Raj images show need to be at home away from home

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

Photographs of a hunt in British Raj India taken by a forgotten pioneer of Irish photography have come to light. The images of the hunt in the south of the subcontinent were taken by photographer Willie Burke.

The photographs were taken, probably in the 1920s, of the Ooty Hunt Club in Ootacamund, a town at high altitude – known as a “hill station” – used by the British to escape from the searing heat of summer. Although the colonial life depicted has long vanished, the hunt club has survived.

The club was founded in 1842 to provide, according to its charter, British (and Irish) expatriates running the Raj with “a substitute for those comforts and conveniences otherwise only procurable in their native land, which they are forbidden by distance, want of time and means, to partake of at their source”.

Traditional dress

The hunt imported a pack of fox hounds from England and members adhered to traditional dress codes – including the wearing of knee-length scarlet coats – although some members wore pith helmets instead of traditional headgear. Membership included army officers, planters and colonial administrators.

Because the fox was not native to the Nilgiri Hills, the hunt pursued jackals.

Burke was one of the best-known photographers of colonial society in the subcontinent. He was born in Peshawar in 1861 and had studios in Madras and Ootacamund. Four photographs by him of the Ooty Hunt Club have turned up in Whyte’s saleroom in Dublin where they will be sold at auction later this month.

Some of his photographs are stored in the archive of the old India Office now housed in the British Library in London.

Despite India’s independence in 1947, the Ooty Hunt Club has survived and is nowadays supported by the Indian Defence Forces.