Four young dusky women clad in traditional white clothing pose in a garden. There’s a certain enigma in their eyes, a story best left to the interpretation of the receiver of this sepia-tinted postcard. Perhaps there’s a note at the back that has nothing to with the contents of the visual or perhaps it elaborates further upon the tiny smudged caption in red ink at the bottom that reads, ‘Nair females, Malabar.’
The women in the photographs belong to an Indian Hindu caste in Kerala called Nayar who are known for their matriarchal organisation of clan. It was published in the early 20th century by the Nicholas Bros, a well-established studio in Calicut (now Kozhikode), that produced some of the first commercial postcards in the region.
For many of us, postcards bring back a wave of nostalgia. A familial greeting of the holidays that we sent out to our loved ones, or a memory from a vacation that we sent back home — a practice that has almost disappeared with the wave of social media and technology. Historically though, the circulation of postcards went much beyond such conventions. They ‘helped establish networks of materiality, discourse, social relations, and visual tropes that worked as part of colonial cultures of circulation.’
In India, especially, the postcard business boomed after 1840, when the camera first went to the sale. Several studios were established mostly by European photographers in Madras (Chennai) and Bangalore. According to precise records of the British postal service, more than six billion postcards passed through its postal system between 1902 and 1910 making photographs widely accessible and affordable for the masses and not just the elite.
While many of us would think these postcards would have been lost in time, a digital archive, ‘Early Postcards From India’, with the Instagram handle ‘SOAS Postcards’ explores the postcard as a medium in India looking at its complex circulation networks, histories of the visuals and the insights it offers towards colonial India. From political processions to monuments, from portraits of people to imagery of brewing revolutions — the 479 charming amber-hued postcards featured in this archive each have an interesting story about the Indian sub-continent that is explored in the captions.
The archive is co-curated by Dr Stephen Hughes, a senior lecturer in Social Anthropology at SOAS and his supervisee Miss Emily Stevenson who delved into the social lives of colonial postcards in Bangalore for her post-graduate research and doctoral dissertation. Dr Hughes first started looking at old postcards as a visual tool for researching the colonial urban history of Chennai about 20 years ago. In his research on the history and culture of cinema theatres, transport and street life; postcards opened up new kinds of questions alongside the popular printed materials. When asking questions about early cinema audiences in India, postcards helped visualise who was on the streets and how they moved through the city.
Fascinated by the medium that is a combination of image, text and movement, the curators believe that it helps piece together stories about life in British Indian cities that further provides insights into the intersection between grander historical narratives and more personal, everyday histories.
“Unlike photographs from the period, postcard images are complicated by the captions they were inscribed with, whilst their postal stamps and addresses tell us about communication networks at the time. However, because they were not produced for government records, postcards also reflect the complex, blurred reality of urban life in British India than colonial discourses suggested,” states Dr Hughes.
From the bustle of Bombay’s Marine drive to a calming yet a dramatic photograph of the Madras Harbour that reads “will write a long letter next mail. Had to assist in taking stock today which I didn’t bargain for on mail day. Trust you are all well. Love Aggie” on the back; from a poised portrait of the Lilawati Munshi to dynamic portrait of Sarojini Naidu, both prominent political figures in British India — the postcards featured on the feed are from the personal collection of the co-curators.
“As supervisor and supervisee, we had talked of exhibiting both our collections. In the early decades of the 20th-century picture postcards were a new media craze that swept the globe with staggering popularity as an affordable, convenient and innovative form of social media. Despite this, for many years they were somewhat disregarded in histories of global media – considered nostalgic, cheap trivia that were not worthy of close attention. It is only in more recent academic works that they have been recognized as an incredible archival resource that provides a distinct lens on the colonial encounter, urban histories and media. We wanted to use an exhibition to extend this growing engagement with postcards to a wider audience,” states Dr Hughes.
The exhibition indeed became a reality and was held at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, from 12th of July until 23rd September 2018. The exhibit titled ‘From Madras to Bangalore: Picture Postcards as Urban History of Colonial India’ explored the close relationships between the cities of Madras (from Dr Hughes collection) and Bangalore (Miss Stevenson’s collection) between 1900 and the 1930s.
It was this exhibition that further sparked the idea of having a living digital archive that allowed more scope of detail — delving into narrative histories, charting journeys through stamps, exploring the political and social significance of the imagery, tracing the networks of communication and so on. Thus, postcards as the social media of the past times are now being documented as a living collection on the social media of the current times — Instagram.
The main idea of using Instagram as a platform for the archive was to reach a wider audience in India. “Even though the postcards were very much a product of their time in British India, the historical legacies of the people and places in the cards live on in contemporary India. Moreover, it is also easier to engage with feedback. We get comments, direct messages and emails from people who have been moved by the images. Mostly these are family stories about grandparents or local history connections. We have met a community of postcard collectors from around the world and have been able to follow their work. It gives us a chance to take our research material beyond academic contexts in the wider and still uncharted world,” Dr Hughes states.
As most of the uncharted world, now seeps into isolation, this Instagram archive is a wonderful resource to delve into — to decode complex colonial histories or simply enjoy the pleasures of photographic narratives and visually experience an era in the Indian subcontinent.
If you would like to read a more detailed history of early postcards in India, please follow this link to the academic essay written by the co-curators on the same. To access the Instagram archive, click here.
Devyani Nighoskar studies Critical Media and Cultural Studies at SOAS.