Thursday, March 09, 2006

India's Past Through the Lens of Ebay

Contemplating on the Banaras bomb blasts, reading the posts for Blank Noise, and fretting over my own dissertation had made me very morose. It was hard for me to concentrate on my own work, so I did what I do best under such circumstances - troll the internet. Specifically, I tried to lift my spirits with retail therapy (yes, I'm that shallow) and ended up browsing through the mother of all retail therapy websites: Ebay.

Now Ebay's great for a bunch of things, but what it is excellent for is vintage stuff. All of American seems to be unloading its old junk on Ebay, and the most amazing bargains on coveted stuff from yesteryears can be found. I'm especially fond of silk sheath and pleated, flared dresses from the 1960s, the sort my mom used to wear before giving them up when she got married, that are still stylistic inspiration for many women through images of Jackie O and Twiggy. So as I was looking for the dresses, I came upon one in particular that was made in India. Curious about what else of vintage India might be out there, I searched for Indian vintage stuff and found a curiously eclectic bunch of things.

For starters, here's a boarding card for Air-India from the 1960s which has the most adorable illustrations, which have unfortunately disappeared from Air India ads recently. The illustrations are very similar to the legendary Amul ads, so they may have been done by the same agency.

Also I saw at least three examples of souvenir pillow covers and tablecloths with the exact same image: a map of India with the Taj Mahal ensconced within it. And guess what? In each case, the map of India is a pre-Independence map, with the landmasses of Pakistan and Bangladesh included. Also included is Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which was part of British territories at the time. Here's one of them.

This is absolutely amazing. It is being sold as a textile label from the 1920s, but it appears to bear the images of three of the most prominent political figures in pre-Independence India. I can recognize Sarojini Naidu, Kasturba Gandhi and Kamala Nehru. The fourth figure is a bit of a mystery. How interesting that they used to put images of political personalities on textile labels!!

Speaking of which, this seller, who incidentally is based in India, has a bunch of other textile labels from the 1920s. Very cool images, do check them out.
The name of the textile mill? Kaloomal Shorimal. Jeez, why did Indians of that era have such godawful names! I've heard Gaindamal, Kirorimal, Vilayatiram.....

And then someone is selling scans from a tourist guidebook on India. The images appear to be from the 1940s or 1950s. There's a gorgeous view of Malabar Hills, Bombay, and now the nostalgia of a Greek sailor I met for 1960s Bombay becomes amply clear. Wow, the place was so pretty!

And another one which is actually a postcard sent by someone based in India to the US. The card was sent in 1951, so obviously the image is even older. Also check the Indian stamps affixed to the postcard. The image is of Khiddirpur in Calcutta, and I would love to have folks reflect on how it compares to current Calcutta.

There's tons of such images, textiles, craft and memoribilia that is either locked up in Western and Indian museums or languishing in private homes in India. I remember visiting the National Archives in Delhi for a project on photographs of Indian women from 19th century and eary 20th century. The staff at the Archives were absolute sweethearts, they just asked me to go sift through the piles and piles of photo albums they had and pick what I liked to be reproduced.

The collection had some stunning gems, like a mid-19th century album of Kachin tribal women in Burma taken by a British army officer. Also potraits of the Nepalese royal family from late 19th century. And a very, very young, very delicate Indira Gandhi, years away from morphing into the fire-spewing satrap she eventually became. There were nearly a hundred albums of photos taken during Nehru's Prime Ministership, following the Prime Minister on his travels around the country,including on crucial album of his first ever visit to Kashmir after Independence in 1948.

So basically what I'm getting at is, please do take the time to appreciate family memoribilia when you can. Old pictures, old textiles, handicrafts. In some cases, simply because they don't really make them like they used to. So if you have a Jamawar shawl lying around the house that your granny carelessly tosses into the musty trunk, hold on to it for dear life, for the art of Jamawar has declined drastically. Ditto for old Lucknawi chikan, a delicate craft that bears no resemblance to the atrocious mass market stuff sold in its name. Sometimes, the Indian past feels like another place altogether, a place long vanished, so take good care of its souvenirs.


Blogger swar said...

i hang on to my mom's delicate rani fi (a very delicate, transaparent and famous silk stole of manipur), given at her wedding by my paternal grandmom. its priceless. and my dad treasures his mom's very old, heirloom necklace which is designed like the wheels of a tractor.

3:51 AM  
Blogger AB said...

Oh very interesting. I can see some story ideas here;)

4:17 AM  
Blogger Kele Panchu said...

I have an old tram ticket. I have to check the fare again but I think it is 3±1 paisa. Will it sell?
Next time when I go home I'll try to find my matchbox collection. Unfortunately I couldn't find anyone selling those in

12:33 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Bem, pics please! Those pieces sound so amazing. Yes family heirlooms are the best, I spent may summers as a kid exploring my great-grandma's old trunks and the stuff that she collected on her travels around India. Alas, I had no idea what the rest of the family did with them when she died.

AB, go ahead, this is a veritible goldmine :)!

Panchuda, I don't know what the market for old tram tickets is. But I would imagine that matchboxes would sell, lots of collectors out there.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Adagio For Strings said...

Oh you poor thing! I hope you are feeling better now and working day and night on getting the thesis out the door and getting a high paid job :)!

1:57 PM  
Blogger Urmea said...

Oh eBay is very interesting - I'd done searches on India and Bengal and general desi related stuff once upon a time, in Grad school of course!

It had brought up loads of coins / currency notes. Unfortunately it also brought up lots of Cincinnati Bengals memorabilia, some ugly saris (think Devon Avenue in Chicago or any typical sari store in Jersey). Oh and a few DVDs of Devdas and the like. Nothing as cool as you seem to have found.

As for family heirlooms, I am waiting for the Indian version of the Antiques Roadshow (which I adore). Honestly can you imagine all our mashi pishis lining up with old benarasis and broken furniture to get them valued!

3:38 PM  
Blogger DD said...

never knew that eBay has this kind of stuff. the fourth person on that textile label might be sarala devi, but am not quite sure.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Red said...

Is the fourth lady Madame Cama?

1:03 PM  
Blogger bluesman said...

very interesting article .. I liked the bombay pics ...

2:15 PM  
Anonymous Sanity Starved said...

Oh! That was a lovely piece. Such absolute gems!

That Air India ticket again reminded me how electronic printing (if you can call them design) is paying no attention to any form of design, whatsover. More so, when you say that something like Air India (don't we all know about its "first-class" service) has such lovely tickets.

Lovely piece!

3:02 PM  
Blogger Arthur Quiller Couch said...

The old Maharaja campaign was da Cunha, like the Amul theme. I had a sheaf of those things somewhere. Maharaja in Australia, in Europe and so on.

VZery nice post. You should tweak it a little and send it to Swagat, the airlines in-flight magazine, for publication.

6:18 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Adagio, for the likes of us, we need to be in permanent retail therapy to feel good, sniff, sniff!! The only incentive to get that thesis out of the door these days is the prospect of more resources for retail therapy :).

Urmi, the trick seems to be "vintage". But even there, a bunch of crafty Indian sellers were selling crappy, recently produced Banarasi brocade and Gujarati wall-hangings as vintage!

That Cincinnati Bengals thing is so annoying. I have the same problem, everytime I search anything on Bengal, those buggers show up.

Oh my goodness, Urmi, we should totally get together and do a version of the Antique Road Show! We can go all over Bengal (and then rest of India) and get to see the most amazing stuff.

DD, Ebay has everything! I found one pic of Sarala Devi online and they don't seem to match. And yet, the picture looks very, very familiar. You know, my hunch is that it comes from a set of potraits for the women delegates at the first every All India Congress session.

Red, it can be Madame Cama, but notice that she's wearing a Maharashtrian sari, not the Parsi Gara sari which was typical of Parsi women of the time.

Bluesman, thanks! You can find tons of vintage Bombay pictures if you search online.

Sudip, thanks! What a pity, right? My grandfather has a huge collection of old Indian editionn Reader's Digests. The illustrations are fabulous! There's a great interest in retro-style illustrations in the West right now, wonder why Indian companies are not bringing back old design classics.

Arthur, thanks for the tip, I knew it had to be the same guy who did Amul. Please, please scan your collection and put it up. I'd love to see them.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Essar said...

You know, I have heard of the most horrendous names, in this era. I don't know if they're printable even. Our Gaindamals would seem perfecty sane in front of them.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Primalsoup said...

Very nice post. Though, fancy finding the past on Ebay! I would never have thought of looking there! :)

5:29 PM  
Blogger said...

that was lovely...I wonder what an antique road show in India would bring out...yopu can still find some of the most amazing LP records quite easily in India... I found an original Woodstock live concert recording near Ripon street last year....good to be back...

6:09 PM  
Anonymous Sanity Starved said...

Hey! Submit correction to Wikipedia!

3:24 PM  
Blogger hutumthumo said...

great post. shedding our skins on eBay. excellent.

12:39 PM  
Blogger K said...

Doodanto (I hope I managed to get it right) post, one of your best ever!
I mean other than those ones where you professed your admiration for a particular ponytailed individual ;-)

1:33 AM  
Blogger 4WD said...

All that is pretty cool. But there's something about having this stuff handed down to you that buying can never compare to. One of my regrets is that my parents moved away from their parent to live where i live, and both their parents moved away from theirs ... meaning we don't have a lot of family history collected. My collection of old First day covers was cool... but my dad gave it to me too early, and i lost it. Ah well.

10:07 PM  
Blogger Patient Portnoy said...

Thanks for that post. Thoughtful.
Will do, will do...

6:11 AM  
Blogger sd said...

Absolutely stunning post. Man that pic of Bombay was neat and the rest of the stuff too! Loved that Air India ticket thing. Ami age-o-bolechi, and I will say it again; just time-pass korte korte you do such cool things, you advisor must be a blessed person!!

10:30 AM  
Blogger aristera says said...

loved the boarding pass. but i beg to differ on one point. i dont think the indian past has vanished. infact, i think that the 'indian past' is one ongoing 'continuous' past which blurs the boundries between the past and the present.and between the present and the future too...

7:16 PM  
Blogger blue said...

hey hun.. have u seen or heard of eeesh...??

9:04 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Sorry I've been AWOL all this while, but graduate studies and all that.

Essar, I know exactly what you're talking about. One can only wonder, why, why?

Primalsoup, thanks!

Gypsy, welcome back! Yes, imagine what the vaults of Hindustan Records and HMV hold.

Sudip, if you haven't figured it out yet, I'm too lazy :)

Hutum, thanks!

Ooo, big praise from the Big K. Most delighted!

4WD, that is so true, the attachment to family hierlooms is just something else. Which is why I insist on looking at my grandma's old sarees at least once when I visit her.

Patient, thanks!

SD, that is so incredibly sweet. Thank you!

Aristera, that is correct, because we keep reinventing the past, reassessing it with the lens of the present. What is of value in our past is determined by present consensus. If you track fads in the vintage market, it's amazing what sort of things become ultra desirable at particular points of time.

Blue, hi, no I haven't. I only know her through her blog, and knew that she was going to be in Bombay for two weeks. Perhaps she's still in Bombay?

1:27 PM  
Blogger Bonatellis said...

immensely fascinating ...

5:45 PM  
Blogger Rimi said...

Alright, here's how you can rule:

I actually went visiting the great-aunt this (Saturday) evening and together, we hunted through old 'trunks' (youknowhatimean) and boxes. Initiative, darlings, initiative.

Here's why you can't win:
We found nothing. Nothing. Just purono thala-bashon used last for the family's Durga Pujas, which ended before my parents married. That's it.

Here's why it's still all good:
My mum sold off, with her parents encouragement, her share of the family jewellery (and no, the pun is entirely unintended) when, post-marriage, the family finances suddenly collapsed. That's what bought us the house I've grown up in, and gave The Parents a second chance. So.

But still, nt even old tram tickets and all, y'know...

in other news, Swati, where have you disappeared? Vacation? Really Long Weekend?

9:37 AM  
Blogger Rimi said...

Such a bloody long post and I miss the real bit. Amazing post!

9:39 AM  
Blogger Old Spice said...

It's been almost three weeks - hope you'll be back soon.

How're the mangoes?

10:44 PM  
Blogger blue said...

same with me either.. havent seen her for quite some time now..

and bytheway try using its a nice offering from sabeer bhatia..

2:17 AM  
Blogger eM said...

I enjoyed this post. :) I'm an old things type person, I love, when I go to visit my grandparents in Hyderabad to go through their crumbling boxfulls of old photos, watching my grandmother as a young woman, my mother as a baby, and those stacks of old Readers Digests and Better Housekeeping with the most fantastic hours. Your post reminded me of all that--hot summer afternoons, everyone asleep and me with a lapful of memories.
Thanks for being so evocative!

1:34 AM  
Blogger eM said...

ads i meant, not hours. clearly my mind was wandering even as I posted that comment!

1:36 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Bonatellis, thanks!

Rimi, bravo! How does your great-aunt take it? My great-grandma used get so annoyed and yet was secretly indulgent :)! Yes, it hurts to part with hierlooms, but hey that's the best possible way to use them. And there isn't a more precious legacy than the house you grow up in. And as you can see, I'm back.

The graduate, here I am. And no, it'll be a while before the mangoes make their way to our stores.

Blue, thanks. I'll take a look.

Em, that's exactly what I used to do. My grandpa has a huge collection of old Reader's Digests, and all summer I'd swipe them from his study and spend afternoons reading them. Weren't the ads amazing?

9:16 PM  
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9:54 AM  

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