Earlier this year, when the second wave of covid-19 swept the country, Coimbatore-based graphic designer Shuruti Vengatesh organised a unique fund-raiser. She sent out 2,500 postcards to carry people’s messages of love and hope in a time clouded by fear and uncertainty. The response was so overwhelming that she collected ₹3 lakh for the Swabhiman society which supports female manual scavengers from the Maha Dalit communities.
“I didn’t anticipate the huge response. I asked friends for help to write the text on the postcards. The messages that emerged from this fund-raiser were so heartwarming and beautiful,” says the 29-year-old. She has put some of them up—with permission from the senders—on her Instagram handle, Make Mail, as a series titled “Lockdown Love Letters”.
She first came up with the idea last year, to reach out to friends in India and abroad in a way that was more meaningful than a WhatsApp message. Vengatesh would illustrate each postcard and add a personalised touch. Gradually, the personal project took on a community form as acquaintances reached out to her. What people were really seeking was the heartwarming nostalgia associated with the act of writing and receiving a letter or a postcard—something that today’s instant communication doesn’t offer.
Now, she has a dedicated community of postcard senders around the globe. If you want to join in, all you need to do is fill up a form on her website (makemail.in), put in your message and the receiver’s address. Vengatesh creates the illustration, writes the message artistically and posts them via snail mail.
She calls it the 15 postcards project, for she began by sending out as many every month. There is no charge. “Through this, we are looking back at a slower, more meaningful way to communicate. My maternal grandfather, for each birthday of mine, irrespective of where we were, would send me a birthday card with a little message written in it. Because of that, the idea of a personalised note has always been very close to me,” she says. Taking a step back to slow down and pen a note for someone can be a lovely, reflective endeavour, she adds.
Vengatesh often collaborates with volunteers from all walks of life such as Doodlesutra and Ishani Limbkar to create postcards. “There is something so wonderful about writing down messages for a stranger. It feels like you are entering someone’s intimate space and that they are trusting you with their heartfelt emotions,” she says.
One can see a variety of messages— funny, sarcastic, poignant—on the Instagram handle. One from the “Lockdown Love Letters” series reads: “We need to see meteor showers together. The day shall come when we would be watching the same stars together.” Another one reads: “To the one who reminded me of the importance of flowers…. Hope you’re safe and sound.”
In an age when messages often get lost in the sea of electronic communication, she emphasises “the tangibility of the postcard. At a time when social distancing is still being maintained, a small token like this can cross oceans and continents.”
For her, this passion project is also about reflecting on the small and big moments associated with the community. She is, for instance, thinking of posts on what happens to lost postcards. “A lot of my postcards have gotten lost in the past two years when sent via snail mail. I also put out posts about what to do with used postcards. I find the process beautiful,” she says.
Now Vengatesh wants to create another post, mapping all the pin codes she has sent postcards to: at least 250 pin codes in Turkey, Germany, France, the US, UK, Australia and China, as well as within India. “There are some places I have never even heard of. There is so much around us that we don’t know of, and sending postcards is an interesting way of documenting things,” adds Vengatesh.
She has started a section, Children Make Mail, just for youngsters. Children from this generation have no idea of how it feels to receive a letter, she says, and their joy at receiving one is hard to define. “They see their parents getting packages. And when one comes in their name, they feel very nice.” To get children involved in the process, Vengatesh has made theirs an interactive postcard: Essentially, she creates an outline of the illustration and writes the message. When the child gets it, they can colour and decorate the illustration, making it their own. Now Vengatesh sends out 15 general and 5 children’s postcards every month.
Last month, she launched yet another initiative that is very close to her heart. Called Paati’s Petti (grandmother’s box), it’s inspired by the battered, repurposed tins and boxes, filled with knick-knacks such as jewellery, sewing kits and medicines, most grandmothers would have. Initially conceived as a blog, she decided to open it up to the community in the form of postcards. Again, all you need to do is fill a form, add one recipe/hack from your grandmother and it will be customised on to a postcard. In this case, she plans to compile these as a box set of postcards/recipe-hacks cards, with a digital version too. The intention is to create a petti every year to encapsulate our grandmoms’ tales, hacks, stories and memories.
The first edition focuses on recipes and kitchen hacks. “People from Turkey and France are filling up the form. The idea of a grandma is an emotion and doesn’t have boundaries. Since grandmothers and beauty hacks go hand in hand, I have decided to go with this theme next year. Every year we shall focus on a different aspect,” she says. “It will be interesting to look at the different memories, say of a paati in Calicut (Kozhikode) and a paati in Kolkata.”