Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Eid Mubarak:
Cross-cultural Image Exchange in Muslim South Asia

Postcard templates from Europe

As in Europe and America, the production and use of picture postcards spread like fire as soon as it was introduced in India at the end of 19th century. Besides many European publishers such as Raphael Tuck & Sons (Lahore, Calcutta), A.W. Plate & Co. (Cylone), Clifton & Co. (Bombay), and K.C. Marrott (Karachi, Quetta), several Indian companies like H.A. Mirza (Delhi), Gobindram Oodeyram (Jaipur), Rewachand Motumal & Sons (Karachi), Melaram (Peshawar), and Johny Stores (Karachi) began printing picture postcards. But as has been shown by earlier studies,10 most early postcards depicted Indian subjects for the European consumer and were hardly used by Indians themselves. They also nurtured and projected Indian sites such as the hill stations on European models as has been shown by Shashwati Talukdar.11 Even the most prolific Indian producer of postcards, Mirza and Sons, published hundreds of views of famous Indian cities and monuments on the lines of Raphael Tuck, that were used by British officers posted in different Indian towns or military cantonments.

An interesting aspect of these documents is the zigzag flow of images across the world during their production and use. A photograph is taken on location in India, its postcard designed in a city like Delhi, Bombay or Karachi, sent for printing to Germany (in most cases), shipped back and sold in India, and then sent by a British officer to his family back in England. (And now some of these vintage cards are being purchased by collectors back in India, as with Priya Paul! Many are also being sold by collectors in UK and USA via websites like ebay.com.) Such a journey of the image is not specific only to Indian views; most picture cards depicting colonial subjects might have followed such meandering paths.12 It would be fascinating to study what happens to an image of “the West” when it arrives in a place like India via/for a postcard.

Fig.06

Fig.07

Some illustrated postcards were definitely produced for use by Indians. The Priya Paul collection has a few postcards (using coloured card paper) with Indian or Hindu iconography, postmarked around 1904, and printed by companies in Bombay and Calcutta. Many feature a block-print illustration only on the left-half of the address side, leaving the reverse side blank for the message (Fig. 06). The blank side is usually choked with text, often in cursive Devanagri or Gujarati, the small image simply having religious importance. Does it mean that most Indians were keen to use a postcard primarily for writing a letter, its illustration being secondary, unlike many European users for whom the purpose of sending a picture postcard was to showcase or cherish the image of the location? Almost no Indian user refers to the accompanied image in his/her letter, whereas many European postcard senders make it a point to describe what image they are sending, often hoping the postcard would be a valuable addition to the addressee’s collection.13 But it is possible that for Indian users the local images or Hindu iconography on postcards were of little significance, and the new images of or from Europe might have excited them more. Hence, in the case of some early Eid cards, the use of visuals takes us into a completely unexpected domain of image translocation. The Priya Paul collection has several used and unused Eid cards, mostly published in 1930-40s in Lahore, that feature culturally alien images imported from Europe, stamped with messages of Eid greetings in Urdu (Fig. 07)!

It seems that such Eid cards have been created from blank picture cards imported in bulk from Europe. They feature photographs of locations and objects as alien to Indian Eid as Greek and Italian sculptures and monuments (Figs. 08-09), besides European cinema and theatre stars of the time! The fact that many of them depict snow-clad European winter with alpine trees suggests that they were meant to be used for Christmas.14 But a simple stamping of Urdu/Arabic phrases Eid mubarak or Assalamu-aleikum (salutation) on such a landscape, along with poetic messages at the back, made them suitable as a novelty for local Eid celebration. Most of these refurbished Eid cards are (re)produced by publishers such as Hafiz Qamruddin & Sons, H.Ghulam Mohammad & Sons, and Mohammad Hussain & Bros, all running their business from the famous Mochi gate area of Lahore’s walled city, a sort of a cultural district not only for the artists and book publishers but also for music and food until today.

Fig.08
Fig.09

It is difficult to say if such images were especially chosen and ordered for Eid greetings or if the publisher had no choice but to use them as inexpensive raw medium. The former seems more probable, since similar trends of recycling imported raw materials in popular art have continued in South Asia. In today’s Pakistan, the blank back side of large posters (of various qualities) imported in bulk from Europe or China are still used to print new Islamic posters. In fact, many Pakistani Sufi posters freely make pastiches by joining cut-outs from different western and Indian printed images.15 But the aim of using postcard templates in 1930s might have been to create a trend of Eid greeting cards on the lines of Christmas cards. Many Lahore publishers refer to themselves as specializing in the printing and distribution of Eid cards, suggesting that their business was thriving. However, it is intriguing that the Priya Paul collection as well the others I have looked at so far do not have early greeting cards for any other Indian festivals, not even Divali, which ideally should have generated a great deal of greeting merchandise. I am not aware if any localised greeting cards were being produced for instance in south India in early 20th century. Of course, there is no dearth of the appropriation or recycling of European iconography for Hindu devotional images in early poster and calendar art.

Fig.10

The European images on these Eid cards are not always utterly out of context. In fact the printed Urdu messages on the address side often try to bridge the gap, especially by using romantic idioms when showing the picture of famous European actresses or dancers. (The gallery of this essay, in most cases, features both sides of the cards, especially to show how the accompanied text relates to the image.) For instance in one card, a poetic reference for Eid greetings between 'ashiq (lover) and ma'shuq (beloved) is made for a photograph of an unidentified European dancer/actress (Fig. 10). Similarly, an Urdu couplet for a portrait of a smiling young Caucasian woman in figure 11 starts with the line “When I saw (her) eyebrows, I could imagine the Eid crescent…” Since the exact date of Eid is always decided on the sighting of the new moon (first day of the Islamic/lunar month Shawwal), the appearance of the crescent is often romantically compared with a gaze of the beloved or a woman in Eid-related poetry. The word Eid has typically been rhymed in Urdu and Persian poetry with deed (दीद, دید), meaning sighting or gaze. Thus, besides the family and friendly greetings, Eid was/is also the time for romantic expressions between two lovers, often symbolised by two loving doves such as in figure 12.

Fig.11
Fig.12

10 Patterson, Steven, Postcards from the Raj, Patterns of Prejudice, Volume 40, Number 2, Routledge, May 2006, 142-158; also see Saloni Mathur, 1999.

11 Talukdar, Shashwati, Picturing Mountains as Hills: Hill Station Postcards and the Tales They Tell, Tasveer Ghar, http://tasveerghar.net/cmsdesk/essay/102/

12 Wehbe, Rana, Seeing Beirut through Colonial Postcards: A Charged Reality, (undated) American University of Beirut, Lebanon, http://webfea.fea.aub.edu.lb/proceedings/2004/SRC-ArD-01.pdf

13 In late 19th and early 20th century Europe and America, collecting picture postcards was a popular hobby called deltiology, with several clubs, associations and magazine devoted to it.

14 Eid dates change each year according to the Islamic calendar, and in 1926-30s Eid coincided with the Christmas season. Thus the business of Christmas greeting cards might have inspired the use of Eid cards, especially in Lahore and Bombay.

15 Saeed, Yousuf, Muslim Devotional Art in India, New Delhi: Routledge, 2012.

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