Old picture postcards have only recently been recognised as a valuable
tool for the historian and this book is a major work on postcards of
people and places in the Indian subcontinent. The earliest examples
from the author's collection of what can properly be called picture
postcards date from 1892 and are advertisements for Singer sewing
machines. Men and women in colourful costumes pose in front of
treadle machines that were to alter the lives of the home dressmaker
and the professional darzi (tailor). Postcards quickly became very
popular among the British and other foreigners in India for several
pragmatic reasons. It cost only a one anna stamp to send a card home
and a few pies for inland postage; writing space on the card was limited
which was ideal for a cheery greeting and did away with the tedium of
letter writing; and cards were handsomely coloured at a time when
photographs were restricted to black and white or sepia. A very small
number of English-educated Indians sent postcards too, but the fact that
until the 1940s and the movement for Independence, postcards were
printed mainly in English, meant they did not appeal to the majority of
native language speakers.
Khan's book is based on cards of eight cities including Karachi,
Calcutta and Madras, and three areas - Kashmir, Ceylon and the Northwest
Frontier. A chapter on Independence sits rather awkwardly at the
end of the book. There is a very useful map of the subcontinent, Burma
and Ceylon showing where the various distributors of cards were based
and their names will resonate with anyone who has handled these old
cards. D. Macropolo, tobacconist in Calcutta, together with the
publishers Thacker, Spink & Go; Moorli Dhur & Sons, Ambala; H.A.
Mirza & Sons, Delhi; Johnny Stores, Karachi; D.A. Ahuja & Sons,
Rangoon, and the well-known Ravi Verma Press and M.V.
Dhurandhar, Bombay. The cards themselves were frequently printed
abroad, particularly in Germany and Austria which dominated the
market until the start of World War One in 1914. Ravi Verma, whose
distinctive style still influences poster art today, bought a lithographic
steam press from Germany in 1892, although he had to sell his
ownership a decade later to a German company.
Lithographically produced cards soon gave way to the collotype where
an image on glass was transferred to cards. The oilette, a printing
method that added depth to a painted picture became popular and after
about 1910 real photographs, sometimes hand-coloured, are common.
A much wider range of images than the conventional views of today's
postcards was published. Cremations, murder victims, famine victims,
plague camps, prisons, earthquake damage, 'hanging of rioters' and
'The Gallows at Peshawar' were all subjects deemed suitable for
postcards at a time when newspapers did not publish photographs.
Royal visitors, particularly British royalty, were popular subjects and
there were also series of Indian and Singhalese tribes, tradespeople,
entertainers and household servants.
The pictures in this book are beautifully reproduced, as they should be.
Unfortunately one can't say the same about the text and the footnotes.
Some of the pages are unnumbered in arbitrary fashion. Quite early on
the footnotes are in trouble. On page 72, for example they appear in
this order: 16, 18, 17, 20. In a new chapter on page 109 footnotes start
at 26. This may seem trivial but it is annoying if one wants to check a
particular statement by the author. More serious is the poor proofreading
so that the art historian Giles Tillotson's name is consistently
mis-spelt, Aitchison College in Lahore becomes Aitcheson, the Sikh
ruler Ranjit Singh is 'buried' instead of the cremation that actually took
place, and unforgivably the late Michael Stokes, BACSA chairman for
several years who had his own splendid postcard collection, is referred
to on page 23 as 'Michael Powell'. One expects better from publishers
of this repute.