The Postcard as a Research Tool? Experiences in Urban India

Hans Schenk

In this volume edited by Éléonore Muhidine, postcards play a central role in each of the explorative essays. To be more specific: the postcards show photographs of buildings, streetscapes and townscapes of urban India. Produced between 1900 and 1970 – for the purpose of being sold to visitors from ‘the West’ – the postcards form the core subject in most essays. Hence, the card functions in this volume primarily to discuss the contents on its front-side. Even non-existing postcards have been included as a core subject in one of the studies. Moreover, the postcard as such, including its ‘backside,’ gets attention by a few authors. A variety of explanations, meanings, opinions, and possibilities for architectural urban research makes for a rather heterogeneous collection of essays. I shall manoeuvre up and down through the nine chapters in order to try to clarify somewhat the many dimensions of postcards depicting urban India.

Postcards on urban India

In an opening essay, the architectural historian Éléonore Muhidine introduces the purpose of the book: a discussion of the postcard as a tool for architectural and urban research. She stresses the lack of visual historic sources to be used for such historical research. Hence, the postcards may fill a gap. She uses for the purpose of the book 60 postcards, displaying so-called heritage buildings and townscapes in major Indian cities. Most postcards refer to colonial buildings that are often considered iconic, such as Bombay’s (now Mumbai) Victoria Terminus of 1888 (renamed into: Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) or New Delhi’s Imperial Hotel of 1936. Such cards, writes the architect Anupam Bansal of Delhi, have formed the imagination of the city “in people’s minds, particularly those who have not visited the city” (p. 89). Half of the collection of cards pertains to Bombay, and the other to (New) Delhi, Calcutta (now Kolkata), and a few other places. Muhidine admits that postcards form limited sources of information of whatever photographed building: “they celebrate the moment of the photographic shot rather than providing precise historical information…”(p. 19). And even this argument is turned upside down by other authors. Bansol expresses the irony that the images on cards depicting Delhi in the 1960s “seem frozen in particularl when viewed from the context of a city which has expanded or rather exploded in the last 40 years” (p. 90). The archaeologist Shradda Bhatawadekar writes similarly about the “static and frozen views” of the cards (p. 108). Indeed, either displaying a celebrated or a frozen moment, the pictures at the frontside of the cards often do not give information about a building, its style, and its wider societal context. Just a basic subscript is there – such as, e.g., “Hornby Rd Bombay,” printed on a postcard in the 1940s (p. 73, Fig. 20). But some wider information is given in this volume by Muhidine and several other contributors. They describe buildings and streetscapes in terms of years of construction, architects, clients, estimated year of the actual photograph, architectural styles, details, etc. This information is elegantly phrased by the architecture-historian Preeti Chopra, who states that the ‘frozen’ “postcards are released from the confines of their frame to allow for a nuanced and layered understanding of Bombay’s architecture in the context of its urban setting” (p. 68). 

Three chapters are urban-oriented. The professional researcher of postcards, Omar Khan, focuses on the contents of early postcards (1896) of Calcutta[i]; Preeti Chopra subsequently focuses on Bombay cards; and Bansol examines those of (New) Delhi, but he largely negates the cards, however, as I shall mention below. The city-oriented chapters are followed by three thematic approaches. A first one is on transport and communication architecture by the archaeologist Shradda Bhatawadekar. Another contribution is by the geographer Yves-Marie Rault-Chodankar on Bombay’s airport in 1974, while Éléonore Muhidine devotes a contribution on cards showing a few 20th-century luxury hotels. In all these essays, attention is given to the often peculiar architectural forms that have emerged from the desire among architects and others during the British colonial era to mix elements of Western (British) architectural styles and Indian architectural ideas. A desirable mixture perhaps, but, as Chopra adds, a mixture “to shape a collective personality so that the English might remain English, while Indians should be remade as Englishmen” (p. 74, italics in original). In shorthand: ‘Victorian (Neo) Gothic Revival’ for the 19th-century icons in Bombay or Calcutta, such as the Victoria terminus. Éléonore Muhidine uses more words, when e.g. describing Bombay’s Taj Mahal Hotel:  “… with its neo-classical national architecture – a blend of Gothic inspiration and the traditional style of the Mughal palaces of Rajasthan…” (p.139), though she typifies the Delhi Imperial hotel (built in 1936) plainly as “a melting pot of references to British culture and traditionalist imaginings of India” [sic] (p. 143).

According to Ben Kaden’s chapter, “There is hardly anything depictable that wasn’t depicted on a postcard” (p. 155). Well, this brave statement is challenged by Bansal in his discussion of Delhi postcards. And his evidence is simple. He starts by observing that postcards capture the appearance of the city, and he prefers to speak of tourist postcards, while he intends to focus on the “character of the grain of the city rather than its iconic” (p. 92). He has chosen for that reason to introduce the built form of a planned middle-class neighbourhood in South Delhi and its adjoining or even overlapping informal slum-like areas. Bansal’s description of the different and extremely contrasting components of this area is not surprising. It stands for most of the actual appearance – say 95% – of Delhi. The area consists partly of non-descript utilitarian apartment buildings with a ‘rubber stamp’ architecture (p. 94), partly of a variety of forms of vernacular architecture, not exactly in a Neo-Gothic style. What about the heritage-value of these ‘rubber-stamp’ and vernacular buildings? What matters in this context is that postcards are lacking. By focusing on the other reality of Delhi, characterized by the negation of buildings and streetscapes on postcards, has Bansal touched upon the ultimate black hole of the card?  

As I announced above, postcards have backsides as well. The backside may be the most important side for the  mail carrier, I guess. However, it may contain private messages to a faraway recipient. It may contain “powerful emotions felt during a journey, or more concrete experiences, preserved only through the medium of the postcard,” writes Muhidine (p. 33). She does not enter into the question of whether such powerful emotions and other contents are of a private or of a public nature. Neither does she deal with the question whether these contents are relevant for the card as a medium of architectural and urban research. Others do, as I mention below. 


Postcards as research tools

These chapters form certainly attractive reading, especially when the reader gets confronted with flashbacks from his or her earlier real-life views of a building or a street.  Kaden describes postcards as “low-threshold tokens for nostalgia” (p. 156).[ii] But that is not what the book is about. Are postcards a tool for architectural and urban research, as Muhidine states? Kaden deals with this question in the second-to-last contribution, while informing many readers about such postcard-based research, coined long ago as deltiology. This activity includes analysis of the card’s image, but also the nature of the written message on the backside (private or public?), and finally the card itself in terms of information about the printer and more. Kaden tries to find methodological entrances into these three dimensions of a postcard but must conclude that it is hard to develop operationalisations. Éléonore Muhidine also admits that even the selection of the 60 cards that forms the basis of the nine contributions, is the fruit of elements of chance.[iii] The architectural historian Saptarshi Sanyal reflects finally on the meaning of the postcard. He discusses the possible spatial or temporal distance between the picture of a building, or a townscape compared to the personal experience of ‘having seen’ these objects. He paints in passionate lyrics this distance and pleads for an architecture “in the flesh.” He writes against those who write about or analyse architecture or lecture on it without inhabiting it – that is, those who “lean on visuals to speak about spaces they haven’t walked through, […] surfaces they haven’t touched” (p. 178). This approach limits of course the usage of postcards for research purposes. 

Is the postcard a tool for architectural and urban research? This question is put in this volume without reference to other tools. But many books and articles have been published, illustrated with (historic) photographs, on well researched aspects of India’s urban architectural history and related topics. These written sources sometimes have a broad scope, such as the study by Norma Evenson. Other studies focus on specific topics: the architecture of one single neighbourhood in Calcutta; Anglo-Indian architectural styles in 19th-century Bombay; the barracks of textile workers in Mumbai; the architectural styles (Palladio) in colonial New Delhi, to mention just a very few of these studies.[iv] They have in common that a (hopefully) carefully prepared text is in command in such a book or article, supported by photographs, not the other way round. With postcard-based urban research, an inversion may occur: a photograph with a supporting text.[v] Hence, and once more, the essays in this volume form attractive reading. But certainly when no further expectations have to be evoked.


[i] Khan gives in addition a biography of the Calcutta years of the Austrian photographer, producer, and entrepreneur of postcards (around 1900), and six of his postcards are discussed in his contribution.

[ii] Kaden quotes D. Martinovic, The Skin of Nostalgia: A reflection on the artifice of postcards, structuralist filmmaking, and home movies. 2014,

[iii] In this case largely governed by places and sites, visited by Europeans, and not by sites of modern architecture such as Ahmedabad, Madras, Lucknow, Chandigarh (p. 25). 

[iv] Norma Evenson, The Indian Metropolis, Delhi, 1989; Peter Bialobrzeski (ed.), Calcutta, Chitpur Road Neighborhoods, Ostfildern (Germany), 2015; Preeti Chopra, A Joint Enterprise, Indian elites and the making of British Bombay, Univ. Of Minnesota Press, 2011; Neera Adarkar (ed), The Chawls of Mumbai, galleries of life, Imprint One, Delhi, 2011; Pilar Maria Guerrieri, Negotiating Cultures, Delhi’s architecture and planning from 1912 to 1962, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2018.

[v] Often, such texts just “mirror the […] notes of many scholarly papers,” adds Kaden (p. 153).