Paper Jewels review: Write to me...

Postcards were to the people in 1900 what the internet was to the world in 2000, says the opening line of the jacket of the coffee table book, Paper Jewels – Postcards from the Raj.

One is tempted to add the line — postcards were to the people in 1900 what social media is to the world today, particularly Instagram. Postcards did the job of connecting worlds then with post offices being an extremely important element in this communication process.

From a collection of 10,000 postcards, author Omar Khan has chosen a little over 500 to depict the story of postcards during the Raj covering India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar in his large-sized book. And many of these postcards are in colour, and some in black and white.

Picture postcards made their appearance in the 1890s primarily driven by the invention of photography, more liberal international postal regulations and printing technologies such as rapid press lithography, says Omar.

In those years, postcards were works of art. “Billions of postcards exchanged hands between 1898 and 1903,” Omar says in his introductory chapter. The chapters that follow offer geographical insight into the history of postcards of various places in the Indian subcontinent. So you have chapters such as Calcutta, Mumbai, Varanasi, Karachi, Kashmir, Ceylon, Delhi and Lahore to name a few of them, and each of these chapters include many postcards, some depicting street life, portraits of people, iconic buildings as well as humble dwellings.

As one turns the pages of the book, an entire period opens up before the eyes of the readers as the photographs and lithographs reveal the life and various aspects from the past. The book is not only a treasure house for the ones interested in history but also for those chronicling the changes in fashion, jewellery, modes of transport and life in general over the years as evident in the postcards showing portraits of people.

By 1900, Mumbai had become the centre of innovation in the subcontinent. Mumbai, according to Omar, offered just the cosmopolitan milieu the postcard needed to thrive. Among the first postcards printed in Mumbai was one showing a lithograph of General Post Office. Mumbai had the largest post office in India and each year tens of millions of postcards passed through the city of less than a million then, says Omar.

In Kashmir, the earliest postcard from around 1900 shows the “triumphant delivery” of mail. Other postcards from this chapter in the book are a veritable collection of images that are so distinctive to the place often referred to as Switzerland of India – houseboat, view at Soonamurg, rope bridges, mountain cottage, portraits of local women, street life from Srinagar and images of mountains.

Not all postcards depicted a happy life. Many of them today seem like photographic or lithographic evidence of events that occurred then, such as the segregation camp and wards in Plague Hospital during the outbreak of bubonic plague in Mumbai in 1896. Returning camps at Khyber Pass, gallows at Peshawar, street sweepers in Mumbai, the arrival of Prince and Princess of Wales in Mumbai in 1905 or the burning ghats at Varanasi were the kind of varying images that were depicted in postcards during that period.

In his final chapter on Independence, Omar chanced upon photographs while working on a yet unfinished documentary on Independence. Many of the postcards used in this chapter depict incidents that take the reader back in time to the period before Independence.

The book not only delves into the history of postcards in this region but also offers insight into publishers and painters.

Paper Jewels as a book is undoubtedly a page-turner. In its 360-odd pages lie an insight into history that is so beautifully researched and appropriately accompanied by relevant postcards that one can always go back time and again to refresh our memories about the bygone era.

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Paper Jewels review: Write to me...

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