Kashmiri houseboats drift against a multi-coloured mountain vista, carrying passengers in bathing suits. A Lama dance is in progress in Darjeeling. At Calcutta Zoo, an adult hippopotamus yawns next to a half-submerged youngling. A narrow, bustling market lane of Shimla winds up to a tightly packed block of buildings.

Nowadays, one frequently stumbles upon these striking vintage prints at online art stores aimed at enthusiasts of retro travel and visual culture. But a century before they became home decoration, these picturesque scenes of the subcontinent, presented as emblematic of their locales and peoples, constituted the most popular forms of 20th-century tourism advertisement – the sarkari travel poster.

Colonial predecessors of contemporary campaigns such as “Incredible India”, the “See India”, “Visit India” and related poster series were produced by state-owned railways and displayed at ports and stations within the country and around the world. The visual publicity drive, spanning the period from the mid-1920s to the early 1940s, yielded depictions of tourist destinations in styles embodying the zenith of interwar graphic design, by well-known and accomplished commercial artists from Britain and India. At the same time, these posters became a fleeting but intense locus of contention between British and native members of the Imperial Legislative Council, reflecting growing anticolonial sentiment and nationalist confidence.

What was the story behind the emergence of these posters? Who were the artists creating them? What did the iconographies represent? And why did they become subjects of heated interrogations in the colonial legislature?

A Lama Dance. Credit: Boston Public Library/Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0].

Before we delve into these questions around the artwork, let us first get a sense of the patron organisation: the Indian State Railways. In his book Railways and the Raj: How the Age of Steam Transformed India, journalist and historian Christian Wolmar characterises the establishment of eight railway companies in India by British administrators and contractors in the latter half of the 19th century as a “modern and successful…Public-Private Partnership”. The government provided the land and routes, the franchisee companies built and operated the infrastructure, and the funding was furnished by the taxpayers of Britain and – at high fiscal risk and low return on investment – India. By the early 1900s, the Indian public had soured on the private partners, based in the UK and profiting off them. They supported nationalising the railways which, in Wolmar’s words, “would enable more investment and greater control, and fewer remittances to British shareholders”. To this end, in 1921, the Acworth Committee recommended that the railways’ ownership be taken over by the state, its operations be centralised and its budget be made autonomous.

The recommendations of the committee were adopted and in 1925, two of the most profitable private lines, the East India Railway and the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, came under the direct administration of the British Indian government. This responsibility included, naturally, the onus of continuing to generate revenue, which meant developing or sustaining existing modes of attracting passengers. As the Report by the Railway Board on Indian Railways for 1925-’26 asserts, chief among these was exploring the “immense possibilities of publicity as a means of encouraging traffic”: posters, handbills, pamphlets, brochures, postcards, dioramas, a magazine and even travelling “cinematograph cars” screening educational films, for example.

Hyderabad. Credit: Boston Public Library/Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0].

Reciprocal displays

Within the pages of official Railway Board reports from the 1920s to the 1940s can be found more specific information about the Indian railways’ publicity machinery. In 1927, the Railway Board established a Central Publicity Bureau at Bombay, headed by a Chief Publicity Officer. Among the salient activities of this bureau was the production and exhibition of a “large number of posters by leading artists…in India and in the principal countries of the world focussing attention on the attractions which India has to offer travellers and tourists”.

These attractions comprised places of historical, cultural and recreational interest. In the Railway Board report for 1932-’33, there is a representative spread of publicity posters featuring Banaras, Burma, Kashmir, Mysore, Rajputana, Trichinopoly and Madurai, while in the report from 1938-’39 appear Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque, Gwalior Fort, among other sites.

The posters also find mention in the records of both houses of the Imperial Legislative Council (the lower Legislative Assembly and upper Council of State) in the context of discussions on railway budgets. This makes the legislative record from the late 1920s to the early 1940s an art historical archive, a source of the names of many of the artists along with some of the posters they designed titled by place, as well as the amounts these individuals were paid.

Bodh Gaya. Credit: Boston Public Library/Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0].

There are some well-known graphic artists of the day listed in a Legislative Assembly Debates report from 1931 – Fred Taylor, Frank Newbould, Roger Broders, Tom Purvis, Kathleen ‘Kay’ Nixon, Dorothy Newsome, Leonard Cusden, HG Gawthorn, Victor Veevers, WS Bagdatopoulos and Gerald T Tait (all of whom, except the Frenchman Broders, were British). In some cases, the reports help match artist to poster, or at least narrow down potential correspondences. For instance, the Calcutta Zoo poster mentioned earlier was designed by Kay Nixon and the Darjeeling one most likely by Victor Veevers (confirmed by the signature).

Since sarkari presses of the time were not capable of high-quality colour production, the publication of posters was outsourced by the publicity department to private companies and printing presses, such as the Times of India press in Bombay. Finally, once printed, the posters were advertised through a system of “reciprocal displays” at major stations in Europe, Africa, America, Japan and Australia, important trade centres, at post and telegraph offices in India and via sandwich board parades. To continue bringing India to the world and thus the world to the Indian railways, two offices of the Central Publicity Bureau were opened in London and two in New York between 1925 and 1930. The Railway Board report from 1928-’29 states, “Posters were distributed and reciprocal arrangements entered into with the English railways for the display of posters. Attractive window displays were arranged in both the Haymarket and India House bureaux.” Similarly, in response to growing interest from Americans who wanted to tour India, window displays were mounted “in leading shops and tourist agencies in New York and other cities,” according to the report of 1930-’31.

Kashmir. Credit: Boston Public Library/Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0].

Foreign gaze

In terms of iconography, these travel posters were an interpretation of India orientated to foreign gazes, informed by modernist movements and trends sweeping the Euro-American world. As a form, the travel poster had, by the 1920s, attained peak maturity and popularity in Europe, North America and the United Kingdom. This acme of the travel poster, the period between the World Wars before photography took over, was also arguably the high point of what is referred to as the Golden Age of Travel, when technologically and aesthetically sophisticated means of intra- and inter-national transport facilitated mass tourism and luxe holidays to far-off destinations.

A summary of this history appears in the textbook A History of Graphic Design by artist Guity Novin, who writes, “... advances in transportation of the early 20th century…reduced the cost of travel, railroads, ocean liners and airplanes, promoted the idea of pleasurable and luxurious travel, offering people the freedom to explore the world…The tourism and hospitality industry…used travel posters to graphically create an image of themselves to the public. Many [g]raphic designers used the recently developed lithographic printing process to create stunning works of art that ranged in style from art nouveau to mid-century modern.”

Chattar Manzil, Lucknow. Credit: Boston Public Library/Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0].

The Indian State Railways posters speak to the art movements influencing the West during the early 20th century. An emphasis on the formal geometries of ornate architectures and scapes, stylised figuration, colour blocking and a dialogue between flatness and bold lines dominate the vocabulary of the posters. There is at play an abstracting of the exotic, vibrant and ‘premodern’ Orient into consumable imagery meant to draw viewers and travellers to its shores. Relevantly, in Britain, the London Underground posters of the 1920s and 1930s, under the guidance of London Transport’s publicity officer Frank Pick, became instrumental in making the modernist style and spirit infusing the fine arts available to mass culture. According to the London Transport Museum’s website, “The styles…are striking, bold, geometric and abstract. Many artists drew inspiration from avant-garde art movements such as Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism. Their use of such styles introduced elements of modern art to a much wider public than would be possible for a contemporary gallery.”

Aside from iconographic simplification of complex, colonised territories, modernism’s other offence was its inextricable entanglement with imperialism. Eskilson reports the founding of the bluntly-named Empire Marketing Board “to persuade its citizens to do business with British colonies”, thereby increasing the export revenue of the metropolis. The Empire Marketing Board’s publicity division included London Transport’s abstractionist champion Pick, who commissioned hundreds of lithographic posters between 1927 and 1933. There was, thus, an overlap between the artists who contributed to London Transport and British railway companies, and the Indian State Railways. For example, a Times of India report from September 16, 1924 names the aforementioned HG Gawthorn, Fred Taylor and Frank Newbould among a “galaxy of fine artists [who]...painted beautiful posters for the L.N.E.R. [London North Eastern Railway]”.

A Street by Moonlight. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Indian representation

The hegemony of British artists had both ideological and material connotations in the running of the Indian State Railway operations. Only three Indian artists seem to have made it to the official chronicle – Gauri Shanker, P Samadar and Kushal Mukherjee. Some other names, such as Sobha Singh (who made the Badshahi Mosque poster) and Phanij B Sanyal, were retrieved based on scrutiny of signatures on posters online. The lack of Indian representation among the artists was indicative of wider colonial injustice that engendered the swadeshi hostility aimed at arguably far more serious political matters. The issues taken up by Indian legislators in parliament regarding these railway posters included: racial discrimination in recruitment and imbursement, the excessive focus on foreign tourists, and the economics of publicity production being detrimental to the Indian taxpayer.

In a Council of State Debate report from 1931, there is one such intense disputation, taking place through a series of rhetorical questions. Bhuput Singh asked why the British artists were paid so much more than the Indians. “Will the Government be pleased to state for the information of the House,” Singh asked, “of the two designs of ‘Darjeeling’ obtained from two artists simultaneously, Mr. P. Samadar and Miss M.M. Heanley, why distinction as to rate was made, viz. Rs. 250 to Miss Heanley and only Rs. 100 to Mr. P. Samadar.” Earlier in the discussion, Singh had sarcastically enquired whether it was a fact that the extremely well-compensated Miss Heanley was “a mere school girl” who was related to a retired Railway employee and her poster deemed “worthless” by critics. Among the Indian artists he suggested the government hire instead were some of South Asia’s important modern artists, such as Abdur Rahman Chaghtai, Sarada Ukil, Asit Kumar Haldar, MV Dhurandhar (who had previously made pilgrimage posters for the Great Indian Peninsula Railway) and Mukul Dey, all of whom, he pointed out somewhat disbelievingly, had lost to the British artist Veevers in a Railway Poster Exhibition Shimla.

Credit: Boston Public Library/Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0].

Contracting travel posters out to artists who were not knowledgeable about the country was another concern, symbolic of the colonial ignorance vexing nationalists. Bhuput Singh asked why a poster for “Mullick Ghat” was issued, considering it was a foul-water pumping station of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation: “What was the underlying idea of issuing this poster?” he asked, exasperated. In another session from that year, Singh questioned the efficacy of having Indian railway publicity bureaux in London and New York and “buying the most ordinary sketches and drawings prepared by European artists at fancy prices”. To this, the Railway Board’s Financial Commissioner AAL Parsons responded that “if Indian artists were only to come forward with attractive designs they will certainly be considered…The real difficulty there…is the want of knowledge of this particular art.” The argument heated up as other Indian and British members joined the fray, siding with their respective comrades and defending their positions. While one Indian legislator critiqued the colonial Railway Board as “luxurious”, another wondered why Indian artists were not invited to earn these luxurious payments.

In their heyday, these widely-disseminated sarkari travel posters also found more contained viewership at industrial exhibitions and colonial fairs, including the Century of Progress Exhibition, Chicago, 1933 (or the Chicago World’s Fair). Another century later, with social media feeds allowing virtual tourism to any part of the world, they are often reduced to mere objects of cultural nostalgia, quaint and charming. Ignored is their narrative in terms of the history of modern advertisement and commercial art and design and its Orientalist undertones. Forgotten, too, are the racial politics of artistic labour they brought to the fore in fiery legislative sessions, bespeaking the contestation between imperialist ideologies and anticolonial ones that was gaining ground in 1930s India. Perhaps, in a sense, they epitomise the “absolute 20th century” – through their transportive magic, but also through what they sought to keep settled in the frame.