Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Picturing Mountains As Hills

Hill Station Postcards and the Tales They Tell

Shashwati Talukdar

 

He saw many things which amused him; and he states, on honor, that no man can appreciate Simla properly, till he has seen it from the sais's point of view. He also says that, if he chose to write all he saw, his head would be broken in several places.

-Rudyard Kipling, Plain Tales From The Hills (1888)

A home away from "home" for the British in India, hill stations are a window into the discourse of British colonialism and the practices they generated.  A 19th-century invention, the hill station has been memorialized by Rudyard Kipling as the quintessential playground of the Raj.1  Even today in the 21st century, writers like Ruskin Bond continue to tap into the fascination that hill stations exercise over us.2

Systematic British exploration of the Himalayas began after the Anglo-Gurkha wars of 1814-16.  At that time, the biggest mountains in the world and its wild terrain could not be easily incorporated into their imperial project.  In order to make colonialism viable in this alien landscape, the landscape itself had to be domesticated.3  This was done through using a picturesque aesthetic.  The picturesque aesthetic was  a way of seeing that emphasized the suitability of a scene to be included in a picture, that is, it was pictorially assimilable.  This was the dominant aesthetic used in the colonies to not only portray the landscape, but to also change it. Hill station picture postcards show how this aesthetic was used to make "mountains" into "hills."  They show us the aesthetic shifts that took place in order to create a "home away from home."

Fig.01

Fig.02

 

The north-west view of Nainital in Figure 01 with its beautiful lake, pretty cottages and verdant hills does not show an accidental landscape. The trees and cottages have been placed in the picture, and  their geographical location is shaped by the logic of colonial discourse. In other words, to make Nainital look like the Alpine shores of Lake Geneva took some work.  A European aesthetic of landscape had to be imported in, and the landscape had to be viewed through the  lens of that particular aesthetic in order to make it amenable to colonial society.  Examples like the view from Garkhal, Kasauli Hill in Figure 02 demonstrate another aspect of this transplanted aesthetic.  Not only did the domestication of mountains require an aesthetic response in how they were to be viewed, but the landscape of the hill stations had to be transformed, through architecture, gardening, and institutions like the army and the church.

Fig.03

 

Hill station postcards aren't just encoders of colonial discourse, they also tell us about the sorts of practices that hill stations generated. So Miss Doris Grassby of Simla, who is addressed in the postcard in Figure 03, wasn't just receiving a polite greeting from somewhere far away.  She and her correspondent were also engaging in the mundane transactions (often criss-crossing the globe) that gave the hill stations their raison d'être.  Its not a coincidence that one of the correspondents is a woman, and presumably a white woman. The domestication of the wild mountainous terrain was also reflected in the gendering and racializing practices of the hill stations.  Sometimes we see this in the images of the postcards, and sometimes they make their presence known by their absence in the imagery.

Picture postcards were immensely popular in Europe and its colonies between the 1890s and the First World War. The fact that this period also coincides with the heyday of European imperialism is not mere coincidence.  As Saloni Mathur points out, the picture postcard is “both a cosmopolitan form and a constant reminder of the imperial conditions that establish a basis for modern cosmopolitanism.” 4   Considering how the postcard culture was produced by the material conditions of empire, it is no surprise that postcards, especially the colonial postcard, were particularly well suited to encode the project of empire with all its attendant anxieties and feats of discursive gymnastics.


1 19th-century Western medicine considered higher elevations as antidote to the diseases rampant in the plains. While there was no proven scientific evidence for this, nevertheless, hill stations were  established across India starting in 1827 when a sanitarium was set up in Ootacamund (Kenny, Judith. "Climate, Race, and Imperial Authority: The Symbolic Landscape of the British Hill Station in India." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85, no. 4 (1995): 694-714).
2 For example, see this regular column by Ruskin Bond, Mussoorie Diary <http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?265335> in Outlook India, May 17, 2010.
3 Mitchell, W. J. T. "Imperial Landscape." In Landscape and Power, W. J. T Mitchell, 5-34. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.
4 Mathur S. India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display.  Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press; 2007:230.

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