If stamps belong to a time gone by, it's because not many write letters anymore. However, there are a few philatelists — young and old — who hold on to these little pieces of history, finds BHUMIKA K.

What could just be a little bit of colourful paper with a weird ragged edge to some can be the focal point of a lifetime of passion for another. I'm talking of the little thing on the corner of the envelope we call a stamp. A postage stamp that we rarely get to see today, leave alone collect.I bet many of you reading this have at some point in your life inherited an old musty album of stamps from a grand-uncle or cousin, or have started off excitedly when someone gifted you a spanking new stamp album filled with colourful "foreign" stamps for a birthday. Or have heard from collectors the excitement of possessing The Penny Black, the world's first official adhesive postage stamp issued by the United Kingdom back in 1840.When the British Royal Mail recently released a commemorative series of stamps on The Beatles picturing the Fab Four and their album covers in the UK, they were lapped up by music aficionados and philatelists. It's one of the few rare times when the little postage stamp creates a buzz in world media.So we decided to talk to philatelists in Bangalore and do a quick check on how the hobby is doing in our own city. They are, after all, part of a world fraternity that loves and lives stamps obsessively, collects, possesses and displays them with great pride.As Sita Bhateja, a gynaecologist in the city and renowned philatelist says: "It's an exciting hobby, not just to collect them, but to also study them. If you don't know what a stamp is, it is just a piece of paper. But it is surprising how you can trace the entire history of a country through just one of them!" Managing time between her hectic schedule, she stays up late at night, studying and organising her collection, which goes back 25 years, when she started collecting. Dr. Bhateja believes that the hobby is alive and kicking among small school-level clubs and associations. She specialises in stamps of pre-independent India because "they lend themselves to a lot of research". Fourteen-year-old Aditi Shenoy has been collecting stamps since she was five. "My older sister used to get me stamps. Her school used to sell sheets and donate the money to charity. That's how I started. I like collecting stamps of animals and butterflies," says the young enthusiast, one of the few from that generation perhaps, that still collects. While Aditi brings out her collection of albums every Sunday to work on them, she says right now gearing up for a serious expansion of her collection is impossible, with studies taking a front seat.This is a situation that many senior philatelists lament. Parents and schools stress so much on academics, that they tend to ignore the benefits a hobby like stamp-collecting can offer their children. "It is the best hobby for kids to get more knowledge on a subject — it encourages their reading habit when they look up the history of the stamp, it improves their imagination and handwriting when they have to plan and prepare to exhibit their collection, and also improves their vocabulary when they have to condense writing for their displays," says R.G. Sangoram, a retired professor, avid stamp collector, and former president of The Karnataka Philatelic Society. His house often transforms into a workshop where he teaches and guides youngsters on the nuances of philately. "A stamp is not merely about collecting. You get to know a country's culture, language, economics, science and technological developments by going into the details of a stamp. Unfortunately, parents themselves have become slaves of machines. Moreover, they want kids to climb up on stage for popularity that is momentary ," he critically points out. While the Society has over 350 lifetime members, as few as 40 meet regularly, he says. Youngsters have been keeping away and the average age of the members today is between 50 and 55, he laughs. The Department of Posts hosts philately exhibitions, but it's not done very often. Funds are always limited. Sangoram has been collecting stamps since 1985 and has a vast collection on themes ranging from space programmes and communication to the life of Churchill and the Haley's Comet."As a philatelist I say that the hobby can never die out," asserts M.S. Ramu, a 32-year-old HR professional who has been collecting stamps for the last 24 years. "People have been taken away from this hobby, but I believe that parents of youngsters can make a difference." Ramu's mother encouraged him to start collecting with a collection left behind by her uncle. He says that while interest wanes sometimes, it is also very encouraging to note that when the postal department released four rose-scented stamps for Valentine's Day last week, they sold about 3,000 of the stamps at least on the very first day itself. Ramu is currently trying to put together a reference library of over 20,000 books and magazines on philately that he has collected over the years.Those interested in stamp collecting may want to catch up with The Karnataka Philatelic Society members who meet on the first and third Sunday of every month at the General Post Office (GPO), near Vidhana Soudha, at 10.30 a.m.