In 1903, seven years into a prolonged epidemic of bubonic plague in Bombay, Harry Soundy went around the city to photograph patients. To curb the spread of the disease, the British government was holding inoculation drives and attempted to quarantine patients in isolation camps. None of this was very effective. Already, more than 100,000 people had died and thousands had fled the city.
But Soundy aimed to show otherwise. He was the owner of Clifton and Co., a prominent publisher of postcards and his images attempted to convince the world that the situation was well in hand. They depicted neat, airy hospital wards and Bombay residents being vaccinated by European doctors. The reality, it turns out, was a little different. The plague continued to claim victims for over a decade after that.
A glimpse of that time can be had in researcher Omar Khan’ Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj, a handsomely mounted new book that includes four plague photos among the 519 images it features. All the images are from Khan’s collection. “Part of the idea was to represent to the outside world that the British were getting it under control with inoculation camps and that it wasn’t so bad,” explained Khan. “The postcards sort of became tools of propaganda to show that the authorities were doing everything they could, and to encourage people to still come and visit India because obviously merchants and visitors were particularly worried about Bombay, it being a port city.”
One postcard in the book features a segregation camp. In the middle of the frame is a child with a bloated stomach. Next to him are some well-dressed British people. Their presence, says Khan, indicates the photo was staged. It was sent out in 1906 by a man named AE Huard to an acquaintance in England. “Bombay was a trading city; knowledge of the plague would hurt trade,” Huard wrote. “The representation that all was well was critical.”
The postcards give no indication of what the Indians felt about the treatment regimen devised by the British. As the historian Prashant Kidambi notes in his book The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890-1920, officials would forcibly enter homes to inspect them and anyone with symptoms was quarantined. Several homes that were deemed unsanitary were demolished. It was, Kidambi writes, “a military-style operation” and caused significant discontent.
In one of the postcards, which does not bear postmark or an address, the sender wrote: “This is how these devils are taken care of when they have plague and as soon as they are well, they abuse the doctors and say they tried to kill them. The pity is, that they don’t let them die.” This particular message was written at the back of a postcard showing a clean dormitory-like setup with patients occupying every single bed.
It’s stories like this that drew Khan to begin his collection 20 years ago. He says that they are a window to world history. As he writes in the introduction of his book: “Postcards are the first and only mass-scale colour views made by people a century ago.”
Rahaab Allana of the Alkazi Collection of Photography, which has co-published Paper Jewels with Mapin, noted that postcards bring to light the kind of international tourism that was developing in the late 19th century. “The word globe-trotting itself was invented then,” he said. “The development of the postcard has something to do with not just the aesthetic of its times but also kind of photojournalism that was becoming quite widespread.”
Khan, who has collected more than 10,000 postcards, believes they are a “product of their times” with many complex meanings and interpretations. “For example, postcards were used by the Japanese to celebrate their war victory against Russia in 1905,” he said. “They were also used by local Indian printers as a way of stirring nationalistic emotions during the fight for independence.”
Paper Jewels, organised geographically, contains picture postcards from Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Jaipur, Sri Lanka and even the North West Frontier Province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The early postcards mostly exoticised India, focussing on its temples, yogis and costumes, all foreign to the English. Amidst these, the ones from Clifton and Co. stand out for their depiction of a turbulent time in India.
Postcards, Khan says, are a fascinating amalgamation of commerce and art with artists and photographers capturing a time in India like no other source. “Sure, the Bombay plague postcards were propaganda in a certain way, but more importantly, they were a reflection of history and the events at the time and are valuable for that reason,” he said.
Images from Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj will be on display at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum until October 1.