There are many ways to gauge the importance and significance of music and the arts in society. The most obvious way would, of course, be to examine actual genres and forms of music and their exponents; their popularity or lack of it; as well as their stature within the nation’s culture. More oblique, but equally effective ways could include looking at advertisements for concerts and cultural events in print and electronic media, billboards and hoardings, as also postage stamps issued by the postal services of a country.

Deserved: A stamp honours Tansen. Hindustan Times

With many of us turning to email, it is easy to discount postage stamps in this day and age. Yet millions continue to use them all over India as well as overseas. What is printed on postage stamps, then, makes for fascinating study material because, in a sense, that tiny piece of specially printed and designed paper becomes a representative of the issuing country—its beliefs, culture and society.

It is in this context that I recently spoke with my colleague Sudhir Nayak, the well-known harmonium player who is also a philatelist and who, with characteristic humility, insists that he isn’t a serious enough collector to be counted as a serious philatelist. Nevertheless, I remain indebted to him for his inputs and generosity in sharing information about his personal stamp collection.

Since postal services fall under the purview of the government of India, it would be safe to assume that the inclusion of music-related themes and the depiction of Indian music on postage stamps bears the sanction of the government. Happily, Indian music has found representation on both definitive stamps (printed in enormous quantities for day-to-day use in several denominations and for unlimited tenures of use), as well as on limited-edition commemorative stamps which are issued to pay homage to a specific event or individual. Eminent musicians have time and again been featured on Indian postage stamps, including the legendary Tansen in whose honour the department of posts issued a commemorative stamp in association with the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1986. Several other luminaries from the world of Indian music have been honoured and immortalized on postage stamps, including Master Deenanath Mangeshkar (issued in 1993), Ustad Allauddin Khan Sahib (1999, as part of the Modern Masters of Indian Classical Music series), Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan (2000), Begum Akhtar (1994), Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (2003), Musiri Subramania Iyer (1999, also as part of the Modern Masters series) and V. Lakshminarayana (2004). The department of posts has also issued definitive stamps on Indian musical instruments.

In fact, between 1970 and 2001, commemorative stamps honouring great composers of Western art music such as Beethoven, Bach, Chopin and Schubert were issued, and a unique single stamp to pay tribute to Handel and Bach to mark the 300th birth anniversaries of these two great composers was issued in 1985. I find this fascinating as it indicates India’s acknowledgement of Western music, and a mark of its willingness to pay tribute to excellence in the arts without restricting itself to political or geographical boundaries. What a contrast to the oft-repeated whine about pashchimi sabhyataa (Western culture) corrupting and contaminating the thinking of our young minds.

It is folk music that seems to have been left out in the cold. While there is a postage-stamp series depicting tribal dances, and another three-stamp series on the Sangeet Natak Akademi that makes a token reference to folk music, dance and theatrical forms, individuals and personalities from the field of folk music do not seem to merit the issuing of postage stamps. Or perhaps folk music and folk musicians do not have benefactors and patrons with enough political clout to get them due recognition by the department of posts. It’s high time music lovers put their best foot forward to ask the department of posts to issue a series of stamps on the theme of folk music, its great exponents and their specializations.

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