Missives from a Colonial past

A collection of postcards maps the social and cultural history of the country through the pre-Independence era

“I do not wish to exchange any more post cards with you,” read the words scribbled underneath a photograph of the Royal Palace in Bangalore, from 1907. The message leaves room for contemplation, and fuels the imagination. Did the exchange truly stop there? Snippets from 1892-1947 line the exhibition walls as part of the Serendipity Arts Festival 2018. In the form of postcards, they hold both answers and questions about a distant past.

Glimpses of history

The festival (which launches today) in collaboration with the Alkazi Collection of Photography, currently has on display an exhibition titled, ‘Ephemeral: New Futures for Passing Images’. Co-curated by historian Omar Khan and Rahaab Allana from the Alkazi Foundation, the travelling show (exhibited in Mumbai, and Delhi), is an extension of their book, Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj, launched in August this year.

The book delves into the social, economical, cultural, and national history of the country, pre-Independence through a carefully curated collection of 518 postcards. In a world where visual consumption has overtaken the written word, the exhibition aims to find balance between the two mediums, and provides an insight into the personality of a specific place and its people.

The 1890s saw the rise of the picture-postcard that was closely linked to the creation of photography 50 years prior. Using lithography, collotypes, half-tones, and the Kodak image, the new media form introduced the globe to painters and graphic artists from India, Austria, Britain, France, Italy and the US. For Khan, his curiosity about the mass-produced picture-form began at a paper and postcard fair in Concord, outside San Francisco in 1995. Being a collector of photographs, the historian and author visited the fair and was pleasantly surprised to find a collection of Indian postcards.

He chanced upon a postcard titled ‘Women Baking Bread,’ and was enthralled by the way the artist propped up the charpai on the side of the frame, and used tromp de l’oeil effects for the lantern and cloth, indicating depth. “It transported me right back to my grandmother’s house at 5 Queen’s Road in Lahore when I was a small boy, and she sat on the verandah shelling peas or rolling chappati dough,” elaborates Khan. The postcard was printed in the year 1898/99 at the Ravi Varma Press in Karla (or Karli), located near Malavli, and was the first in his ever-growing collection.

Richly detailed

In painted images of Benares, photographs of Calcutta’s Howrah Bridge, a birds-eye view of Amritsar, monuments in Bangalore, valleys in Kashmir, and hills in Ooty, the reader finds himself/herself staring into a time-portal of sorts. Allana points out the racism portrayed in a postcard from Calcutta which mentions how Darwin’s theory rings true when one looks at certain individuals from the subcontinent, especially those of a lower social class. “This racist comment bring to light the awful reality of the colonial regime and the ways in which European superiority became psychologically ingrained,” he says.

City of gold

The book also has a collection of postcards that document Bombay’s consistently changing landscape. A black-and-white photograph of the BMC headquarters, and a slice of the then VT Station from the 1900s, shows the abundance of space in an otherwise congested metropolis. “We stayed very close to this in Bombay, it is very nice,” reads a postcard accompanied by a photograph of Apollo Bunder in 1905. The section also documents one of the earliest communities of Parsee gymnasts, and athletes in 1903. One of Khan’s personal favourites is a message on a 1899 postcard called Bori Bunder Station by the Gerhart/Ravi Varma Press, with the message “Magnificent station but far too big for requirements”.

The Ravi Varma Press played a significant role in enhancing postcards as a popular medium of communication in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It was also passage through which a large number of artists had their work published and recognised. Lithographs of P. Gerhardt’s watercolours were largely used to represent cities like Bombay and characters such as Shakuntala and Damayanti. “Postcards are often the only images and visual access to people and places from long ago, frequently in colour when the range of colour media was very limited,” explains Khan.

Old-fashioned appeal

In a section of the show, chapters of India’s independence are documented in postcards with images of Mahatma Gandhi, Lala Lajpat Rai, Sarojini Naidu, Subhash Chandra Bose, and Annie Besant to name a few. It’s the eternal quality of this medium that let’s one soak in the tactility of these pieces of history. Khan refers to it as an old-age Instagram of sorts, one that lasts beyond a few scrolls. For contemporary audiences, habituated to instant gratification, and immediate communication, this helps us ponder about the interval in between the delivery of messages- where time, almost literally in this case, stood still.

Ephemeral: New Futures for Passing Images, is on display at the Serendipity Arts Festival 2018 from today until December 22.

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