Post Cross­ing

India Today - - LEISURE - —Ra­jesh Devraj

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.

PA­PER JEW­ELS Post­cards from the Raj by Omar Khan Mapin `3,500 364 pages, 519 colour il­lus­tra­tions

Pho­to­graphs: RE­PRO­DUCED WITH PER­MIS­SION FROM PA­PER JEW­ELS: POST­CARDS FROM THE RAJ BY OMAR KHAN, PUB­LISHED BY MAPIN PUB­LISH­ING

1. Bom­bay. Bertarelli & Co., Mi­lan, Italy, C. 1900, litho­graph, un­di­vided back, 13.95 x 9 cm. 2. Clock Tower, Chandni Chowk, Delhi. H.A. Mirza & Sons, Delhi, C. 1905, coloured col­lo­type, di­vided back, 13.8 x 8.9 cm. 3. Tele­graph peon. M.V. Dhu­rand­har [signed], un­known pub­lisher, C. 1903, chromo-halftone, un­di­vided back, 12.1 x 8.7 cm. (copy­right Michael Stokes Col­lec­tion, Royal So­ci­ety for Asian Af­fairs, Lon­don) 4. The place of con­tri­tion in Benares. Josef Hoff­mann [signed], Joseph Heim, edited by Thacker & Co. Ltd Bom­bay, C. 1898, litho­graph, un­di­vided back, 14 x 9 cm.

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