Wednesday 13 May 2020

The Ahuja Family And Early Burmese Photography.

From 1824 to 1937, Burma (today's Myanmar) was ruled as part of British India. It was then governed as a separate entity until independence in 1948. During the colonial period, many Indians came to live, work and establish businesses in the country. It is estimated that there are over 900,000 people of Indian ethnicity living in Myanmar today, many of them the descendants of those who came in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Ahuja family arrived in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1885 when D.A. Ahuja acquired the Kundandass and Co. photographic studio. There is a division of opinion about where the family came from. In his excellent book, Burmese Photographers, Lukas Birk suggests they came from Shikapur, Sindh in what is now Pakistan but at least one other source refers to them as Punjabis. 

1901 was an important year for the business. In addition to changing its name to the D.A. Ahuja Studio, our man published a guide to "Photography in Burmese for Amateur Photographers" and his nephew Tickamdas Naraindas Ahuja (T.N.) joined him from India. The studio thrived, attracting customers from the British community as well as from local families who came to be photographed or to buy cameras and photographic paper imported from India. The success of the business is demonstrated through the studio being located on the first floor of a building at 47 Sule Pagoda Road, in the heart of downtown Yangon. There is anecdotal evidence of the business surviving there until the 1960's.

Around 1906, D.A. acquired a number of pictures taken by German photographer Philip Adolphe Klier. The collection included architectural and highly stylised ethnographic pictures taken in different parts of Burma. Ahuja began publishing the pictures as postcards but there seems to have been some problem about how he acquired these works and in 1907, Klier took successful legal action against him. Losing the legal battle was only a temporary setback as in 1909 Ahuja purchased the archive of Italian photographer Felice Beato and also became the legal owner of Watts and Skeen, a studio established by Frederick Skeen in 1887. The Skeen family also had a photographic business in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Beato's archive included landscape works, stylised portraits and also war photography from Japan, China and the Middle East. Klier died in 1911 and from 1914, Ahuja resumed producing some of his pictures as postcards. He was to publish 600 cards over the next 20 years, some of which can be found at card sales or occasionally on eBay. The cards were sent to Germany to be chromo-lithographed, ensuring the best quality finishes.

The postcards cover a wide range of subjects. There are several studio shots of elegant women, slightly stiff looking family groups, important monuments, snake charmers and dancers. There is also at least one card showing prisoners in Rangoon jail queueing to collect their food which whilst fascinating is an unusual image to send to the family back home.

D.A.'s nephew, T.N. opened his own studio in 1916 with a shop at 86 Phayre Street (now Pansodan Road) where he operated as an agent for Kodak products. There is some evidence that he also served as magistrate. Business was interrupted in 1942 when the family fled before the arrival of the Japanese but they quickly returned to reopen the studio at the end of the war. In 1948 T.N.'s son, R.A. Ahuja opened another studio at 386 Dalhousie Road (now Maha Bandoola Road). The store became the sole agent in Burma for the sale of Gevaert products and operated until 2007. R.A. the last remaining member of the Ahuja family in Burma died in 2014, bringing almost 130 years of their presence in the country to an end. The date of D.A.'s death is unknown.

The images included in this post are from reprints of the cards I purchased from the Yangon Heritage Trust at 22-24 Pansodan Road in 2017. The Trust is a great source of information on Yangon's built heritage. As well as selling books, maps and postcards, it stages occasional exhibitions and guided walks.  I have a habit of buying postcards on my travels and then putting them "somewhere safe" when I get home. During the lockdown I have been sorting through my collection and rediscovered my Ahuja cards. I also turned back to the already mentioned  excellent book by Lukas Birk which has a short section on the Ahujas.  Birk is an accomplished traveller and photographer whose projects have included research into the now almost disappeared box cameras of Kabul. 

D.N. Ahuja also produced postcards featuring images from India, some of which may have been his won work. You can see some of them on the Paper Jewels website.

It is not possible to confirm which of the images featured in this post are the work of the Ahuja family or are from other photographer's archives.

You can see more pictures from Myanmar here.

1 comment:

  1. I love your Burmese postcards. As a collector of these, might I ask that you include their numbers? A cheeky ask!