Posted by: helenrobertsbradford | September 22, 2009

The lost art of letter writing

Pale blue aerogrammes, letters on thick creamy paper or translucent pink or green, dog-eared envelopes with multiple postmarks tracking the progress of a letter around India, handwriting of all styles in dark blue ink or pencil, Indian stamps issued before and after independence, letters franked and passed by censors.  There are 587 letters and postcards in the Barbara Bruce collection, dating from the 1940s to the 1970s, evidence of an era in which letter writing was a fundamental way of communicating.

This grainy black and white photograph is of Sukumar Pagare, printer and publisher, member of the Congress Party and later of the Socialist Party.

Sukumar Pagare, 1940s

Sukumar Pagare, 1940s

He first met Barbara in 1939 when she arrived in his hometown of Itarsi to work at the Friends Mission Hospital as a volunteer nurse. He became one of a group of close Indian and European friends who met in her hospital bungalow to hold discussions on the unity of all religions. He considered her as his sister.

Pagare’s first surviving letter to Barbara is dated September 1940 when he left Itarsi to visit his parents.  He began writing in earnest after Barbara’s departure for Santiniketan, the home of Rabindranath Tagore, in April 1941.  This was a dangerous period for Indian nationalists, who frequently offered individual acts of satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) and suffered periods of imprisonment as a result.  Pagare was held in the Central Jail in Nagpur in mid 1941 and two letters from ‘Prisoner 7648’ survive.

Their correspondence, though sporadic after Barbara left India, lasted until shortly before her death in 1976.  The letters interweave the political with the personal, descriptions of the atmosphere in Bombay as the All India Congress Committee met to issue its Quit India resolution, with pleas for advice on his arranged marriage in 1945.  Their letters formed part of their relationship and part of their memory of each other.

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