Log / Art

Madras to Bangalore: Picture Postcards as Urban History of Colonial India

Scholar E. Dawson Varughese talks to Stephen Putnam Hughes and Emily Stevenson about their co-curated exhibition of postcards of Madras and Bangalore, showing at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London till late September 2018.

By E. Dawson Varughese on 16 August

  • Gallery Of Postcards  Photo By Joy Onyejiako

From Madras to Bangalore: Picture Postcards as Urban History of Colonial India is a guest exhibition co-curated by Stephen Putnam Hughes and Emily Stevenson of the Anthropology and Sociology Department at SOAS University of London. The exhibition and its related research, which is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), UK, showcases previously unseen, popular picture postcards which were in circulation from Madras and Bangalore in the early 1900s.

The project highlights the importance of cultural commodities as essential interlocutors of social history; indeed, a unique and powerful means of understanding and revising ideas of the colonial encounter in the first part of the 20th century.

  • Image 1

    The Municipal Office and Magistrate Courts, Bangalore; Published by Raphael Tuck & Sons, London.

  • Image 2

    Victoria Hall, Madras; Published by Raphael Tuck & Sons, London.

Design Fabric (DF): Stephen and Emily, I’d like to understand how you came to develop a project on ‘picture postcards of colonial India’.

Stephen & Emily (S & E): We have both been collecting picture postcards for many years as part of different research projects. Stephen began collecting postcards of Madras (present-day Chennai) about 20 years ago, using them as sources for the urban histories of early 20th century Madras. Emily began collecting postcards of Bangalore (present-day Bengaluru) around five years ago for her PhD on the social life of postcards, which is supervised by Stephen at SOAS, University of London. As supervisor and supervisee, we had first talked of putting on an exhibition of both our collections several years ago and after receiving funding from the ESRC we were able to do so.

In the early decades of the 20th century, picture postcards were a new craze in the media 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 the 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 recognised as an incredible archival resource that provide 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.

  • Image 4

St. Mark’s Church, Bangalore; Published by Spencer & Co. Ltd., Madras. The postcard was part of a collection of more than 100 postcards sent from Madras and Bangalore by the Brown family to the McDonald family in Edinburgh, Scotland.

DF: What’s the reason behind the two personal collections of postcards appearing together in the exhibition? Is there a shared visuality at play across the two collections?

S & E: Well, there has been a close relationship between the cities of Madras and Bangalore in the early 20th century, separated by only 346 kms and connected through administration, trade and migration networks as the two most important British Indian cities in the Madras Presidency. We realised that our two collections could tell an interesting story when presented together. There was a significant overlap in the networks of postcard production with companies working between cities making postcards of both cities. This no doubt helped to create a common visuality in the postcards from both cities.

However, the strongest similarities probably come from the shared conventions of the postcard genre. Picture postcards in the early 20th century were informed by earlier artistic and photographic styles. For example, picturesque landscape paintings were a strong influence on the composition of postcards depicting monuments and buildings. And by the 1920s, trends in urban art photography were an important reference for postcard photographers. The urban street scene was an important theme in the global postcard trade. The development of photographic technology in the latter part of the 19th century, including the move to dry gelatin plates, shorter exposure times and the development of smaller, lighter cameras, allowed for the greater mobility outside the confines of the studio. Postcards followed the emerging modernist trends in early 20th century painting and photography by exploring more ‘intimate’ and ‘quotidian’ representations of city streets.

DF: Could you talk me through the project’s archival work?

S & E: The majority of the archival work was based on our two private collections, which we have put together slowly over many years in flea markets, postcard collector fairs and more recently, online. These materials were collected by families for decades and as older relatives passed away, their families sold them off to dealers. They were not seen as items of high value and are in fact, easily available to purchase; these historical postcards have been primarily held as family memorabilia and were not collected as part of official archives. As mass-produced ephemera that moved across the globe, there are not comprehensive archival materials, catalogues or business records on postcard production and consumption. Still, many research libraries have been acquiring historical postcards more recently and these can now be found using this more traditional research practice. We consulted the British Library and several archives in Chennai and Bengaluru for supplemental information of postcard production in South India. And while there is still much more work to be done visiting such archives, it is important to stress that there is no archival location or research library that currently holds more than a small number of scattered picture postcards of the two cities.

  • Image 5

    Left: Mount Road, Madras; Published by Higginbotham & Co., Madras & Bangalore. Right: A Street Scene, Madras; Published by Wiele & Klein, Madras

DF: Any surprises or unanticipated finds that you encountered in this process?

S & E: Oh yes, we had several surprises in putting this exhibition together. The first was realising that more than 34 different companies were producing postcards in two relatively small geographic areas in Madras and Bangalore in the early 20th century – something that clearly speaks of the high market demand for postcards at the time. We were also surprised to find close connections between studios and photographers both within and between the two cities. t was common for a studio based in Bangalore to produce postcards of Madras (and vice versa).

Perhaps the most interesting thing we found was the significant role that Indian photographers and Indian-run studios played in the postcard industry. British Indian picture postcards are typically thought of as solely European representations but we found this to be a simplification that didn’t reflect the realities of photographic practice at the time. Not only did some European-run studios employ multiple Indian assistants but there were actually more Indian-run studios working in these two cities back then. For example, W.V. Eden in Ulsoor, Bangalore, produced a series of cards for Madras and R. Shaikahmed Saib & Co on Anderson Street, Madras, produced postcards of Bangalore. In addition to this, we also found several studios with branches in both cities. The biggest producers Higginbotham & Co. and Spencer & Co. with headquarters in Madras and major branch offices in Bangalore produced large number of postcards for both cities. There were plenty others as well, such as Del Tufo & Co. with studios in both cities, and one of the partners in a Madras-based studio called Wiele & Klein who set up an independent studio in Bangalore.

DF: What were the biggest challenges doing a project of this scale?

S & E: Collecting these postcards allowed us to get a reasonably comprehensive sense of the overall output of different postcards images and provide a basis for evaluating the change and continuity in themes and styles of cards for the two cities. It also provided us with a large enough sample size of postcards with written messages and postal information with dates and places to begin to discern the patterns and trends of how postcards were used as social media, circulated globally and provided commentary on Chennai and Bangalore. A close comparison of postcards was crucial to building a picture of the photographic studios and publishers, the range of images that were used, the types of messages people wrote, and the networks postcards travelled in, once posted.

The largest challenge was therefore the amount of time it took to piece together the fragments of information from each postcard, in order to build a clear picture of how the medium linked these two cities through representational styles and networks of production and consumption. We consulted over 1000 postcards and have felt overwhelmed many times at the scale of production and the number of different images for just these two cities.

  • Image 8

    An early 20th century postcard of unidentified Hindu tiger dancers and crowd; Published by D.P. Valu, Regimental Photographer, Baird Barracks, Bangalore

DF: What specific curatorial decisions did you make and why?

S & E: From the beginning, we wanted our display of these postcards to speak to their status as mass-produced, popular ephemera designed to travel, be inscribed and be placed in an album or pinned on a display board. Postcards were not objects of ‘high-art’ and we wanted to avoid turning them into so. So we decided not to put them in frames, crop out their rough edges or ‘tidy-up’ their images to remove marks of wear. We haven’t edited the images at all and have reprinted them onto foam board to convey a sense that they are three-dimensional objects.

DF: How does the visitor to the Brunei Gallery experience your exhibition?

S & E: As you enter the gallery, a ‘wave’ of postcards reproduced at original size leads you up the staircase to give a sense of the quantity that was produced. Once in the main gallery, we reproduced the postcards at 1.5 and 2x their original size so that visitors would be able to closely engage with the images, captions, postmarks and messages. Reproducing the postcards, instead of displaying the originals, also meant that we were able to display front and back together – it is easy to focus on the images of postcards but what makes them distinct from photographs is that they are a medium of communication.

We were also able to display an original picture postcard album in a glass case. The album contains 120 postcards and was compiled by the teenager May Reynolds in Birmingham, UK. The postcards date between 1912 to 1919 and all but a small number were written by her aunt Annie Reynolds, who moved to Madras in 1912 to join her husband Will Reynolds. We felt it was important to include this in the display to convey the materiality of postcards and the way that they would have been collected in the early 1900s. The album shows that postcards were treasured objects and offers a telling glimpse of how people curated their own collections and used postcards as a visual narrative of their own interests, aspirations and family activities.

DF: Are there any plans for these postcards to be shown in the respective cities of Chennai and Bengaluru?

S & E: That is exactly what we are hoping to do in the next step of this project; we are currently exploring further funding opportunities that would allow us to take the exhibition to Chennai and Bengaluru. This is very important to us, since the historical legacies of these historical materials very much belongs in contemporary south India. We hope that exhibitions in Chennai and Bengaluru will hopefully help us expand the scope of the project to allow for greater community collaboration. What we are particularly excited by is the prospect of engaging with people in the two cities and incorporating their responses to these postcards into the exhibition.

Follow the exhibition on Instagram at soaspostcard

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