Extreme philatelia10 min read . Updated: 11 Feb 2011, 08:51 PM IST
Like all the best artefacts of the Indian postal system, this special stamp tells a story in a 39x39mm frame. There’s a charkha in the centre, with a thread spinning outwards to form Gandhi in silhouette. Unlike every other Indian stamp, however, this one isn’t completely printed at the India Security Press in Nashik. Part of it is stitched out of a special grade of khadi. Designed after a rigorous six-month production process, a run of 100,000 “Khadi stamps" will be launched today at Indipex 2011, a global philatelic exhibition organized by India Post. The department, says India Post’s Kavery Banerjee, died “a million deaths" to get every detail on the stamp perfect.
The Khadi stamp is the centrepiece of the exhibition that opens today at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan. Over the next week, philatelists from over 70 countries will gather here. It’s been 13 years since the last one in India, and the breadth of promised displays is immense—postmarks from Victorian-era Lahore, stamps on the Trans-Siberian Railway and revenue documents from 17th century Bengal. The organizers see it as more than just an exhibition—they hope Indipex will revitalize Indian philately.
“Stamp collecting used to be everyone’s hobby," says Banerjee, Indipex 2011’s chairperson. “Almost all of us had letters coming home, and we encountered them in our daily lives." The rise of the courier service and email has led to a marked decline in personal mail over the last decade, she says, and the hobby has moved to the fringes. Banerjee reckons that India’s practitioners are “mostly elderly". Prem Chand Jaiswal, the Kolkata-based president of the All-India Philatelic Traders’ Association, agrees. “Most people either take it (philately) up when in school, up to class VIII, or after their 40s, when they have the time and money to invest," he says.
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But a new generation of collectors are rediscovering the philatelic urge, and beginning to archive the staggering quantity of Indian postal history. “Indian stamps are highly valued internationally," Banerjee says. “A lot of thought goes into an India stamp. They’re representative of the history and consciousness of this country." She remembers how, in 1994, when India Post introduced a sandalwood-scented stamp, they locked it up in a cupboard for a year before launch to make sure the scent didn’t fade.
We spoke to three collectors across the country about the joy of collecting, their roles as amateur historians and how even they have died a million deaths in anticipation of owning that perfect piece of philatelic history.
The Gandhian imperative
Nikhil Mundra | Chennai
Nikhil Mundra is an excavator of philatelic incongruities. Since 2003, when he was in class IX, he’s been unearthing postal artefacts that tell “an interesting story" of Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy, and the often remarkable ways in which his message has spread across the world.
Gandhi is to stamps what Che Guevara is to pop culture, an iconic transnational image that transcends political differences. He’s been honoured with stamps in over 100 countries, a feat no other historical figure comes close to, says Mundra.
“I read an article that mentioned this, and it got me inspired," says the 21-year-old engineering student. “I thought it was a good hobby—you learn a lot, and I’ve now made friends across the world, thanks to it."
Mundra began his quest by putting up his contact details on stamp exchange sites, and helping people acquire Indian stamps in return for ones featuring Gandhi from around the world. “Later, I started approaching dealers and auctioneers, and I tried selling items in my collection to finance rare purchases," he says.
Mundra spent close to €200 (around ₹ 12,360) to acquire a rare first-day envelope cover from the US. Issued on 30 January 1948, it pays tribute to the two people who died that day—Mahatma Gandhi and Orville Wright of the Wright brothers. “It’s possibly the only postal item that mentions both people, and I find it fascinating," says Mundra. “Gandhi had always expressed a desire to meet Wright."
It’s these chance philatelic encounters and overlaps Mundra is most interested in. “These are things that happen by accident, by complete chance, but reveal something interesting."
There is, for example, the set of commemorative stamps issued by Burkina Faso in the 1970s that feature Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. “You don’t see the two of them together very often," Mundra says. He also owns a stamp issued in Nicaragua in 1979-80 that features Albert Einstein with Gandhi, at a time the country was going through a revolution. The following year, the same stamp was reissued with the new regime’s symbols.
But Mundra is not content with merely collecting “accidents" of philatelic history. He also actively engineers it. In 2005, when India issued a special Dandi March stamp with a footprint-shaped first-day cancellation mark (the stamp put on envelopes to indicate that they have been processed and to prevent reuse), he sent it to friends across the world, asking them to return the footprint-laden envelope to him. “It was like a symbolic journey," he laughs. “Just adding a little twist to the usual tale."
On 2 October 2009, Gandhi’s 140th birth anniversary, he designed and bought a set of about 250 personalized stamps through a friend in The Netherlands. The country’s postal authority allows people to create legal stamps with their own designs, and Mundra chose a stylized black and white drawing of Gandhi with the word ‘Bapu’ below it. “I’m always on the look-out for these opportunities," he says, “that’s what keeps things exciting."
Prashant Pandya | Vadodara
In 2005, microbiologist Prashant Pandya wanted to do something the philatelic world had never done before.
“I wanted to start something new, innovative and challenging," the 49-year-old says over the phone from Vadodara. “To be the only person in the world working in that area."
He found inspiration in an unlikely source, a stamp exhibition he remembers on the theme of “water", and salvation in an even unlikelier one—milk.
“I collect philatelic items—stamps, covers, envelopes—that relate to milk," he says, rattling off a list. “Could be milk by-products or processing machinery or chemical constituents." It’s a process he calls “edutainment", a combination of delving into the history and etymology of a chosen theme, and the joy of discovering and sifting through postal material from the last 150 years in order to tell a story.
Pandya’s been a philatelist for nearly four decades now, having started accumulating stamps in class IV. “I started like everyone else did," he says. “Gathering stamps by country, putting everything in an album." He began to attend meetings of Vadodara’s local philatelic societies when in college, and learnt the intricacies of the hobby. “I became much more organized and focused on specific themes or time periods."
Most philatelists don’t measure their collection by size or number—they define them by “exhibits" and “frames". A “frame" consists of up to 16 sheets (each roughly A4 size, about 22x29cm) which hold about two or three items each. An “exhibit" is a collection of frames, arranged according to a particular theme or narrative.
Pandya’s first speciality was postal stationery (envelopes, covers) from pre-independence India. “There’s a lot you can learn," he says. “You get great insights into how information flowed in a particular society during that era." Pandya reckons he can put together eight-frame exhibits on pre-independence postal stationery. Among the rare items in his possession are a series of pictorial postcards released by the North-Eastern Railway and a unique slice of postal history called “Airgraph".
Airgraphs were a short-lived system of mail delivery introduced during World War II. The British government needed more space on mail-burdened planes to transport ammunition to the war’s front lines, and encouraged people to use the Airgraph system instead of envelopes. “You went to the Airgraph office, filled up a pre-printed form and they would take a microfilm photograph of it," Pandya says. These films were then transported on the planes, and the roll developed and printed on the receiving end. “The service was stopped soon after the war, so these items are rare," he says.
Pandya’s current obsession is developing his “milk" theme collection. “It’s a tough subject," he admits glumly, “But I’m putting together a one-frame exhibit." He also wants to get back to http://www.indianphilately.net/, a Hindi blog he started in 2009 as an information resource for schoolchildren and non-English speaking enthusiasts. “I hope non-philatelists read it too…they might understand why this subject is so fascinating to us."
Chhavi Mittal | Delhi
Till a family visit to her uncle’s south Delhi house in 2005, 13-year-old Chhavi Mittal didn’t know that there existed a world, in stamps, beyond Mahatma Gandhi. “I’d seen only Gandhi stamps being used at home and elsewhere," she says. “I didn’t know that there were so many beautiful stamps with different colours, designs and images. I never expected a stamp to smell of sandalwood!" Now 18, and the proud owner of an award-winning collection of peculiar postal items called “maxima cards", she says it was “kind of love at first sight between me and those stamps at the time".
Maxima cards, short for “maximum cards", involve taking a picture postcard with a certain image, such as the Taj Mahal, affixed with a stamp of the same Taj Mahal photo, and then preferably cancelled with a Taj Mahal stamp issued by the local postal department. Any card with all three elements is a maximum card, but more often than not, most philatelists manage to get only the postcard picture and stamp to match. The cancellation may be just a regular one, but preferably from the same city as the photograph.
It’s the challenge of getting all the elements in perfect combination that interests most “maximaphily" collectors, and Mittal is no different. In 2008, she recalls spending days convincing her parents to allow her to participate in the 6th Delhi Philatelic Exhibition. “I doubled my studying hours so that I could participate," she says. Her maxima card collection on pet and domesticated animals won her the bronze medal, and the doubled studying hours got her an enviable 87.8% in her class X board examination the same year. Even now, balancing her hobby and studies is a challenge. But the first-year psychology student at Delhi University still tries to do her research over weekends and attend as many philatelic meets as possible.
Her first card was a gift from her uncle, Ajay Kumar Mittal, a veteran philatelist. “Every time I met him I would ask him about his collection, what everything meant, and how I could win all those medals that were displayed at his home," she says. When her uncle realized Mittal was serious about the hobby, he gave her a rare, 1813-dated German mark card with pictures of horses on it to get her started. “That was my first card," Mittal says. “The most valuable too (the card is estimated to have an individual value of a couple of thousand rupees, though neither Mittal nor her uncle have got it evaluated)." Her choice of subject was aided by her fondness for animals. “I am scared of wild animals, but I love animals, especially those one can keep as pets, so I started collecting cards on dogs, cats, horses and even cattle," she says. At first, Mittal would buy picture postcards, affix the stamp and then mail it to herself in order to get the cancellation, but now she gets a lot of her cards from family, friends and the treasure trove that is eBay. “I don’t have to spend much right now, I just have generous friends," she laughs. Mittal’s success as a young philatelist has got her friends, classmates and even teachers interested. So much so that many started their own collections and one of her class teachers even presented her with a rare 1935 Canada picture postcard of a cowboy, with a 1982 stamp with the identical picture.
After all the time Mittal spends looking at the “pretty pictures" in her collection, she hopes to have a pet dog of her own soon too. But, of course, the parents would need to be convinced first.