Before Instagram, there was the picture postcard: a messaging system created to share images and conversations across continents and cultures. Postcards were the viral memes of their time, the craze of the early 20th century when billions of postcards were mailed each year. Often the first and most influential images people saw of distant lands, for Westerners, they crystallised a vision of India as a sun-baked land of grand edifices and bustling bazaars, peopled with nautch girls, naked fakirs and snake charmers.
Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj takes
the reader on a tour of this imagined India, with authorcollector Omar Khan serving as an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide.
Featuring visions of flaming skies over Varanasi and the painted gates of Jaipur, as well as the more mundane evidence of the British Empire’s ‘civilizing mission’, many of these vintage postcards are tributes to the art of the photo colourist—applying bright hues to halftones and collotypes in order to transform reality into fantasy. The views are not entirely from a Western perspective: the works of Indian studios such as Gobind Ram Oodey Ram are discussed, as well as the illustrations of M. V. Dhurandhar, a master of the form if there ever was one.
Dhurandhar’s sharp, satirical vision is evident in his caricatures of contemporary urban characters such as the Mumbai policeman and the telegraph peon, as well as his saucy Coquettish Maid Servant series, 10 postcards depicting the story of a philandering husband who seduces a maidservant working in his kitchen and is betrayed by the tell-tale floury palm print she leaves on his jacket.
Published by Dadasaheb Phalke’s Laxmi Art Printing Works in 1907, the cards prefigure the plot of Phalke’s short film Pithache Panje (1913), linking the popular visual culture of the time to the emergent medium of cinema.
The book takes several such fascinating detours as it traverses the subcontinent. For all the mythologising of empire, reality is never too far away.
The grand tour of the Raj ends at the north-west frontier, where images of battlegrounds, graves and gallows tell the story of British conflict with the fiercely independent Pakhtun tribesmen. An especially macabre image presents the dismembered corpse of a Khyber raider: a mute witness to the lies of Empire, the brutality behind its pomp and glory.