Over 20 years ago, Omar Khan chanced upon a postcard, ‘Women Baking Bread’, at a vintage show near San Francisco. He bought it because its meticulous artwork — two women crouched on the floor, makingchapatis, with acharpaileaning against the wall — stirred vivid memories of his grandmother’s place in Lahore. “It sent me on a journey of collecting postcards, which ran into the thousands. As my collection grew, I began to wonder how postcards emerged, how significant a medium it was, how artists got involved… and gradually it became a book,” he says.

Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj
gives readers a visual tour of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka through 500 vintage postcards (1892 to 1947). Through chapters dedicated to different regions — Delhi, Bombay, Ceylon, Lahore, and so on — it recreates an era when they were the world’s first “mass transfusion of colour images”. Khan — who travelled to London, Vienna and New York for his research, at the Royal Collection Trust at Windsor Castle, the Michael Stokes Collection at the Royal Geographic Society, the British Library (India Office Collections) and the Austrian National Library (early postcard publishing journals) — focusses on the work of several artists and studios of the time, including painter MV Dhurandhar, the Ravi Varma Press in Mumbai, and foreign lithographers and photographers who worked in the subcontinent.

Paper raconteurs

Postcards were the first ever social media, says the US-based author, who earlier wroteKashmir to Kabul(2202), the story of two Irish photographers in northern Punjab during the Raj. “It was kind of the Instagram of the time, where people shared images with each other. That’s something that made me reflect on its connection with the present day,” he says. Putting together the book was also challenging because, the world over, postcards do not command the kind of reverence that, say, stamps do.

“They were considered a disposable media and were not given the attention they deserve by museums and scholars, considering the kind of artwork that went into them or the stories they tell,” says Khan, who plans to start an Instagram page to coincide with
Paper Jewels
’ launch next month, where he will post a restored postcard each day.

The book takes the reader on an anecdotal journey, from the time when postcards were used primarily as advertising tools (like Singer’s postcards from 1892 or ‘Nestle’s Swiss Milk 20th Punjab Infantry’ that pushed the brand name with an image of the 20th Punjab Infantry), to an era when they became a mass mode of image-based conversations. “An example is ‘Tower of Silence’, that Austrian writer Stefan Zweig sent from Bombay to a Miss Hirschfeld in Vienna in 1908, with the handwritten message ‘where the Parsees put their dead + the vultures eat all the flesh off them…’,” says Khan, who also traces the evolution of the technology behind the art: lithographs to collotypes, half stones to photo postcards.

The search goes on

Along the way, the 59-year-old made several discoveries: like how Germans set up the Ravi Varma Press, and popularised the Travancore (present day Kerala) artist’s paintings through postcards. A number of postcards in the book (interestingly, he says, many were collected by women) are also revealing of the humour of the time, evident in one particularly amusing series called the ‘Coquettish Maid Servant’, which detailed what happens when a wife finds her husband ‘seduced’ by the maid.

“I am always searching for early examples of Rössler and Ravi Varma Press, or painted Brij Basi and Sons postcards, as well as any from the late 1890s that may have been produced in India or abroad,” says Khan, whose collection is now over 10,000-strong. Is another book in the offing? “I also collect magic lantern slides of the subcontinent, but I’m not yet sure if they lend themselves to a book,” he concludes.

Published by Mapin Publishing
, Paper Jewels (
Rs. 3,500) will be out in August.

After I bought the Rössler ‘Greetings from India 1897’ postcard (fig 12, preface in the book), it got lost in the post. I found it after 10 years

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