Picture postcards can do more than please the eye — they can tell a story and document a country’s growth. The newly released Picturesque India: A Journey in Early Picture Postcards (1896—1947) by authors Sangeeta and Ratnesh Mathur, by Niyogi Books, does that and more. Through a selection of carefully curated postcards (550 of them), the book recounts the significant changes that were ushered in, at the dawn of the 20th century. The British Empire was at its zenith and India reflected its power — the formation of new capital cities in the plains as well as summer retreats in the hills, evolution of towns or nagores and pores, growth of cantonment towns with their military and civil lines, development of ports or pattanams and creation of cultural, educational and trading centres, all increasingly well connected by an extensive rail, road and, later on, air network.
The postcards in the book are divided across six chapters representing six regions within India and Pakistan, as they were 100 years back. Supported by text, the book brings alive what life would have been like during these decades, along with providing ample insights and, best of all, that powerful dose of nostalgia!
Excerpts from our conversation with authors Sangeeta and Ratnesh Mathur…
What makes picture postcards so fascinating as well as educative?
These picture postcards are an untapped resource for those interested in the evolution of cities, town planning, architecture, ethnography, sociology or simply, travel. Picture postcards offer a way to recapture the past. They may not be perfect genealogy records but they help us visualise and better understand the lives our ancestors lived over and above the statistics about birth, marriage, and death we research and find. The views of places — of buildings erased to create high-rises, of trees cut to make highways, of a time when the modes of transportation were much slower and fewer — not mere nostalgia, these are important records to build the research necessary for the future of urbanisation in India. The lessons of history are important and pictures often speak more than words – this is the reason why picture postcards are an educative and fascinating record.
What was your inspiration behind undertaking this book?
There were two primary reasons — (a) Urbanisation — Over 20 years now, we have had an interest in collecting maps and city plans of Indian cities. While living in central Europe, we started comparing European cities with Indian ones informally and finally took up a short certification course on Urban Planning at the Bauhaus College in Germany in 2009. We also got an opportunity to be involved in some projects in a Czech town’s growth and urbanisation efforts, before returning to India in 2010. After extensive travel in India over the past 8 years, we see India today at crossroads where an industrial vision of growth has lead to a situation where we are trying to copy the European industrial city model, without recognising the non-industrial roots of India’s cities. The antiquarian postcards thus offer a visual peep into the early years of industrialisation of Indian cities, a phase when the railways and cars had just made their first entry into the cities.
(b) India Deltiology — As a genre of books, the field of picture postcard visual history books of Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia too are available. In European countries, it’s not just at a city level but almost every year, one sees new books of picture postcard visual history on even small cities too. Thus far, there were no books either compiling picture postcard history at an India level nor at a city level. A few Bombay and Calcutta visual history books have used picture postcards but they mix lithographic pictures with photographs and paintings too, alongside the postcard medium.
It was this desire to create India’s first picture postcard book, with a focus on topography, to facilitate a discussion on the past and future of Indian urbanisation, which drove us to take on this project.
The postcards cover the era 1896 – 1947. What were the key art styles of these times?
From a topographical perspective, there are picture postcards on every possible topic — panoramas, landscapes, aerial or bird’s eye-views, night pictures and sunrise pictures, maps and land routes, travel modes (railways, balloon and air travel, steamboats and ships, horse driven and electric trams, bullock carts, tongas, camel caravans, etc) and even postcards about post (postal history).
From a medium perspective, there are lithographic postcards, photographs as postcards, silk-backed postcards, hand cut-out postcards, postcards with embroidered borders, pop-up postcards, government stamped postcards and possibly every other innovation in printing type.
As an art style, all the variations of prints in late 20th century entered the picture postcard medium too. The calendar and God printmakers/sellers of India too saw the commercial opportunity of the picture postcard boom and thus, Ravi Varma’s popular lithographic and oleograph prints too were printed as picture postcards by Ravi Varma press and others. A series of MV Dhurandhar’s art too appeared as postcards. Besides, artworks of popular English artists working on Indian subjects example, Mortimer Menpes, too were released as picture postcards. The pioneering English postcard publishing company, Raphael Tuck and Sons commissioned many water-colour and oil artists to cover Indian subjects in their postcards. The jazz era saw many beautiful art-deco postcards too.
We have an entire chapter in our book listing approx 100 key picture postcard makers and their focus area. The larger printers, publishers and photography studios covered more regions of India but a larger number of smaller entities stayed focused on capturing views of the city or town that they were located in. Some of the earliest photographers were commissioned by the East India Company to photo document the growth of the towns and cantonments.
Are these postcards part of private collections? How valuable are they today?
Most of the picture postcards published in our book are from our own collection of over 4500+ postcards. We have a collection covering the entire geographic span of India. Most collectors in India though (like elsewhere in the world) tend to specialise and collect their own cities.
The commercial value varies on rarity and demand. One can still pick these postcards from Rs 50 to as much as Rs 20,000, from e-shops and eBay auctions. In general in India, it’s the rare Bombay and Bangalore postcards which tend to be in high
demand and, as such, expensive.