In the 1870s, the poet Toru Dutt sustained her friendship with Mary, daughter of John Martin, a vicar in the university town of Cambridge (UK), through an exchange of letters as well as photographs. These not only included “likenesses” of each other but also of their homes and Toru’s horses. Toru was particular about what she sent to the friend she had made a few years earlier. She even rejected a photograph of their Rambagan home in north Calcutta that “has turned out to be such an ugly one that I do not care to send it”. The photographs would have been enclosed with a newsy epistle in time to catch the weekly mail service to London. Inaugurated in the 1850s, the Indian mail service began a decade or so after the Penny Black, the first postage stamp, was introduced in Britain.
As visits to studios and home shoots by the photographer and his entourage among the more privileged became commonplace, so did the desire to use the visual to communicate. After the 1860s, the exchange of photographs, enclosed with letters, in the conveniently sized 4” x 2” cartes-de-visite — the same as visiting cards of the times — became popular, particularly among married daughters who lived far away from their parents and other siblings. These pre-dated the more impersonal picture postcards that were soon to swamp markets, stations, beach resorts and shops and affected somewhat the art of letter-writing. It was in the 1860s that the postal services in Europe and later, the United States, allowed the use of cards with messages on one side.
Initially, postcards were used as forms of advertisement by manufacturers who used the verso (back) for writing the name and address of the recipient. Though the transformation of the communication card into the picture postcard took a couple of decades, once introduced, it quickly became a part of colonial life as well as the emerging tourism industry. The history of the picture postcard corresponds roughly to the ready availability of the photograph in different formats worldwide, including the colonies. Photographic collotypes or halftone images were often coloured and re-photographed to form a postcard, and Germany and Austria, being pioneers in lithographic production, were significant manufacturers. As imperialism, mountain-climbing, sea voyages for pleasure and internal tourism grew, so did views of distant and scenic shores and the lands and people genre of visualization based often on the photographs of well-known photographers. Postcard-collectors have interesting stories to tell of oddities that were often scribbled on the versos of these cards — comments associating the sender with the subject (a svelte belly dancer, a clown, a brood of rare monkeys), laboured messages of thanks from African children to kindly white benefactors, proclamations of love, and so on. Educated Indian women started writing letters quite regularly in the second half of the 19th century — however, they may have had a middle-class horror of sharing thoughts with an invisible public through postcards. And what about the prying eyes of others (and maybe even the odd domestic servant) who may well read carefully-worded messages before they reached the eager hands of the person they were intended for' Despite its novelty, sending postcards was clearly not for those with ingrained notions of the public-private dichotomy.
As with photographs, collectors, historians and aficionados of the printed visual have been dating postcards. They had quite a lot to go by in terms of printed information on the card, arrangement and lettering of the word ‘postcard’ as well as existing postal regulations and the development of the postcard industry. For instance, those with undivided backs were available prior to 1907, the white-border style on the picture side came into vogue after 1916, and in the post-World War II period, the chrome-style took over. Many carry in small print the names of their manufacturers as well as country of origin, making it easier to locate provenance and period.
For most collectors, postcards are ephemera; for those interested in new data sources as clues to the past, they are valuable sources of information. We can weave a convincing, yet plausible, tale around, say, an 1890s view of Bombay,: the photograph on which it was based was taken by a Maharashtrian photographer and it would have been processed into a postcard in Austria. The finished product — perhaps part of a series — would then be sent on to a dealer for sale in London or Calcutta. It might have been bought by a Scots tea planter from a remote Assam garden on a visit to Calcutta over Christmas and mailed to his family in Edinburgh. The usual wishes for the festive season would be combined with private messages — inquiries about an ailing sister’s health, a nephew’s term at Eton and so on. It would then be displayed on the mantelpiece in the family home, occupying pride of place among other less exciting memorabilia. Passing from hand to hand, there would be animated discussions on the future of the raj over a cup of tea or glass of port while a log fire smouldered in the hearth. Finally, it would find its way into an album or scrap book — and its owner (in all probability, a woman) would write a detailed inscription on Malcolm’s life in India. Quite a memorable journey for a flimsy bit of paper!
At a more impersonal level, postcards of the colonial period, like photographs, tell many stories. Over the last decade or so, social anthropologist Christopher Pinney, who has used the visual with rare dexterity to understand certain facets of Indian society, feels that “the postcard would be a resounding defense of the colonial spirit in picture form”. A spirit that was based on an enduring tension between two ideals, that of similarity and of difference. When translated into visuals available for and in the public domain there was the ‘views of India’ genre of hill stations, churches, cantonments and bungalows — reassuringly similar in many ways to home contexts — and the very different architectural styles of monuments, temples and mosques. But it was the ethnographic postcard and photograph exoticizing the Orient that resulted in mixed emotions — perhaps not dissimilar to the likes of Miss Quested and others. Picture postcards — often embellished with captions and off the margin comments by the sender — became a substitute for more concrete knowledge for those back home. Families looked in wonderment at “A Washerman”, “Girls Cycling” with saris wound round them, and shuddered at “The Sweeper” who stood at the ready with a broom near a back door.
There was, however, another category of less known but extremely important postcards, those that conveyed information on the business of the raj — prisoners on the treadmill, the Cellular Jail in the Andamans, law courts, the Writers’ Buildings, the opening of a railway station, post office or school (see photo). European missionaries were among the first to bring formal schools to Indian girls who were quickly introduced to sports as also to the concept of the uniform, homework and school routine. This postcard could belong to a series originating in France (see caption on card) as the school possibly had some French missionary connection. Toru Dutt had died before the picture postcard mania — but perhaps if she had been alive, she would have sent this very postcard to Mary. Both girls would have exchanged well-chosen words of approval (together with her family, Toru had converted to Christianity). Mary would have been happy to visualize the efforts of the church in uplifting less privileged sisters in a hostile land. For, an underlying — yet not insignificant — sentiment of the British raj was the role of the church in dealing with heathens. And what could be better than emboldening photographs and postcards of Christianity at work!