The Colorful World of Philately – A Journey to the Heart of a Civilization

In July 2018, the government of India announced a new scheme to promote philately among  school children. Given the rather Soviet-esque name of  the Society for Promotion of Aptitude and Research in Stamps as a Hobby (SPARSH), the scheme provides scholarships to students to pursue philately as a hobby. And it has a very competitive selection process – only the best and the brightest make the cut.

A philately club sounds like something that belongs to the days of Malgudi and pen pals ; hard to imagine children sitting around a wooden table after school marveling at little bits of paper from an era long gone. Shouldn’t they all be posting selfies on Instagram instead? Who collects stamps anymore? What would you even do with a stamp? Write a letter?

Think again.

Source: Indiapost

This Mahatma Gandhi stamp issued in 1948, and printed with the words ‘Service’ is the most expensive stamp in India. Known as the Gandhi Purple Brown and Lake Service stamp, it was sold for GBP 500,000 in 2011 at an auction in Australia.  Another interesting thing about this stamp is that the word “Bapu” appears in Urdu on the top right corner of the stamp – something no longer seen in modern Indian stamps.

Another famous stamp that goes by the name of Indian Birds of Prey Error Stamp was auctioned for USD 16,500 in 2011. The ‘error’ in the name comes from the fact that the stamp though priced at Rs 2 when issued in 1992, carried an erroneous print of Re 1 instead. Only a few specimens were issued before the error was realized and rectified.  In the world of stamps, such errors make the item much sought after,  just as impurities in precious stones make them valuable. A 1968 Triennial Art Exhibition Error Stamp sold for USD 10,000 in 2017 because of a coloring error in the specimen.

Source: Indiapost

The most famous error stamp in the world is the American Jenny Stamp, a 1916 issue stamp of 25 cents denomination that sold for USD 1 Million in 2007. Many investment advisors even recommend stamps as an alternate investment strategy that offers returns comparable to blue chip stocks and gold. The Stanley Gibbons GB 250 Index that tracks the values of select British stamps has posted an annual compounded growth of 10% over the last 50 years, outperforming even the FTSE 100 several times.

So yes, there’s  some money in stamps. But that isn’t why philatelists are passionate about them. For one, a philatelist is different from a mere stamp collector in the same way that an art curator or an art historian is different from a mere art collector. For the philatelist the thrill of stamps lies in the tiniest detail – from the cut of the paper to the style of printing to the colors used in the design – it’s all minutiae to be studied, savored, and discussed endlessly with other philatelists.

And then comes the exhilaration of entering the world that the stamp vividly describes on a 2cm by 2.5cm block of paper.  In a world before internet, before even television, stamps were the medium through which people learned about the world around them which even till a few decades ago, felt too big and full of wonder. Stamps were the Wikipedia cum National Geographic of the pre-digital world. In those little blocks of colored paper with perforated edges, you could time travel to ancient India to witness Panini composing the Ashtadhyayi, his famous treatise on Sanskrit Grammar or fly across thousands of miles to the jungles of Manipur to gaze deep into the eyes of a majestic Sangai Deer with its spectacular crown of antlers.  

Source: Indiapost

Which doesn’t mean that stamps are any less informative today. The postal department releases stamps based on themes or commemorative stamps meant to honor people or events, often little known even to the most internet savvy. Philatelists across the country eagerly await the release of each new series of stamps, wondering which new universe  would the next series unveil. To some it might appear anachronistic, but to philatelists it is a lot like how people still listen to the radio when all the world’s music is a mere click away on Youtube – you never know which long forgotten melody the RJ is going to throw at you and which swell of emotions it unleashes.

For instance in 2010, the Government of India released this series of 11 intricately designed stamps around the theme of the 12th century Odiya poet Jayadeva who composed the Gita Govinda – a classic of Sanskrit poetry considered at par with Kalidasa’s best works. Each of the 10 stamps depicts the poet Jayadeva with one of the Dasavataras or the 10 avatars of Vishnu while the eleventh stamp depicts Jayadeva composing the Gita Govinda.  Besides making us aware of a little known aspect of our own literary tradition, the stamps possess an aesthetic quality of their own that is almost artistic in nature, and are a collector’s delight.

Another classic theme released last year focused on the religious and cultural head gears of India. How many of us know, even with all our incessant Googling and our Wanderlust hashtags of the Bison Horn head gear of the Maria tribals of Chattisgarh?

Source: Indiapost

Commemorative stamps honor historical figures and events, many of them completely ignored in our national imagination. For instance these commemorative stamps issued  in honor of Kunjali Marrikar, the Malabari Muslim naval warriors who defended India from Portuguese attacks in the 16th century, and another one  issued to commemorate the 19th century Sikh general Hari Singh Nalwa, who earned a reputation as the ‘Terror of the Afghans’.

Stamps on Indian natural heritage feature a wide variety of themes. For instance how many of us are aware of the indigenous breeds of horses found in India ?

Stamps are also released to mark milestones in our nations journey, most of which are now little remembered, For instance in 1965 a team of mountaineers led by Captain MS Kohli became the first Indians to reach the summit of the Everest. India post released this stamp to mark the occasion.

Source: Indiapost

As can be seen, each stamp is a work of art in itself with a great deal of craftsmanship and diligence going into its making. Unlike normal postage stamps, philatelic stamps are printed just once and are in limited supply. As their numbers decrease with circulation, their value increases. Philatelists pay as much attention to the upkeep and preservation of stamps as to collecting them. Just like art and vintage wine, stamps too must be protected from the elements of weather and the ravages of time. The International Philatelic Federation organizes philately competitions during which strict guidelines are followed for exhibiting collections.

The death of Philately had been predicted almost 50 years ago. With each new technological innovation that brought us closer, shrunk our world, and flooded our lives with sights and sounds that were once the domain of stamps, philately retreated.

But it is far from dead.

Philately thrives today for the same reason that people visit libraries in the age of Netflix and Kindle.  The chocolaty smell of yellowing paper and the slow burning pleasure of reading words on paper have proved to be stubbornly irreplaceable. For all the dire proclamations on the advent of technology and information overflow, books and libraries are going nowhere.  People still visit art galleries when the most beautiful images on the world are there for all to see on Instagram. And little colored pieces of paper with bits of history and culture printed on them still bring a childlike joy to millions around the world.

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