CHENNAI: What was life like for a common citizen who served the British Raj? While innumerable accounts already exist, picture postcards of that era also tell their own story. “Serving the Raj - Hired Help in Colonial Madras”, an exhibition of postcards and photographs, throws up interesting vignettes of the people who served the British, not as administrators but as butlers, servants, barbers and so on. The show, organised by the Madras Literary Society, was curated by Venkatesh Ramakrishnan of the Madras Local History Group. The event was also held as a tribute to well-wishers of the MLS — architect Kalpana, D Hemachandra Rao, Pavitra Srinivasan, and S Muthiah, all of whom have passed away.
Helping hand to the Raj
Venkatesh guided the audience through enlarged prints of these postcards and photographs, arranged according to theme. One set featured the British landing in Madras via boats, and they are depicted as being helped by the local boatmen. “When the British moved from Masulipatnam to Madras, they brought along many of their servants — butlers, barbers, punkha pullers and so on,” Venkatesh explains.The most crucial element of any British family staying in India was the Ayah, whose sole responsibility was caring for the children. Many a time the Ayahs were taken back to England because the children would grow attached to them. But once the children grew into adults, the Ayahs would be tossed into the streets of England, with no money to return to India or to even fend for themselves. It was at this point that some of the charities in London began a home for the Ayahs, where they could find new patrons who could help them sustain or at the very least, get a ticket back to India. “The Ayahs were an important cog in the wheel for the British families in India, without which they’d have struggled greatly,” he remarks. Two photographs testify to this — one of an Ayah with two British children on her lap, and another of an
Ayah’s shelter home in London.
Then there were images of the palanquin-bearers. At a time when motorised transport was yet to be invented and roads in Madras weren’t too good, the palanquin-bearers were much needed for the British to move around. Also crucial to the British were the punkha-pullers to help keep cool in the tropical Madras weather, and at times, weary of pulling the punkha with his hand, the punkha-puller might use his toe, as one photograph seemed to suggest. Such situations were also ripe for humour, as imagined by a British artist, who depicted a punkha collapsing on a dinner party.Some of the images — the photographs especially — do carry problematic undertones, even if the objective was to amuse the viewer. A series of images showing the servant taking advantage of his master’s absence to sleep on his chair, use his shaving blade and steal his whisky were certainly instrumental in perpetuating negative stereotypes.
On the side-lines
The colonial era postcards weren’t the only exhibit, however. In another corner of the room, there were newly designed sets of 15 postcards each, titled “Reflections, Madras/Chennai”. Each card depicts one of Chennai’s landmark buildings as it was in the past and as it is in the present. The project was initiated by P Venkatesan, who runs a creative agency, and V Meghnad, a techie, in response to a dearth of quality postcards over the past few years. These postcards are up for sale at `250 for each set.
Sivagamasundari, architect and conservationist, put together a display of her heirloom objects passed down from her great-grandparents, who straddled Burma, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and Malaysia.
Among the curios were letters from the 1930s, diaries and passports, alongside enamelware and other handicrafts sourced from Southeast Asia to as far as Sweden. One item was of particular note, though – a set of Japanese dollar notes issued in Burma, which was under Japanese invasion during World War II. With the collapse of the Japanese Empire, these notes fell into disuse and are now collectors’ items.