The British Empire Library

Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj

by Omar Khan

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
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.

British Empire Book
Omar Khan
First Published
Mapin/Alkazi Collection of Photography
Review Originally Published
Spring 2019 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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