Octogenarian S. V. Ramakrishnan’s unique collection of autographs offers insights into the minds of people who shaped history.
S. V. Ramakrishnan could not have avoided crossing paths with men of history. As the son of S. R. Venkataraman, who served a term as president of the Servants of India Society, a national organisation founded by Gopal Krishna Gokhale that used to host speeches by leaders, reformers and thinkers in its centres, Ramakrishnan was destined to watch these worthies at close quarters. Now 82, he recalls how he made use of these meetings to build an autograph collection. He was also a regular at the Shastri Hall in Mylapore, YMIA in Esplanade and Lakshmipuram Young Men’s Association in Royapettah, a few of the other places in Madras that were graced by eminent personalities.
Before long, he began to cast his net wider, often writing to leaders and sometimes taking the trouble to travel just for autographs. When Sardar Vallabhai Patel was Deputy Prime Minister, Ramakrishnan wrote to him for his autograph. “The undersecretary wrote back to me asking for a self-addressed envelope,” says Ramakrishnan.
When he travelled to Ahmedabad, he missed getting Morarji Desai’s signature by a whisker, actually a fibre. “I was turned away, because Morarji Desai would sign only for people wearing khadi.”
In the mid-1980s, when he served NABARD in Bombay, Ramakrishnan went to the NCPA at Nariman Point, having learnt that JRD Tata was attending a talk given by the British High Commissioner from Delhi. “Tata declined my request for an autograph on the grounds that the High Commissioner was the chief guest, not he. I admired Tata all the more for his self-effacing attitude,” says Ramakrishnan.
Ramakrishnan almost always got the signatures he wanted. With former presidents of India Rajendra Prasad, Zakir Hussain and V. V. Giri, Nobel laureates Alexander Fleming, Norman Borlaug and Ralph J. Bunche and sportspersons Viktor Barna and ‘Gorgeous Gussie’ Moran among the haul of signatures, the eclectic collection speaks volumes for his dogged pursuit of this hobby.
Besides providing nostalgic moments for Ramakrishnan, the names penned with a flourish give a glimpse into the minds of men that made history. Some signatures display a preferential love for the mother tongue. Starting with Rajendra Prasad, who signed his name in Hindi and English, Ramakrishnan shows signatures of other greats who would first sign their names in their mother tongue, and follow it with their English equivalent. He also displays a book Jawarharlal Nehruvin Kadithangal (1944), his father Venkataraman’s Tamil translation of Nehru’s Letters To His Daughter. The book bears Nehru’s signature, first in Hindi and then in English.
Some signatures come alive because Ramakrishnan has captured people’s moods along with them. When the West Indies toured India in 1949, he would wait at the Connemara hotel with bated breath as the players returned from the stadium. Gauging their frame of mind, he would approach them. “During the tour, George Headley, known as ‘the black Bradman’, looked despondent because he didn’t get to play a single match,” he recalls.
“Except for Clyde Walcott’s, I got the autographs of all the players, Indian and West Indian.” He still cannot get over this disappointment. “Getting Walcott’s autograph would have completed the three Ws of West Indian cricket. I have the autographs of Everton Weekes and Frank Worrel.”
Besides autographs, Ramakrishnan has other collections that serve as markers of history. They include a vast collection of newspaper and magazine cuttings that are based on personalities, Queen Elizabeth, Don Bradman, G.N.Balasubramaniam, M. S. Subbulakshmi and Sachin Tendulkar among them. The clippings cover a wide spectrum of publications, including rare ones. For example, the collection on Queen Elizabeth is drawn from very old editions of Sphere, Illustrated, Picture Post and Commonwealth Today.