Even as 2015 draws to a close, its passage is being recorded on a nearly obsolete thumb-size piece of paper, which was once an integral part of our lives before the advent of modern communication. The 39/39 mm postage stamp, first issued as a means of payment for postage in 1854, may have served its duty for all practical purposes but is yet printed for the dedicated observance of the philatelists. The “King of Hobbies” still has its takers, and the postal department of India issues commemorative postage stamps, which are not re-printed and which largely make their way to the deposit accounts of these collecting enthusiasts.
The postal department operates Philatelic Bureaux in 68 Head Post Offices at Circle Head Offices or in major district towns, with 1111 Philatelic Counters across the country. At these places, collectors maintain an account to which new postage stamps are automatically deposited while the price of the stamp, and other collectibles that one opts to receive, is deducted from the balance.
“My father opened a Philatelic Deposit Account at the Mumbai GPO in 1958,” says Devesh Ghosh, a mechanical engineer whose passion for philately has earned him a place on the advisory committee of government council, postal department of Jabalpur, MP circle (a Central Government body). “I operate it now and our collection has been clubbed.”
The Mumbai GPO has one of the country’s largest philatelic bureaux, providing an array of philatelic services, including running an international bureau where Indian stamps are supplied to collectors abroad. And collectors sure have an array to choose from. From freedom fighters to cricketers, and wildlife to textiles, Indian stamps tell an authentic tale about the country and its people.
Many philatelists choose to build their collections on a theme, so that a story unfolds once all the stamps are arranged in order, says Devesh. He has more than a 1000 stamps featuring automobiles from around the world and another set of pre and post-Independence stamps on Nature from India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Although it’s the rush of filling a missing piece in his collection that drives him, Devesh notes that lately, philately has increasingly become an investment option for many. “My most valuable stamp is one issued on King Edward circa 1909, from the British India period, which was priced at Rs 25 a century ago. It costs 6,500 pounds now as listed by Stanley Gibbons ltd.,” he says. The federation of international philatelists revise the catalogue price of stamps annually and Stanley Gibbons is the authorised agency of printing the catalogue.
Stanley Gibbons ltd. is a leading worldwide stamp dealer, too. “It’s the place to go to buy and sell stamps. Apart from that there are forums, like the Philately Congress of India, where members interact and sell/exchange stamps. Additionally, there is the option of selling directly through ebay or dellcamp.net,” says Devesh.
Philately is a hobby that requires some money to pursue, and it is often an elder who initiates one into the fold. For Devesh it was his father. For Sumit Gupta, too, it was his father, and now the middle-aged man is introducing his six-year-old daughter to the wonders of a lost era.
On a December morning, Gupta has made his way to the National Philately Museum tucked away in a corner of the Dak Bhavan on Sansad Marg. He visits periodically to look around and picks up collectibles at the GPO. Today he is here to print a personalised sheet of postage stamps for his daughter under the government scheme “My Stamp”. Launched in 2011 by India Post, the scheme offers a chance to enthusiasts to have their thumbnail photo printed alongside a commemorative stamp, one sheet of which costs Rs 300.
An avid philatelist himself, to make the hunt for stamps exciting for his daughter, Gupta posts letters with stamps attached to his own address. “A while ago my family visited Singapore,” he shares. “There we bought a stamp and mailed a post card back home which took about 20-25 days to reach. It arrived after we returned, and my daughter was thrilled,” he says with infectious enthusiasm.
This way, he also avails of the special cancellations that accompany commemorative stamps. Indeed, philately does not end with possessing a variety of single stamps. Seasoned collectors outdo each other by vying for first day covers, special cancellations and miniature sheets. The latter are sheets on which the stamps were originally printed, with perforations around the actual stamp area. Gupta points to a miniature sheet depicting a scene from a Rajasthani village. Here, the torso of a woman clad in the traditional dress is what appears on the stamp but the margins and the rest of the sheet has additional printing which shows the swirl of her ghagra and bells on her feet.
As Gupta browses through the exhibits, waiting for the person in-charge of printing “My Stamps” to return from lunch break, he says the collection at the museum is hardly impressive. Samarth from Karnataka agrees. “It is disappointing,” he says. A businessman, he was in Udaipur for a few days to attend the Jainism Philately Club meet. Work brought him to Delhi where he stopped by the museum to look for missing pieces in his collection and, later, would round it off with a visit to the GPO to buy stamps.
For a concentrated theme like Jainism, as Samarth pursues, stamps are rare because here, as in any other field, the supply and demand drives printing and prices. The popularity of the Hindi film industry, for instance, warrants a number of stamps issued to honour its veterans. In 2008, four lakh copies of stamps commemorating Madhubala were issued, which continue to rise in value as she remains one of the most popular actresses of all time, whose stamp is still sought after.
Moreover, the postal department prints in limited quantities, Devesh explains. At the end of a financial year, all GPOs pool their data and study how many new accounts were opened. They then send the report to the Postal Department which takes a call on the number of stamps to be printed the following year.
But whether its numbers rise or fall, one thing is certain: stamps will steadily chronicle our story into the future, and generations will return to these fragments of history to witness the building of a world and learn about the people who helped build it.
And for those who are not looking solely for a crash course in History, they may be entertained by the gimmick items that are offered up once in a while: 3D stamps, stamps printed on record gramophone discs, or on a silk cloth and on sandalwood-scented paper. Philately has something for all ages and all interests.