In 2003, after spending six years in Mumbai, Ratnesh Mathur and his wife Sangeeta moved to the Czech Republic. Mathur, who was working with Citi Bank, had just been handed the job of setting up an IT company in Brno, a culturally rich city in the country’s east. Their apartment was in the historic centre, and serendipitously for the avid collectors, it faced a small antique store. The husband and wife began to spend hours riffling through the shop’s ageing treasures, finding a windfall one day. In the store was an assortment of picture postcards, some of which featured scenes from close to the Mathurs’ new home, and some the country they had left behind.

The couple was ecstatic with their finds: pre-1900 postcards sent home by Europeans living in India. Seeing their enthusiasm, the store owner invited them to a meeting of collectors, a Hobby Setkani, setting off a 15-year journey that took the couple across Europe in search of rare postcards.

Over the years the Mathurs collected over 4,500 picture postcards of India, 550 of which have now been curated into a coffee-table book titled Picturesque India: A Journey in Early Picture Postcards (1896-1947). The black and white and sepia-tinted photographs capture the gradual evolution of India’s cities and development of roads and transportation, instead of Indian people seen through colonial eyes. “In that sense, this is a visual record to help reverse the gaze,” said Mathur.

The highest viaduct on the Kalka Simla Railway. Postal usage: Simla (India) to Lincolnshire (UK), April 1909. Image courtesy: Sangeeta and Ratnesh Mathur.

“The picture postcards of India were almost entirely a product used by Europeans living in India, or foreigners travelling to India and sending these back to their families and friends,” said Mathur. “Of our collection of postcards from the 1896 to 1947 period, we have not found more than 25 which have been sent by Indians. Those that were used, were mostly by the Indian elite who were hobbyists exchanging pictures of India with pictures of other countries.”

Their collection boasts rare French-Indian postcards found in a shop in Marseilles and unique one discovered in Seville, Spain. In Lisbon, they found Portuguese Goan postcards. “Portuguese Goa was connected by steamers from Bombay and Calcutta, and the resulting increase in travel here increased the availability and popularity of Goa’s picture postcards, published by the Portuguese,” he writes in Picturesque India. Goan churches, the Marmagao port and other structures now considered the state’s architectural heritage – Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church and the Basilica of Bom Jesus – can be seen on these postcards published by a Christovam Fernandes.

Church of Panjim. Printer/Publisher: Souza & Paul Fotografos, Nova Goa. Image courtesy: Sangeeta and Ratnesh Mathur.

After their first visit to the Hobby Setkani, the couple started looking out for similar events and meetings. “Typically, such hobby collector meetings take place monthly on a Saturday morning in the food mess or canteen area of a college,” said Mathur. “Anyone interested in displaying, exchanging or selling [their] collection can pay a token Czk 30 [around Rs 92] and sit on the seller side of the table. Everyone else pays Czk 10 and is free to see, exchange or purchase any item on offer. Owners of antique shops and antiquarian bookshops owners tend to organise such meetings.”

The couple made use of several such monthly meetings across Czech, Slovak and Austrian cities as well as of annual philately country and world fairs in Bratislava, Prague and Vienna to expand their collection. They even took over the India stall at the World Philately Meet at Prague in 2008 after the designated Indian government contingent failed to get their visa on time.

View of Panjim harbour. Photographer/Artist: Souza & Paul Fotografos, Nova Goa. Image courtesy: Sangeeta and Ratnesh Mathur.

As useful as these meetings and fairs were, the Mathurs found that the real treasure troves were the antiquarian bookshops of Europe. “It’s obviously much better to look in cities which have an India trade or historical connection,” said Mathur. “Smaller English town shops were great, as were the shops in the Czech Republic, which has picture postcards sent by many Czechs who lived in India during World War II.”

A large part of their collection focuses on the development of railways and the modes of transportation in India. “The golden era of picture postcards – 1896 to 1918 – is a phase of Indian history when the first automobiles entered India and suitable paved roads connecting Indian cities were made by the [British] government,” said Mathur. “This is also the phase when the expansion of Railways went beyond the initial British need of port connections for export cargo and cantonment connections for weapons movement to the Afghan front…During the early 1900s, the various private British companies running Indian railways began to offer ‘India by Rail’ packages. Commerce drove this phase of travel advertising. The picture postcards were the best way to advertise the Indian Railways in Europe, by the Europeans living in Raj India. Such postcards of Indian Railways are a popular collection genre even today in the UK and tend to be expensive.”

Darjeeling Railway. Printer/Publisher: Clifton & Co, Bombay. Image courtesy: Sangeeta and Ratnesh Mathur.

While most large cities in the Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Austria, Germany, Hungary and Poland have had a tradition of hobby collector meetings, the tradition is slowly dying. “Most of the collectors we met were above the age of 70,” said Mathur. “The European millennial mostly has no interest in such hobbies.”

Velha Goa-India Portuguesa. Convent of Bom Jesus. Printer/Publisher: Edicao de Christovam Fernandes, Nova Goa. Postal usage: From Goa (India), 1936. (Image courtesy: Sangeeta and Ratnesh Mathur).

The couple’s ultimate plan is to create a brick-and-mortar museum of postcards in India. “Since 2005, we’ve oriented our collections to that one objective,” said Mathur. “We have been collecting with a purpose of creating a museum showing the history of India, through the evolution of its cities. We wish to use coins, stamps, postcards and similar material to highlight specific usage of such objects at different points in time, as we curate the evolution of a city.”

Title: Railway Station. Secunderabad Printer/Publisher: Printed in Saxony

They have already begun work on a digital museum – Prarang – which covers the four cities of Rampur, Meerut, Lucknow and Jaunpur. They are creating content every day, with photos and videos, about each city. “We plan to expand this to cover 300 Indian cities over the next two years, before we set up a technology-intensive [physical] museum near Delhi to house our various collections, in support of this city-museum objective. The bricks museum will attempt to offer its visitors a personalised experience of going through a virtual reality phase of any time period, of any of the 300 Indian cities.”