Signed. Sealed. Delivered: Postcards turn works of art

During National Postal Week (Oct 9-16), we look at how snail mail is shedding its ‘communication’ tag to emerge as an art form

Updated - October 14, 2022 03:46 pm IST

Published - October 14, 2022 02:37 pm IST

Postcards by Padma Malini Soman

Postcards by Padma Malini Soman | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

They say it is the thought that counts. If you have received a visit from your postman in recent times, consider yourself very lucky — you know someone who acted on that thought.

While a slew of activities marks National Postal Week, post offices are seeing a slow but steady rise in footfall and not because people are taking up letter-writing again. There has been a revival of interest in postcards in an age where ever-new acronyms are the lingua franca and two blue ticks are a measure of how long one can wait.

Pint-sized and pretty

Postcards have become an excellent canvas to showcase one’s artistic capabilities. Or at the very least, prove to be a one-of-a-kind gesture from someone who cares enough to stroll down to the post office. Artist Padma M. Soman from Chennai would teach her students about renowned artists and their methods. “MF Hussain used to carry postcards and crayons wherever he went. I got my students started on a similar project where they had to sketch on postcards. This slowly became a passion for me,” says the artist who sketches on postcards (The Plain Paper Page) and is an avid postcrosser herself.

A post card by Tawfik Abdullah Manham

A post card by Tawfik Abdullah Manham | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For web designer Tawfik Abdullah Manham, postal art was the happy marriage between two of his favourite pastimes — letter writing and sketching. “My mom used to write letters to my dad who was abroad and ask us to pen a few lines too. I also enjoyed art work so my letters always had a few doodles. When I was graduating, postcards seemed the best way to keep in touch with batchmates; they merged the joy of painting and the joy of sending letters, while having a personalised feel.”

Wanting to reach beyond his friends’ circle, he started the Postcard Per Day Project on Instagram. “Anybody could drop requests and I would send them a postcard. A request, a surprise. That is how it’s been for six years now.”

Rise of the writers

Art and design bring an element of panache to letter writing. “Art has become an integral part of letter writing today. It is a reason to put pen to paper,” says Harnehmat Kaur, co-founders and organiser of Daakroom, a Delhi-based annual letter writing carnival.

Post cards on display at White Sanctum Art Gallery

Post cards on display at White Sanctum Art Gallery | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The emerging trend of post crossing (see box) has not only given people a glimpse of faraway lands, but also given the humble postcard exciting new avatars. “You can get postcards in 3D, rubber or wooden formats and the range of creatively designed postcards is incredible,” she adds.

A letter writing activity for school children by Daakroom

A letter writing activity for school children by Daakroom | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Needless to say all these initiatives stemmed from a need to recapture the lost charm of writing and receiving a letter. “Children today have no idea how thrilling it is to open a letter or how satisfying it is to get a reply from someone after weeks or months,” says Bindu P V, curator of White Sanctum Art Gallery in Bengaluru. The gallery conducts a year-long International Mail Art Exhibition where artists from different parts of the world send their art on postcards. Bindu says she began the initiative to get her children interested in the letter writing, stamp collecting and the procedures at a post office.

Art from the See Saw Project initiated by the Sand Box Collective in Bengaluru

Art from the See Saw Project initiated by the Sand Box Collective in Bengaluru | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement 

The cleverly-named Daakroom (Daak means mail or post in Hindi) founded in 2016 works on this premise too. “We’ve noticed school children struggle with the idea of communication simply because they’ve become so habituated to writing a formal letter and using certain words. They need to be convinced that it is an actual means of communication,” says Harnehmat, adding, “But once you do, they are excited by the entire process.”

Age no bar

But it is not just for children. Adults too are slowly rediscovering the beauty of penning their thoughts and engaging with the tactile.

The postal corner at Madras Literary Society

The postal corner at Madras Literary Society | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Earlier this year, Bengaluru-based Sandbox Collective concluded their See-Saw project where 11 artists sent each other their work via post. “Following the project, most of the artists confessed they visited the post office in their locality for the first time, because we encouraged them not to use courier services or delivery apps. The idea was also to engage with the idea of handwritten and hand-crafted,” says Karen D’Mello who conceptualised the project. “This was not to just romanticise the idea, but to appreciate the idea of slowing down and not expect instant gratification.”

Postal art display by Namveedu, Namoor, Namkadhai 

Postal art display by Namveedu, Namoor, Namkadhai  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Harnehmat believes this is the right time to bridge the gap between the generation of letter writers and the youth of today. “Those who have lived through the age of snail mail should collaborate with youngsters or it will be lost to memory. This generation will grow up not even knowing about all this,” she says, adding that the postcard culture has not taken off in India as it has elsewhere. “We need to make it more fun, exciting and appealing to the youth.”

Associated with the Madras Literary Society, Thirupurasundari Sevvel began a social initiative called Namveedu, Namoor, Namkadhai (Tamil for Our Home, Our Land, Our Story) during the pandemic with artists Aafreen, Devika P and Sristi Prabhakar. “While we were into Chennai-themed postcards for the longest time, we started a lot of postal art initiatives during the lockdown which continue today. For example, there is a postal corner in the Madras Literary Society where visitors are encouraged to decorate postcards with rubber stamps and mail them right away.”

Be a letter-getter!
Post crossing: This initiative allows you to send and receive postcards from around the world — rather like a cross between chain mails and pen pals. Log on to postcrossing.com
Mail Art: Engage with artists around the world and send them your work via post. Find them on social media under mail art handles
Cinderella Stamps: Create your own stamps, complete with perforated edge and send it on your letter. Of course, since it has no postal value, you’ll need to affix a legit postage stamp too.

She believes in taking postal activities to street corners where it garners interest and spreads awareness. “We documented the many post boxes in Chennai. We encourage children to write to each other, but they need to know where they can post their letters.”

Short ‘n’ sweet

However, despite her canvas being postcard size, Padma prefers sketching on the reverse, beside the address. “Though I create printed postcards too, people usually ask for the original yellow postcard for its vintage, canvas feel. And I choose to sketch on the smaller side because I want people to write more. It also showcases stamps as many people usually frame them.”

Trivia on the Indian postal system
In India, the postman goes where courier services fail to deliver.
India has the largest postal network in the world with 1,54,939 post offices as on March 31, 2015.
The highest post office in the world is in India at Hikkim village in Himachal Pradesh. At an elevation of 4,400 m (14,400 ft), this post office in Lahaul and Spiti district is located at India’s highest altitude.
India has a floating post office too! Dal Lake in Srinagar, floats a houseboat which serves both as a post office and a philately museum.

According to Tawfik, the fact that postcards did not go in an envelope was an added advantage. “It made me happy to think whoever saw it on its journey to the recipient, could enjoy its beauty.”

For Thirupurasundari, postcards are based on memories. “I believe post cards are seeing a comeback after COVID-19. People are taking an interest in that personal touch and attachment they had missed.”

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