Paper Jewels: Tracking postcards from the Raj

A new book showcases 500 postcards from the Raj, ‘the Instagram of the time’, which travelled the world and told tales from the subcontinent

July 27, 2018 04:31 pm | Updated 04:31 pm IST

Over 20 years ago, Omar Khan chanced upon a postcard, ‘Women Baking Bread’, at a vintage show near San Francisco. He bought it because its meticulous artwork — two women crouched on the floor, making chapatis, with a charpai leaning against the wall — stirred vivid memories of his grandmother’s place in Lahore. “It sent me on a journey of collecting postcards, which ran into the thousands. As my collection grew, I began to wonder how postcards emerged, how significant a medium it was, how artists got involved... and gradually it became a book,” he says.

Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj gives readers a visual tour of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka through 500 vintage postcards (1892 to 1947). Through chapters dedicated to different regions — Delhi, Bombay, Ceylon, Lahore, and so on — it recreates an era when they were the world’s first “mass transfusion of colour images”. Khan — who travelled to London, Vienna and New York for his research, at the Royal Collection Trust at Windsor Castle, the Michael Stokes Collection at the Royal Geographic Society, the British Library (India Office Collections) and the Austrian National Library (early postcard publishing journals) — focusses on the work of several artists and studios of the time, including painter MV Dhurandhar, the Ravi Varma Press in Mumbai, and foreign lithographers and photographers who worked in the subcontinent.

Paper raconteurs

Postcards were the first ever social media, says the US-based author, who earlier wrote Kashmir to Kabul (2202), the story of two Irish photographers in northern Punjab during the Raj. “It was kind of the Instagram of the time, where people shared images with each other. That’s something that made me reflect on its connection with the present day,” he says. Putting together the book was also challenging because, the world over, postcards do not command the kind of reverence that, say, stamps do. “They were considered a disposable media and were not given the attention they deserve by museums and scholars, considering the kind of artwork that went into them or the stories they tell,” says Khan, who plans to start an Instagram page to coincide with Paper Jewels ’ launch next month, where he will post a restored postcard each day.

The book takes the reader on an anecdotal journey, from the time when postcards were used primarily as advertising tools (like Singer’s postcards from 1892 or ‘Nestle’s Swiss Milk 20th Punjab Infantry’ that pushed the brand name with an image of the 20th Punjab Infantry), to an era when they became a mass mode of image-based conversations. “An example is ‘Tower of Silence’, that Austrian writer Stefan Zweig sent from Bombay to a Miss Hirschfeld in Vienna in 1908, with the handwritten message ‘where the Parsees put their dead + the vultures eat all the flesh off them...’,” says Khan, who also traces the evolution of the technology behind the art: lithographs to collotypes, half stones to photo postcards.

The search goes on

Along the way, the 59-year-old made several discoveries: like how Germans set up the Ravi Varma Press, and popularised the Travancore (present day Kerala) artist’s paintings through postcards. A number of postcards in the book (interestingly, he says, many were collected by women) are also revealing of the humour of the time, evident in one particularly amusing series called the ‘Coquettish Maid Servant’, which detailed what happens when a wife finds her husband ‘seduced’ by the maid. “I am always searching for early examples of Rössler and Ravi Varma Press, or painted Brij Basi and Sons postcards, as well as any from the late 1890s that may have been produced in India or abroad,” says Khan, whose collection is now over 10,000-strong. Is another book in the offing? “I also collect magic lantern slides of the subcontinent, but I’m not yet sure if they lend themselves to a book,” he concludes.

Published by Mapin Publishing, Paper Jewels (₹3,500) will be out in August. INTACH is organising a talk by Khan at The Folly, Amethyst, on August 30.

Take five

Women baking bread

The Ravi Varma Press, c 1898–99, lithograph

“This lithograph was my first postcard of India. It made me think about how nicely it had used the effect of recreating that space and memory (of his grandmother’s place in Lahore) which sent me on a journey to collect more postcards. The detective work ultimately led to this book.”

Japanese bombing Tinsukia

Tatsuhiro Takabatake [signed], Tokyo, c 1943, coloured halftone

“The Japanese had a highly-developed postcard industry and this was one of the few they made on India, during World War II, when they had some limited bombing runs. This postcard shows Assam where they had bombed some airfields.”

Greetings from Bombay

DM Macropolo, Kolkata, c 1900, lithograph

“This is one of the more beautiful, rare, and well-crafted postcards, and the forward movement in it, to me, was something exceptional. Macropolo was a tobacco retailer in the city from 1863 until he died in 1901. He did not do more than one printing of this series, opting soon for cheaper photographic cards.”

Bachha Sakoo, the Bandit King of Afghanistan

KC Mehra & Sons No 165, Peshawar, c 1929, real photo postcard

“This was one of the most provocative postcards I discovered by a Peshawar postcard artist about a ruler who was assassinated. They made a postcard of his executed body to prove he was dead. It was a very violent one and I was surprised it was sold in the market. It is stunning to see to what extent the medium was used.”

Suppression of the Indian Uprising by the English

Moderne Galerie, Dresden, c 1903, collotype

“A Russian artist was in India in 1886 when a Sikh regiment, who had mutinied against the British, were blown up with canons. He made a painting of it. The Germans then made this postcard and used it as propaganda against the British.”

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