New Delhi: On 18 February 1911, 23-year-old Frenchman Henri Pequet flew a 50 horsepower Sommer biplane from Allahabad to Naini carrying around 6,500 letters. The 13-minute journey was India’s first airmail flight and only the second in the world—a day earlier, American adventurer Fred Wiseman had taken off from Petaluma, California, and claimed first place.

One hundred years later, India Post will release a set of four commemorative stamps to mark the centenary, coinciding with a re-enactment of Pequet’s Allahabad flight and the launch of the Indipex World Philatelic Exhibition, starting on Saturday at Pragati Maidan in Delhi. Philatelists, stamp dealers, brokers and enthusiasts from more than 70 countries are due to attend the six-day event, which was last held in the Capital in 1997.

Historic journey: A stamp on India’s first airmail flight.

Though philately as a hobby was introduced by the British, it captured the Indian imagination with a tenacity that has outlasted the influence of its instigators and continues to be popular today. It remains the only hobby recognized as an Olympic sport. “It used to be the hobby of kings because it was expensive," said Kumar. “But that idea is not so prevalent anymore."

As deputy director general of philately at India Post, Kumar is one of the people who oversees the creation of Indian postage stamps from start to finish. It’s not an easy job.

In theory, anyone in India can apply to have a stamp made, although in practice only those personalities who have national or international renown are approved. Each stamp takes about 18 months to produce, from concept approval to printing. The approval of a theme for a commemorative stamp (the kind most commonly collected by philatelists) is ultimately made by the incumbent minister for communications, according to Kumar, but an advisory body exists to submit its recommendations on each proposal. The reasoning behind these choices can be political.

“Our job is a bit like that of a bamboo dancer—it’s a delicate balance," said Kumar. “We have to make philately popular, but we shouldn’t indulge in mere gimmickry." Unlike the UK or the US, where royal weddings or politicians are frequently the subject of commemorative stamps, India Post steers away from approving living figures.

This year, British dealer Stanley Gibbons says it expects to post higher-than-anticipated profits as a result of the sales of commemorative stamps celebrating the marriage of Prince William of Wales and Kate Middleton—an unexpected boon for the company.

Kumar is wary of being populist, however. “We do get proposals for Sachin Tendulkar and so on, but we have decided not to do it," she said. On the other hand, she admits that reaching out to children would be much easier if India Post were to take a more populist stance.

Indipex 2011 will be an opportunity for India Post to publicize its work, and a renovated museum of memorabilia is due to open at its headquarters at Patel Chowk in the Capital soon. Appealing to a younger audience is becoming more and more important. “From our point of view, what we are looking forward to is better networking of philatelists in India and abroad," Kumar said. “We’d like to attract those groups who can increase the influence of philately as a hobby— it’s not centre stage any more."

Dealer and collector Premchand Jaiswal’s collection of fiscal stamps from India’s princely states is one of the most important in the world. Jaiswal, whose two sons are also stamp dealers, is emphatic about the need to get young children excited about philately. But he also notes that the notion of buying stamps as an investment is becoming more popular all the time. “The prices are going up like nobody’s business," he said. “Appreciation is normal in a good economy, but (stamps) are very good as an investment right now."

In 2008, after the financial crisis, the GB30 Rarities Index—a collection of classic British stamps that Stanley Gibbons recommends for investment—beat the Sensex. Though not as stable as gold prices, stamps began to look like a safe option in volatile markets, and their prices continue to rise steadily. “I don’t know if they will stay stable," said Jaiswal. “A lot of people have started hoarding certain items, and this has been a problem recently. But I don’t see the prices coming down for the next five years."

The larger concern for India Post is whether postage stamps have a long-term future at a time when email and SMS are pushing “snail mail" toward redundancy. “But even as the number of personal letters sent declines, the amount of franked mail goes up," said Kumar. “The postal stamp is not likely to go out of business as long as there are collectors, and there are a lot of other important aspects that aren’t to do with postage."

Together, the sets of commemorative stamps being released this weekend build up a picture of the Indian postal service over 100 years. “A stamp is a mark of the sovereignty of a country, like its coins," said Kumar. “It becomes an ambassador for a country in a way that franking can’t. If stamps go out, you are letting go of something that is of innate value to the country, something beyond its value as a little piece of paper."