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In Session: Imaginaries in Motion: Early Transnational Photography in and beyond Asia
4: The Shans Go to Delhi: The 1903 Delhi Durbar and the Optical Order of Empire
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of South Carolina, United States
In late December of 1902, led by Sir James George Scott (1851-1935), Superintendent of southern Shan States, a group of Shan aristocrats travelled to Delhi to attend the Durbar in celebration of King Edward VII’s coronation. Over the course of the multi-day event, which formally commenced on January 1st, 1903, the brilliantly-attired Shan group became the center of attention with their dazzling appearance. Photographers and draughtsmen grabbed the opportunity to capture their images, which quickly made their way into souvenir brochures and albums, newspapers, magazines, and illustrated books, and were widely circulated in the British Empire. Remarkably, reports on the Durbar often use “Burmese chiefs” to refer to the group. By no means an innocent misnomer, this designation was systematically used to emphasize the group’s double status as representing both the Shan States and Burma. At the Durbar, an event intended to showcase the loyalty of all constituent parts of the Indian Empire, the Shan group’s eye-catching presence was used in creating the spectacle of imperial order and solidarity. Furthermore, the wide circulation of their images also contributed to the production of the discourse of Burma as a multi-ethnic entity, which eventually helped give birth to the modern Burma/Myanmar. By studying how images of the Shan aristocrats at the 1903 Delhi Durbar were created, circulated, and used, and how meaning and knowledge about Burma was visually produced and transmitted, this paper explores the importance of visual tools to British colonial rule in this part of the world.