The early Indian postcards were generally black and white photographs, cheaply reproduced for mass consumption. Later, hand-colored photographs made the medium even more popular. But in the late 1890s, when the artist M.V. Dhurandhar created a series of illustrations with the intention of publishing those as postcards, he introduced a new form. The main advantage of these illustrations was that he did not have to deal with the restrictions faced by photographers regarding light and space. In that sense, he had more freedom in shaping his images than photographers of the time.
M.V Dhurandhar’s postcards are interesting for one more reason : they show us how the artist negotiated between the identities of being a British-loyalist and a voice of resistance. While his drawings were in-line with colonial interests in terms of the choice of topics, they resisted the colonial meaning attributed to these topics. In doing so they created effective counterpoints to colonial discourses dominant among non- Indians.
If you chance upon a postcard by M.V Dhurandhar, here are 4 things to notice!
1. The design of the postcards
Dhurandhar’s early postcard designs were executed in gouache and in watercolor and were sent to Germany (known for its leading print-technology) to print as postcards. At the time, these were printed in two sizes: 12 x 8.7 cm and 14 x 9 cm; the former was known as the ‘court size’. Like other early postcards, each had an ‘undivided back’ for an address and postage on the ‘verso’ (back side); the ‘recto’ (front side) or the illustration side was for correspondence. Dhurandhar however, left little space on this side for a message. The whole idea was that his pictures should speak for themselves, without any written commentary beyond the brief captions. The latter, the oblong format, were evidently designed for postcard albums that went on to become a worldwide phenomenon.
In his paper ‘Picture Postcards by M.V. Dhurandhar: Scenes and Types of India—with a Difference, Visual Resources, 17:4, 401-416‘, Allan Life credits Dhurandhar’s education at the J.J School of Art, Bombay (where he was subsequently employed) and his networking with British artists for his deep understanding of the British ‘view’ of India. It is probably why Dhurandhar could give a twist to the colonial imagery that formed the subject of his illustrations. These postcards demonstrated how a ‘western’ technique could record South Asian realities.
As an Indian artist, he used the freedom of the postcard medium to draw colourful images which questioned colonial stereotypes. His use of illustrations (instead of photography) made it easier for him to picture Indians in their own surroundings.
2. A sympathetic view of the people
In his cards which portrayed the rural scenes, Dhurandhar used planar compositions to integrate man’s toil with the natural world. See how the objects in this postcard – the tree, bullock cart, and men are arranged in relation to each other? Dhurandhar’s thorough academic training is evident from his manipulation of the horizontal format. A fluid illumination of ‘Loading a Bombay Cart’ employed a starkly planar view of this procedure to emphasize its difficulty, but also to harmonize this labor with the shape of a blossoming flame tree.
Dhurandhar’s sympathy for rural workers extended to the humble people of Bombay as well. His postcards celebrated street sweepers, lascars, fruit sellers, postman, fishermen, porters, laundresses and several such occupations of the daily life. These portrayals accord with the style of his work and they also reflect the responsibility he had as an artist, to portray these people in their actual environment.
This artistic manoeuvring played a crucial role in shattering the inherent imagery of India in the west. It brought about a fresher understanding of his fellow countrymen, which was true to its identity.
3. Reconfiguring the colonial understanding of Indians – especially women
The existing postcards of the time showcased women as stereotypes transported into an unidentifiable space. In the research paper Indians in view : The representation of British Indians in magic lantern presentations, film and on postcards, 1870-1915, Siebenga elaborates with an example of the portrayal of an ‘Ayah’. In this postcard published by Murli Dhar and Sons, you’d an ayah standing behind a pram in which a doll-like child sits (surely British!); both are facing the camera. The backdrop of the card could easily give the impression the picture was taken in England – a fence, leafless trees and a house that looks anything but Indian. The ayah is closed in between the house, the pram and the fence, making her Indian identity almost accidental between the Englishness of the surroundings.
Now compare this to Dhurandhar’s drawing below. He instead, depicts women as people who were in no need of rescue from, or possession by anyone. In ‘The Ayah‘ of Bombay, the artist makes her an active agent with what is happening around her. He chose to draw surroundings which place her in a context, instead of having a generic background or the artificial background of a studio. It is in strong contrast to the passivity and uprooted nature that characterized the other cards of working women.
By giving the women agency, Dhurandhar created personalities rather than type casting them – something that was prevalent in many postcards of the time. His drawings equally show how a narrative enhances the understanding of the representation. Given the era in which these postcards were painted, Dhurandhar’s women were lucky to escape the trap of objectification and were depicted as strong, independent individuals.
4. Satire in Postcards
In his paper Allan Life points out how Dhurandhar’s human figures were inspired by the European aesthetics and techniques which he had learnt at the J.J School of Art – where the proportions of “ideal” figures were modelled on Greek and Roman sculptures. He combined this idealizing tendency with a flair for comedy, which was visible in his cartoons for several periodicals. His wit was genial but emphatic, and this is reinforced in his compositions. Most of these designs are planar, with figures placed frontally or in profile before stratified backgrounds.
You can see this in the narrative postcards titled ‘Coquettish Maid Servant‘. It features titles in English, Gujarati and Hindi so that all communities in Bombay could understand this story of a pretty young maid who comes to work in a middle-class home.
These fascinating set of ten cards were printed at Lakshmi Art Printing Works which belonged to Dadasaheb Phalke, regarded as the father of Indian cinema. These narrative postcards showcase the type of storytelling for which Phalke was famous.