Put a stamp on it

November 21st, 2011

Some time ago, a friend who had just started collecting stamps lamented how bland Indian stamps were as compared to the ones brought out by most other countries. Surely India, with its wealth of history, colours and cultures, couldn’t make for a dull subject. And what a pity if the Indian postal department had failed to celebrate this country. Curiosity led me to the India Post website – something I, like many others like me, have never quite given a thought, even though our growing up years wouldn’t have been the same had it not been for the Indian postal service.

And what a treasure I stumbled upon. Of course there were the usual dull brown, the sickly yellow and the faded green stamps. But there was also a lot more: the history of India through its stamps, the events, moments and landmarks that have made and defined India and Indians, and the people who have been part of our lives through it all. Among the commemorative postage stamps issued in 2001 was a set of four stamps based on stories from Panchatantra. Another one was on Raj Kapoor, released on his birth anniversary (December 14), that captured three characters, including those from Mera Naam Joker and Aawara, played by the legendary actor. And one of V Shantaram which immortalised his character in Do Aankhen Barah Haath.

Two years later, the department issued stamps as a tribute to some of the country’s finest singers – Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar. The play of light which was so crucial in Guru Dutt’s films is also visible in the stamp brought out in his memory in 2004. Bimal Roy, S D Burman, Ritwik Ghatak, Bismillah Khan, Madhubala, all of them have a stamp to their name. And each of them is worth possessing. The 2006 series on ‘Stop Child Labour’, the 2007 series on the landmark bridges of India (Howrah, Mahatma Gandhi Setu, Pamban Bridge) and the series on Rajasthan’s Pushkar fair are not just stamps; these are storyboards.

But perhaps the most significant of the lot is the story of the Indian freedom struggle through its stamps, starting from the uprising of 1857. Sepoy Mangal Pande of the 5th Company, 34th Native Infantry, looks out of a stamp. In another stamp, Rani Laxmibai, the woman who was described by a British general as “the only man among the rebels”, is astride her horse, sword in hand. Kunwar Singh, nearly eighty and ailing when he took up arms against the British, a couplet by the last Mughal Emperor and poet Bahadur Shah Zafar, Tatya Tope, who led the revolt against the British in Bundelkhand, Awadh’s Begum Hazarat Mahal who took control of Lucknow during the revolt of 1857, Rani Avantibai, the queen of Ramgarh (Madhya Pradesh) who led her forces to reclaim her land from the British in 1857 – they are all there with the story of India’s fight for Independence.

No, Indian stamps do not lack colour. In fact, they go much beyond the colour and into stories that some people remember to this day. I wonder, though, if decades from now the stamps to commemorate Commonwealth Games 2010 will also tell a story. Only, I doubt if many people would want to remember that story.

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