The photographer who came here

WHEN I first met Omar Khan a few years ago, he had come to Madras from Pakistan by way of San Francisco, where he had settled, to catch up with his wife's family; she's the sister of Ranjani Maniam of Global Adjustments. We met to talk about someone whom I had heard about not long before, when I'd been researching the history of the Madras Cricket Club.

In the early 20th Century Minutes of the Club I had found reference to a Willie Burke requesting appointment as the official photographer of the Club. With Klein and Peyerl, Nicholas, and Tripe around I don't know what success Willie Burke had, but I now find him in Omar Khan's book getting far more space than the one line I had given him.

Omar Khan's coffee table book, From Kashmir to Kabul, offers a slice of Indian history about a century after the Kirkpatrick era. But some things never change. John Burke, one of the `heroes' of the book, appears to have liked the ladies almost as much as the Handsome Colonel. But this book is not about love and scandal; it features the brilliant work of two photographers, John Burke and William Butler, who between 1860 and 1900 created a splendid pictorial record of the British putting down roots in the old Sikh kingdom — the old Punjab and Kashmir — then moving on to the North West Frontier and into Afghanistan.

Individually and together, the two photographers set up studios in Peshawar, Murree, Multan and Lahore, and became respected members of local society. John Burke's son by his first marriage and his chief apprentice was William Henry, the Willie of my MCC story.

Willie Burke, born in 1861 in Peshawar, could well have gone to school in the Lawrence Asylum (later, College) near Murree. Certainly, the most nostalgic part of the book, to me, was the pictures of the Asylum and the hill station of Murree (just north of Rawalpindi on the road to Kashmir) where I'd spent a year way back then. It was nice to discover that St. Denys' Girls School, the Presentation Convent and the Convent of Jesus and Mary were there even in the Burkes' days attracting attention. And the Murree Brewery brought back memories of my first taste of beer.

But whether or not Burke's schooling in Murree was on the same lines, life in the hill station was not easy for him. He lost his mother, Margaret, in 1879, weeks after she had had baptised an illegitimate son of her husband's and taken the infant into her care! Four years later, John Burke remarried and, in 1887, Willie Burke too was married in the same church to a woman with the same name as his mother, Margaret Russell.

Two years later he was burying his infant son in Murree. By then he had left the post of Assistant to `J. Burke, Artiste Photographer' and become branch manager of James Caddock's in Lahore, another firm of photographers.

It was early in 1913 that Willie Burke decided it was time to stop working for others and start on his own. So he headed south and, later that year, established a studio in Madras.

Willie Burke is the name that has survived in the records. He later established a studio in Ooty and both appear to have done well till they vanished into history. An anecdote, however, survives, according to Omar Khan, who records that Willie Burke sent his adoptive brother Oswald a crate of pine nuts from Ooty every year till the 1920s!

Of Willie Burke's pictures I have seen none. As another, like Omar Khan, in search of old photographs of subcontinent history long past, I've found that virtually none of these pictures survive in this part of the world. The bulk of the pictures in Omar Khan's book are from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the British Library and the National Army Museum, London, besides a few from museums in Vienna and Paris and private collections in the U.K. and U.S. Working on a coffee table book at present myself, I found a substantial number of pictures I was looking for - plantation crops, road, railway and harbour building - in five libraries/museums in Britain. I wonder when the National Archives in New Delhi will get around to scouring the world and getting copies of all these old subcontinent photographs and engravings to make access to them easier for us in India.