Postcards from colonial Calcutta
Editor’s note: This essay traces the colourful history of postcards that captured and delivered an ‘exotic’ India for family and friends back in the home country. It was first published on The Heritage Lab—a wonderful resource of stories on cultural heritage, art, museums and lots more. You can find other wonderful essays on art and culture over at their website.
Written by: Sujaan Mukherjee. He is a researcher, writer and translator based in Kolkata. He is currently a Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. This is a text version of his talk written by Aadrit Banerjee who is pursuing a graduate degree in English from Delhi University.
The intense fascination with cities during the 18th and 19th centuries, was a result of the colonial knowledge production that was closely linked to the exercise of imperialism. The city (of Calcutta) remained at the heart of new visual culture & technologies that emerged through the 19th century—including panoramas, photography and stereoscopic views
Unlike the immersive experience of the panorama, and stereoscopic views, the postcard provided no transportive experience but appealed rather to the desire to possess a piece of the world without needing to move beyond one’s living room. As such, postcards shared a curious relationship with other mediums of image production, namely painting and photography.
Calcutta in the “Greetings from…” postcard
The ‘Greetings-from’ postcard, through their direct association with the place from where they were typically posted, played an important role in launching the postcard industry.
These postcards, as their name suggests, included the name of the place from where they were being sent. An example of this type is the Roessler series.
W Roessler was a photographer based in Calcutta in the late 1890s. The Roessler series, printed in Austria, are the earliest known postcards featuring images of Calcutta. The word Calcutta featured prominently in these lithographic prints.
A typical Roessler series postcard had a collage of four panels showing the city: a Hindu deity (such as Kali, Durga, Ganesh), a colonial architectural site (such as the HIgh Court or Raj Bhavan), an ethnographic portrayal of Indian professions (like the ayyahs), and/or sacred sites such as the Kalighat Temple, Burning Ghat, or the Eden Gardens Pagoda.
These visuals had an inherently orientalist and voyeuristic gaze. The cards from the 1890s contained the images and space for the message on the same side. However, as concerns about the privacy and censorship of messages emerged, this format underwent a change. Post offices declined to deliver a postcard that featured “obscenities or libelous” remarks.
Moreover, with improvements in image production techniques, the visual component gained the center stage. Consequently, in 1902, the format of postcards changed with the back side of the card accommodating both the address and the written message with the front side containing only the image. This was the divided postcard.
Postcards featuring photographs of Calcutta
In the last decades of the 19th Century, photographs became a popular tourist memorabilia. Some photographs started appearing on postcards with “brief descriptions of their locations”.
Take a look at the three postcards (all produced by Raphael Tuck and Sons, London) that show,
The Clive Street:
The Old Courthouse Street of Calcutta:
And the Shibpur Botanical Gardens:
Also predictable was the geographical bias in their representation of the city, as the images predominantly focused on the main stretches of the European quarters occasionally representing exotic and voyeuristic views of Indian rituals and public gatherings like the Burning Ghat.
Calcutta in Oilette Postcards
1903 marked a major turning point, as Raphael Tuck & Sons, one of the biggest and most popular postcard publishers, introduced their famous oilette series.
Postcards from this series resembled “veritable miniature oil paintings that were often reproductions of photographs already in circulation”. The company trademark traditionally featured at the back where the stamp was pasted. The absence of archives means it is difficult if not impossible to trace these artists.
Art Historian Saloni Mathur posits that by the end of 19th Century, ‘illustration’ had become an acceptable profession for women. Many women professionally took up book designing, calendar making, greeting-card illustration and similar work.
So in the history of postcards too, it is likely that ‘anonymous’ was a woman.
This is an oilette version of the Clive Street photo postcard, and at the bottom right corner, you can see the word oilette—this is a classic example of how the method transcends every other feature/detail of the artwork.
At the back is an inscription indicating that it is a part of Tuck’s Wide-Wide-World series, with an identifying serial number (for the benefit of the buyer, seller and collector). Almost all oilettes come with captions that forwarded colonial narratives that gained prominence during Lord Curzon’s tenure as Viceroy.
The reverse side of the Clive Street Oilette postcard, for instance, invokes Clive’s name referring to the history of the “Black Hole”. Due to its size, and visible brush strokes, the oilette version of the Old Courthouse Street postcard gives it an impressionistic look.
On the other hand, the creative palette of the Botanical Garden oilette, reveals the stark difference between painting and photography—as the artist, not restrained by the specificities of the cityscape, takes liberties and experiments with form and colour.
Calcutta through the eyes of Frank Scallan
A notable exception among postcards featuring colonial Calcutta cityscapes are the ones based on the paintings by Frank Clinger Scallan.
Scallan, worked with the Survey of India for 40 years, after having studied at Calcutta Boys School. His series of illustrated postcards, published by Thacker Spink & Co., remain among the few to be identified by the artists’ name.
What sets them apart I feel is how Scallan’s paintings convey a much more personal relationship with the city.
Look at the painting of Pagoda at the Eden Gardens. At once, you see the dramatic sky, the reflections on the lake, the trees behind, etc., beside the central building. But look at the oilette by TuckDB and you see how it prioritizes the building.
You can notice a similar trope in Scallan’s depiction of Calcutta’s Jain Temple, and Tuck’s oilette of the same. While the latter is picturesque, the former conveys life and spontaneity. Scallan could add details to the painting that are absent in the oilette versions, because he didn’t have to rely on photographs.
Let’s take a look at a remarkable postcard by Scallan featuring the General Post Office against an orange, and gray monsoon sky.
The viewer’s perspective is positioned at the natural height of someone walking alongside the people in the frame. Second, notice the magnificent dome (designed by Walter B. Granville), against the orange sky and the street lights under it—suggesting that it is getting dark.
Now look at the oilette—it is not as lively and you instantly understand the intended focus on the colonial architecture of the GPO! On the reverse, you find the history of the Black Hole monument reiterated.
Postcards featuring the people of Calcutta
The ethnographic postcards form a separate genre from those representing cityscapes. This genre has a long history that goes back to the Deccan travels of Niccolao Manucci during the 18th Century. The East and West Series by George Darby, depict characters from the Orient and the Occident side by side with a distinct sense of humour.
Darby and Scallon, the two contemporaries, shared a grounded perception of the city and its figures, both human and non-human.
The Indian painter MV Dhurandhar’s postcard ‘Bengalee Babu’ is another fascinating example of the ethnographic postcard that was a collector’s delight.
Calcutta in Postcards after the 20th century
The 1930s witnessed a decline of the ‘golden age of postcards’ owing to changing trends in media, and parallel socio-political factors. However, artists in Bengal, particularly those at Jorasanko’s Bichitra House, such as Nandalal Bose, Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore reimagined the postcard as the “site of everyday creativity and community fostering.” Nandalal in particular sent out postcards, hand drawn, and handwritten, to his acquaintances at an impressive rate.
During the mid-20th Century, David Mordecai’s postcards, calendars, prints stand out as highly imaginative and well-produced curation of the cityscape.
In the later half of the same century, some postcards depicting the modernist architecture of central Calcutta buildings also appear, but they are marked by a sense of boredom and flatness of detail.
Post liberalization, with the exception of artists like Samir Biswas, much of tourism memorabilia has turned to mere fetishisation of certain stock symbols of the city like hand pulled rickshaws, yellow taxis, etc., evoking a sense of nostalgia.
Today, postcards remain an enigmatic form of communication, a medium that at once evokes a sense of nostalgia and heritage. In documenting the Calcutta cityscape, the postcards become documents of historical importance providing us a critical point of view of the city’s evolution.