moss. 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(91)  noc

Bombay plague observation camp: spraying detainee with disinfectant'. Photographed by Captain C. Moss, 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(139)
Figure 4: 'Bombay plague observation camp: spraying detainee with disinfectant'. Photographed by Captain C. Moss, 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(139)  noc

    As a whole, the photographs appear to present a narrative of plague reform and colonial intervention. For example, in Stewart’s photograph “Flushing Engine Cleansing Infected Houses,” (fig. 5) one can see government officials flush clean seawater onto tenements that have been contaminated by the plague in order to sanitize the space.

Wellcome_Flushing Engine
Figure 5: Photograph of 'Flushing engine cleaning [plague] infected houses'. Photograph by F.B. Stewart, 1896-87, Wellcome Library no. 24258i. Another copy at British Library, Photo 311/1(108).  noc

At the same time, the photographs foreground the gradual, even uneven, development of colonial scientific epistemologies and the different fields of thought that constituted discourses of tropical hygiene and medicine. The Bombay photo-albums were produced in the last decade of the nineteenth century, at a time when conflicting theories of disease causation characterized medical discourse. British health officials in London had accepted the germ theory of disease causation, wherein diseases proliferate through the spread of pathogens. However, many colonial administrators found it difficult to discard earlier ideas of disease and miasma and, within colonial scientific discourse, environmental factors such as noxious miasmas, heat, moisture, poor ventilation were believed to be responsible for the causation and propagation of disease (Kidambi 2007, 52). Accordingly, European officials at the time believed that water, specifically seawater, could cleanse infected spaces and flush out diseases, and by the end of 1896, three million gallons of salt water were being flushed daily through Bombay’s drains and sewers to clean the city’s irrigation and sewage systems (Catanach 1998, 146).

In addition to water, air and sunlight were also active agents in the eradication of the plague epidemic in late nineteenth-century Bombay. Captain C. Moss’s photographs, “Plague-stricken houses unroofed to let in sun and air” (fig. 7) depict thatched huts that have been unroofed to allow sunlight and air to enter into their interior spaces.

Alibag, Kolaba. Infected houses un-roofed'. Photographed by Captain C. Moss, 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(50)
Figure 6. 'Alibag, Kolaba. Infected houses un-roofed'. Photographed by Captain C. Moss, 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(50).  noc

Moss’s photographs not only reflect concurrent colonial epidemiological theories, which focused on the unsanitary and climatic factors that enabled diseases to thrive, but also prefigure the dramatic reconstruction of Bombay facilitated by the colonial government in the early twentieth century in response to the plague pandemic. The government’s new city improvement schemes would include the reclamation of land from the sea, the building of broad boulevards that would bring breezes, deemed healthful, from the ocean to the neighborhoods; and the conversion of local agrarian lands into “garden suburbs.” (see Chopra 2011 and Rao 2012) Thus, the British Library’s photo-album serves as a significant archive of British colonial epidemiological, visual, and urban practices.

Bibliography:

David Arnold, Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-century India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

I.J. Catanach, “Plague and the Tensions of Empire: India 1896-1918” in Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Societies, ed. David Arnold (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988).

Swati Chattopadhyay, Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism, and the Colonial Uncanny (London: Routledge, 2005)

Preeti Chopra, A Joint Enterprise: Indian Elites and the Making of British Bombay (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011)

Myron J. Ehrenberg, “City of the Plague: Bombay, 1896” in Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894-1901 (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 47-78.

Lukas Engelmann, “What Are Medical Photographs of Plague?” REMEDIA, January 31, 2017, https://remedianetwork.net/2017/01/31/what-are-medical-photographs-of-plague/.

Prashant Kidambi, The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890-1920 (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007).

Christos Lynteris, “The Prophetic Faculty of Epidemic Photography: Chinese Wet Markets and the Imagination of the Next Pandemic,” Visual Anthropology 29, no. 2, (2016): 118-132.

Nikhil Rao, House, but No Garden: Apartment Living in Bombay's Suburbs, 1898-1964 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

Shivani Sud, "Water, Air, Light: The Materialities of Plague Photography in Colonial Bombay, 1896–97," Getty Research Journal, no. 12 (2020): 219-230

 

Shivani Sud is a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley. Her recently published article on the Getty's album is listed above.

 

 

08 May 2020

Portrait miniatures of the young sons of Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh

Among the extensive holdings at the British Library including visual resources relating to the history of Awadh, there are only but a few historic manuscripts, paintings and photographs that document the last King of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah (1822-1887) during his rule and while in exile in Calcutta. The photographic portraits of Wajid Ali Shah and members of his extended family taken by local photographer Ahmad Ali Khan (active 1850s-1862) have become increasingly well known in the last three decades through publications and exhibitions. These included portraits of his second wife, Akhtar Mahal Nauwab Raunaq-ara (whom he married in 1851) and Nawab Raj Begum Sahibah (British Library, Photo 500(1-4). Additionally, Ahmad Ali Khan was able to capture an informal group portrait of Wajid Ali Shah seated on a western style sofa with both his Queen Akhtar Mahal and their unnamed daughter. The depiction of the wives and at least one daughter now directs us to the question of visual records of Wajid Ali Shah’s sons and potential heirs to the throne. Ahmad Ali Khan's photographs from the 1850 and later works by Abbas Ali in the 1870s, in An Illustrated Historical Album of the Rajas and Taaluqdars of Oudh, do not record any photographs of the sons.

Picture of Nawab Raj Begum Sahibah one of the concubines of the Sultan ... aged 23 years. Dated 1271 (1854/55) .. of the kingdom of Lucknow', photographed by Ahmad Ali Khan, c. 1855.
'Picture of Nawab Raj Begum Sahibah one of the concubines of the Sultan ... aged 23 years. Dated 1271 (1854/55) .. of the kingdom of Lucknow', photographed by Ahmad Ali Khan, c. 1855.
British Library, Photo 500(3) CC Public Domain Image

In February 2018, the Visual Arts section acquired two portraits painted on ivory, reputed to be two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah. These portraits predate the early photographic portraits by more than a decade. In the late 18th century, British and European artists such as John Smart and Ozias Humphrey introduced the concept of painting portrait miniatures on ivory to local artists in northern India. The practice of painting on ivory would flourish and artists expanded the subject matter to include genre scenes and topographical views. Based on stylistic grounds, the portraits of the young sons date to c. 1840. One of the two portraits, pictures a young male child of no more than 12 months in age, based on the fact he is pictured supported by a bolster and cannot sit up properly. The second of the two, is a slightly older child of no more than 2 years in age who is pictured seated in a European style chair. Inscribed on the reverse of the frame, in a 19th century handwriting style, it is written  ‘These are said to be the children of the last Nawab of Oude, India. I was given the miniatures by one of his descendants, whose grandfather, after the mutiny, had sought refuge in Bhagdad [sic].’

J.P. Losty (formerly the Head of Visual Arts) suggests that these two sitters were most likely to be the second and third sons of Wajid Ali Shah, as the first-born was deaf and mute and hence passed over. The second son being Falak Qadar ‘a fine looking boy’ who would die prematurely of smallpox at the age of 11 (Llewelyn-Jones 2014, 77) and the third son being Hamid Ali (1838-74) would become the prince-apparent. Hamid Ali would later visit Britain in 1857, photographed by Leonida Caldesi at an exhibition In Manchester in July 1857 (Llewellyn-Jones 2014, fig. 18).

Pair of portraits painted on ivory, showing the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah
Portraits of the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah, the King of Awadh by an unknown Lucknow artist, c. 1840-42. British Library, Add Or 5710-5711. Photographed by Patricia Tena, 2019.

On acquiring these ivories the Visual Arts section arranged to have these portraits assessed and obtain proposals for the long-term preservation and storage. The miniatures were transferred to conservation in late 2019, as part of the annual conservation programme.  The objects were both very vulnerable in the present storage box as the ivory substrates were effectively loose in the box.  Both the watercolour media and the ivory substrate were in a stable condition. However, over time, there was considerable media loss mainly on the edges, probably caused by a change in frame/enclosure and being in close contact with a frame or glass that rubbed against the paint layer. Unsuitable materials such as adhesives and poor quality paper or card used for the framing will have contributed to the discolouration, accretions and staining on the edges.

Close up of one of the miniatures showing loss of media, accretions and discolouration on edges.
Close up of one of the miniatures showing loss of media, accretions and discolouration on edges. Photographed by Patricia Tena, 2019.

As part of the treatment proposal, the pair of portraits did not require conservation treatment apart from cleaning prior to their rehousing. Conservation designed new enclosures that were built in order to accommodate a very hygroscopic material such as ivory. 

Ivory miniature in tray
The ivory portraits in their new housing. Photographed by Patricia Tena, 2019.

With the pair of ivories in their new housing, it is now possible to make the works available for consultation to registered readers by appointment. For further details regarding the conservation treatment by Patricia Tena, please see the accompanying blog by Collection Care.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts, and Patricia Tena ACR, Conservator

 

References and further reading

S. Baburi, 'Sources for the study of Muhammad Vajid Ali Shah’, Asian and African Studies Blog, 2015. 

S. Gordon, “A Sacred Interest”: The Role of Photography in the ‘City of Mourning”, in S. Markel and B. Gude (ed.) India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow, Prestel 2010, pp. 145-163.

R. Llewelyn-Jones, The Last King in India: Wajid Ali Shah, Hurst & Company, London, 2014.

 

26 April 2019

Vijayanagara Research Project at the British Library

In January 2019 the British Library began a new research project with the Centre for Art and Archaeology (CA&A) at the American Institute of Indian Studies in New Delhi, focused on our Visual Arts collections. The project has been funded through a grant from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the project is part of  the Rutherford Fund – a major UK Government investment launched in 2017 to promote international research collaboration.

The Vijayanagara Research Project examines both the Visual Arts collection of material (prints, drawings and photographs) related to Hampi Vijayanagara, a UNESCO World Heritage site in south India, including a recently acquired collection of modern architectural and topographical plans of the site produced by Dr George Michell and Dr John Fritz over a 30 year period. Sagera Kazmi, the Rutherford Fellow hosted by the British Library is researching and editing the metadata for the collections that will be made available later this year through Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue.

Photograph picturing Sagera Kazmi with John Fritz (left) and George Michell (right) reviewing the original drawings in February 2019.
Sagera Kazmi with John Fritz (left) and George Michell (right) reviewing the original drawings in February 2019.

On 25th March, we hosted a a day long workshop to bring together colleagues and researchers from relevant institutions who work on Hindu temple architecture and sacred spaces in South Asia. Participants included Dr Purnima Mehta (Director General, AIIS), Dr Vandhana Sinha (Director, CA&A), Rizvi Syed (Librarian, CA&A), George Michell, John Fritz, Richard Blurton (British Museum), Nick Barnard (V&A), Crispin Branfoot (SOAS), as well as colleagues from the British Library. The aim of the workshop was to introduce the project and provide a forum to discuss how the VRP can have an impact on future academic research, digital humanities and cultural heritage management.

Photograph Sagera Kazmi introducing her research at the British Library's workshop. Also pictured, Luisa Elena Mengoni (Head of Asian and African Collections, BL), Alan Sudlow (Head of Research, BL), Crispin Branfoot (SOAS), and Nick Barnard (V&A).
Sagera Kazmi introducing her research at the British Library's workshop. Also pictured, Luisa Elena Mengoni (Head of Asian and African Collections, BL), Alan Sudlow (Head of Research, BL), Crispin Branfoot (SOAS), and Nick Barnard (V&A).

Photograph showing John Falconer (British Library), Vandana Sinha (CA&A) and Purnima Mehta (AIIS) looking at photographic collections.
John Falconer (British Library), Vandana Sinha (CA&A) and Purnima Mehta (AIIS) looking at photographic collections.

As part of the day, Sagera Kazmi, the Rutherford Fund Research Fellow who is currently being hosted by the British Library from the AIIS CA&A, presented material from the VRP collections, including some of those produced by Michell and Fritz. Work undertaken by Michell, Fritz and their teams since 1986, has resulted in over  pencil and ink drawings of the architectural features of numerous buildings and temples found at Hampi Vijayanagara which have recently been donated to the British Library. These important archaeological records provide a chronological continuation of the Library’s established historical collections related to this site and will act as an important resource for researchers in a variety of fields.

Pencil drawing showing the north elevation of the Raja Mahal, Chandragiri, scale 1:100.
Pencil drawing showing the north elevation of the Raja Mahal, Chandragiri, scale 1:100. 

Wider collection items were also displayed during the workshop, including a plan of the site produced between 1780 and 1820. This map, part of the MacKenzie collection, shows the topography and fortifications found at the site during Colin MacKenzie’s survey of the Ceded Districts in the early nineteenth century. Other collection items included watercolour paintings of some of the buildings at the site and also photographs from the Archaeological Survey of India photograph series.

Map of Vijayanagara from the Mackenzie Collection, c.1780-1820. British Library, WD 2646.
Map of Vijayanagara from the Mackenzie Collection, c.1780-1820. British Library, WD 2646. Noc

 

Cam Sharp Jones, Sagera Kazmi and Malini Roy 

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