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Postcards matter

A picture postcard should not only give a picturesque view but should also stir a desire for anyone who sees it, to visit the place.

A LADY in England sent me a gift, so I went out to get a picture postcard to acknowledge. I am not sure she's been to India and it looked quite appropriate to send her a picture of one of our historical monuments that lie scattered all over the country.

As I went out I told myself that it shouldn't be difficult. That, when I entered a greetings cards centre I discovered, was a mistake. Not that there were no cards with old monuments. There were and there were many, one more hideous than the other. I had not seen anything more casual. I saw pictures of some of the great monuments and ruins we have. They were fixed- focus mug-shots. No attempt had been made to get an angle and because they were massive ruins they had been taken in natural light, i.e., sunlight. An engineer friend who surprisingly took a dim view of ancient Indian architecture once told me that there was nothing especially noteworthy about them.

According to him the Indian style had no finesse, only a way of packing against possible error. So it seemed in these pictures. Rather than choosing a particular view or modifying the light with screens, what do you have? A picture taken in the flat blaze of the Indian sun. All one did was to get it in the view-finder.

I found this quite remarkable. Not that one was asking for Art with a capital `a' like say Raghu Rai or Roloff Benny on India or anything near. All one wanted was a good picture that integrated as a picture by itself, instead of being close to something one has seen and so can fill the details from memory. Alas! this was not there. Here was what, one may call a kind of `bania' photography and making of postcards. It is there simply to get your money.

These pictures were the product of a different culture. If my memory serves me right over the four decades since I read it, the great Art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy once went to Agra to get some reproductions of Rajput miniatures. People who had gathered around him told him it was not for him to do such work when there were families who could make him as many as he wanted. All he had to do was hire them for a sum. They were members of a caste who made these copies as a profession. They were the equivalent of present day photographers. Like the photographers who made picture postcards, all they wanted was a contract and the money.

The people who make and sell them know no better. They know that there is a demand for them somewhere, that there are buyers who have the money and want a picture; buyers who have no idea what a picture is. They are happy that they have a picture that they remember to have seen in a rich man's house. In this group are also those who must have the same picture but it must cost more than the neighbour can afford. These are people who when they give a gift with charming regularity forget to remove the price tag. In this culture whether it is the maker or the buyer the picture talks of the money and that is all they want.

My wife thinks I went to the wrong shops for what I wanted. Now, what did I want? I have two picture postcards sent to me, one from a half-white boy from South Africa and another from a Norwegian woman. I had met these people briefly when they had come to India and we had got on very well and talked a lot. When they went back each sent me a postcard.

As is anyone's guess the South African boy's picture postcard was of a beautiful bird in its natural habitat, its head slightly turned to the camera with the look of arrogance that all creatures have in their state of freedom. The Norwegian woman had talked a great deal about how cold and icebound their lives were but how beautiful it all was. The picture she sent me, not only gives one a splendid view of the phenomenon but while one looks at it, it stirs a desire to go see the place. This to me is what a picture postcard ought do, especially pictures that showcase the country or its culture.

Especially now when Governments are constantly talking of the urgent need to develop tourism I don't see anything wrong in expecting pictures that stir us in this way. It is not as though we do not have good photographers; they are a legion.

With the strides that technology has taken, almost any kind of picture is possible provided one knows what one wants. So, what is the matter that we do not have pictures that evoke some feeling, some pride? How long will we persist in making shoddy imitations and make do? If I began to answer this question it will take me way out of what I had set out to write which was to raise the question. That purpose served, I shall leave you to answer it to your own satisfaction.


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