It was around 1995, and I found myself in Concord, near San Francisco at a vintage paper fair I had discovered. I picked up a postcard, “Women Baking Bread” and it transported me right back to my childhood visits to my grandmother’s house at 5 Queen’s Road in Lahore, as she sat on the verandah shelling peas or rolling chapati dough with a servant girl. I admired the way the artist propped up the charpai, and used tromp de l’oeil effects for the lantern and cloth to indicate depth. I could hardly believe a postcard could be so evocative. This Proustian moment began a life-long journey of collecting postcards from the Raj – I probably have 10,000 or more now, and buy a few new ones each week.
Women Baking Bread. The Ravi Varma Press? c. 1898-99, Lithograph, Undivided back.
A very early court-sized postcard most probably by Paul Gerhardt, the chief lithographer at the Ravi Varma Press in Bombay. Note the trompe de l’oeil (optical illusion to create a three-dimensional effect) with the towel and lantern, and how realistically the charpai is propped up against the wall.
Starting in 1900, Postcards were the world’s first mass infusion of imagery, the Instagram of their time, and the first color glimpses people had of other places and people. They are windows into the past, into beliefs and stories and products and politics, often accompanied by personal messages. While initially used as objects to facilitate tourism, in India they were quickly absorbed and reinvented by Indian artists and publishers; in fact, when they were turned against the British, they became important tools on the road to Independence.
Over the years, I bought postcards from dealers in the US, Britain, Europe and India. My favorite postcard artist became the Marathi painter and first Indian Principal of the J.J. School of Art, M.V. Dhurandhar. I was struck by how much personality is contained in Dhurandhar’s images of people, how effortlessly he seems to convey character in a drawing. His Bombay characters draw you into their worlds, they are both types and individuals who come alive in a small space. They can be funny, satirical, human. I don’t think any other postcard artist had this much empathy or appreciation of his subjects. This led me to learn more about him, how he combined Western drawing styles, acute observation of people earning their living, and a deep rootedness in Indian culture and religion to fuel his art. My mother-in-law, Mrs. Ramani, managed to spirit a copy of his autobiography out of the J.J. School, and I had it translated into English, a peek into this great artist’s extraordinary thoughts.
The Indian Postman. M.V. Dhurandhar [signed], Unknown Publisher, c. 1903, Chromo-halftone, Undivided back. An early postcard by the great Indian postcard artist M.V. Dhurandhar, part of a set of 70 postcards he designed and signed. They show how, with a few brushstrokes, Dhurandhar could be both satirical and human in his depictions of the new types of people that were becoming prominent in a growing metropolis like Mumbai.
It is worth mentioning that I only found one or two copies of Women Baking Bread again in over 20 years but I was able to determine that it had been printed at the Ravi Varma Press in Bombay and the artist who made it was likely Paul Gerhardt, a German who was chief lithographer at the press in the late 1890s. This kind of detective work spurred me on.
As I got deeper into collecting postcards, I saw that they had been largely neglected by scholars and historians. There were no books on Indian postcards. No one had attempted to use them to explore the history they contained, the technological, business, legal and other factors that led to their incredible rise to billions of postcards produced a year in Germany alone by 1900 – a veritable monsoon of images. I wanted to find a way to bring what I found so interesting about this media to a wider audience, and it seemed like a book would be the best vehicle. Postcards were and are meant for mass consumption, so they should be able to provide an avenue to the past that is communicable today.
This is what led to my second book, Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj (Mapin/Alkazi Foundation for Photography, Ahmedabad/Delhi, August 2018) and the first ever large exhibition of Indian postcards at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, due to open in Delhi October 18th and Goa in December. I am also planning on releasing a few thousand restored Raj postcards into the public domain. Having just returned from the exhibition launch and book tour in India (and preparing for the US and UK launches), it has been so rewarding to see how much people today engage with these cards, how many young Mumbaikars whip out their phones to take pictures of them at the exhibition. My favorite moment may have been when a young girl came up to me in Chennai and asked how she too could start collecting postcards.
You can find more at https://www.paperjewels.org, including a video introduction here. The book is available on Amazon in India, the UK and US, and is coming to bookstores. The US public launch is on Nov. 17th at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Open to the public, you can RSVP here.
Omar Khan grew up in Vienna and Islamabad and is a graduate of Dartmouth College, Columbia and Stanford universities. He has researched early photography and ephemera of the subcontinent for thirty years and acquired a large collection of the early postcards featured here. Khan’s previous book is From Kashmir to Kabul: The Photographs of John Burke and William Baker 1860-1900 (Prestel/Gallimard/Mapin, 2002). He lives in San Francisco where he is CTO at Common Sense Media.