“Dear friend. May God’s protection be with you. This Eid card is the proof that despite being far away your memory is still alive in my heart. On this auspicious day, I pray from my heart for your happiness and prosperity.”
Urdu message at the back of an Eid card printed by IPC Co. Bombay, circa 1940
In the 1970s and 1980s, a few days before the festivals of Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Zuha, I regularly visited the Urdu bazaar opposite Jama Masjid in old Delhi with my parents to buy visually attractive Eid cards, then wrote short messages of greetings and salutations for friends and relatives residing in other towns, and dropped these into the nearby post box. And true to expectation, within a couple of days the postman would start bringing a rich and colourful harvest of Eid cards from the other end as well. But over the years this traffic of greetings has slowly dwindled to hardly any cards being sent out by many families any more. In this age of email, SMS and online social networking when sending handwritten messages by post has become a rarity, it would be worthwhile to revisit the early days of Eid cards in South Asia, especially to see how they emerged as popular vehicles of iconography across cultures via the postal networks. While Eid greeting cards have existed in most Muslim societies, this essay looks at some unique South Asian examples obtained from the archives of collectors such as Priya Paul, Reena Mohan, Omar Khan and others, including my own (Fig. 01).
A few words on the sources of vintage Eid cards
To put these images in a historical and geographical context, one could first try to explore the origins of most such Eid cards in these collections. The early examples of Eid cards (and other posted letters/cards in the Priya Paul and other collections) reveal that there was heavy postal traffic between Delhi, Lahore and Bombay (besides other towns like Lucknow, Karachi, Calcutta, Rangoon, etc.) in the 1930s and 1940s, comprising business letters, picture postcards and personal communication. While most material in Priya Paul’s collection dates back to early 20th century, Priya herself is a relatively young collector, having started her acquisitions of popular art in the early 1990s. Since much of the material (postcards, stamps, labels and posters) during the digitisation in 2008 was found already grouped in folders, bundles or stacks as if these were meticulously preserved during their time of production/circulation by different collectors, one assumes that Priya mostly acquired the already curated “collections” from art dealers and other sources rather than collecting individual items. This is similarly the case with Delhi’s Reena Mohan who purchased a chunk of these postcards from a “dealer” in Mumbai. While their sources are spread all over India,1 a larger chunk comes from old parts of towns like Delhi and Mumbai via some dedicated dealers who scout at the street level, going from house to house. I tried meeting some of these art dealers in old Delhi in order to assess where the material might have originated.
We know that the partition of British India in August 1947 is a major event in the recent history of Delhi, leading to a large-scale migration of people to and from the capital city, most of it in violent and hurried manner. In the incidents of arson and looting that accompanied Partition, several homes and shops were damaged or burnt, and people’s belongings and merchandise lost. The newly arriving migrants decided to sell furniture, valuables, and other ephemera they found or looted from the homes of the evacuees, and brought some to Delhi’s localities such as the back of Red Fort, Daryaganj, Karol Bagh and Lajpat Nagar, at least one of which later came to be known as kabadi (junk) market or chor bazaar. Since Delhi had seen better days of erudite culture and arts during the Mughal and early British period, the volume and quality of such ephemera was so enormous that the junk dealers made fortunes in selling and buying it – a lot of it was resold by the collectors until recently.
Partition evacuee property also comprised printed material and images, especially posted envelopes, periodicals, advertisements, pamphlets and packing material etc., most of which might have been destroyed as waste material. It is only recently that such popular ephemera (that is not considered “antique” art) is becoming valuable with the collectors. According to one dealer, one could not have imagined that this kind of printed material would also fetch money one day. But obviously, not everything in Delhi’s junk market is Partition evacuee property – things come into the junk market even today. Delhi’s dealers visit even nearby towns such as Meerut, Saharanpur, Moradabad, Aligarh, and others to find material in old houses (some of Priya Paul’s material has been collected from such towns). Similarly, Omar Khan’s Imagesofasia.com (one of the sources of early Eid cards for this essay) depends somewhat on pre-1947 family collections in Lahore, featuring Eid cards sent from Bombay or even from Lahore to foreign destinations. Since the website focuses on postcards of many Asian countries, the richness of its collection suggests that colonial towns like Lahore, Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta were the hubs of postcards publication and much postal traffic between Asian cities. Hence the early Eid cards and related postal documents in this essay should be seen in the context of their production and flow between these towns.
1 According to Priya, she has been picking up popular ephemera from all kinds of “antique” shops she visits in towns like Baroda, Mumbai, Kolkata and so on, despite her busy schedule.