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Meet the 88-year-old queen of Indian philately

Damayanti Pittie is the president of the Philatelic Congress of India. (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)Premium
Damayanti Pittie is the president of the Philatelic Congress of India. (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

  • The president of the Philatelic Congress of India, Damayanti Pittie has a formidable collection of ink and hand-stamps that define Indian postal history
  • Pittie is preparing to host the biggest philately event in recent Indian history: the Indian National Philatelic Exhibition (Inpex), which will be held next week in Mumbai

The cheese toast and coffee were on side tables. Spread across the dining table, at Damayanti Pittie’s Malabar Hill flat in Mumbai, was her award-winning collection of pre-independence ink and hand-stamps.

Pittie, 88, is the president of the Philatelic Congress of India (PCI). We met earlier this week amid her preparations to host the biggest philately event in recent Indian history: the Indian National Philatelic Exhibition (Inpex), which will be held from 18-22 December at Mumbai’s World Trade Centre.

While the exhibition is expected to have over 250 contestants, Pittie cannot participate. “I already won the national Grand Prix in 2000," she says. “I might show in the non-competitive section but we will have to see if there’s space...." Later, I procure a list of the 34 international exhibitions she has been invited to, from Germany to Malaysia, Korea and Australia. She has won prizes in most of them.

Pittie used to collect stamps as a young girl in Kolkata but it was only a fleeting hobby. It was in 1957, while she was accompanying her husband to Hanover, Germany (the family owns sugar factories), that she began collecting seriously. The industrial town had been almost completely razed during World War II. “It was a long winter…there was nothing to do in the evenings," says the soft-spoken Pittie. A Swiss-German friend gave her some “nice Swiss stamps with flowers" which she took to with enthusiasm. However, on their return to India after a year, she was unsuccessful in her efforts to fraternize with other stamp collectors. “I was very housewife-like and of a shy type…I didn’t talk to people and all that," she says. She assumed this was the hurdle but soon realized the barrier was the fact that she was collecting Swiss and German stamps—and nobody in India was interested in those.

Pittie started her Indian collection of ink and hand-stamps, with a focus on postal history, in the mid-1980s. She is a trove of information as she points to the different markings: There’s a letter from a soldier that’s exempt from postage, an 1829 stamp that indicates half postage was prepaid and half would be paid by the receiver. She points out the oldest stamps with their anna-pai-rupaiya denominations. Her accompanying notes highlight which ones are “rare" or “very scarce". “My collection is like that. That’s why I got the Grand Prix," she says matter-of-factly, in much the same manner in which she shares that she’s not very educated. This hasn’t come in the way of her highly academic approach to philately, though.

Pittie started collecting before the luxury of internet resources, relying on catalogues, stock books and exchanges with other collectors. She dated her stamps by studying the postage rate mentioned and correlating that with historical records of postage rates. “You have to know details like how long a particular ship route took to be accurate," she says. Her late husband was a supportive figure though he had little interest in philately himself. He would advise her at auctions, organize her travel and accompany her most of the time.

Today, the PCI meets every fortnight at the GPO (General Post Office) in Mumbai to discuss new releases, news and trends. There’s always gossip on the grapevine—the rumour of Pittie’s win at the international Grand Prix in 2015 in Singapore was a popular one (she didn’t win). There are few women among the ranks of serious philatelists in India and abroad. Pittie names Sita Bhateja, a Bengaluru-based gynaecologist who died last year, as perhaps the most renowned one.

As president of India’s apex philately body, Pittie believes the department of posts has failed them. “They used to hold state- and national-level competitions which were stopped because they had ‘no time and money for such nonsense’," she says. Pittie is also part of a philatelic advisory committee that is meant to advise on new stamps for commemorative occasions—but the committee is rarely consulted by the government.

The Inpex exhibition, timed to coincide with the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, is dedicated to the youth. There will be a section dedicated to school exhibits as well as workshops in basics such as perforation identification using a perforation gauge, mounting, storage and watermark detection. While there is a lot keeping the youth away from studying stamps, Pittie is a great advocate of how it’s an engaging and educative activity which promotes not just knowledge building but also knowledge sharing. It fosters relationships of trust and exchange—values we could really do with today. Most of all, it’s an activity that can be shared by children, and senior citizens, even “those who cannot get around".

While Pittie is very active herself—she is a member of eight international philatelic societies—a touch of morbidity springs up when she tells me she often wonders what will happen to her collection after her. No one in her family is particularly interested in stamps.

Philately is often dubbed the “king of hobbies" and the “hobby of kings". After meeting Pittie, I can’t help thinking I met its Indian queen.

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