Life & Style

Stamp of approval: Rare collections from the South India Philatelists’ Association

Stamps on Gandhi from the collection of G Anil Reddy, vice-president, SIPA

Stamps on Gandhi from the collection of G Anil Reddy, vice-president, SIPA | Photo Credit: R Ravindran

For a brief hour on a searing May morning I am transported to deepest Africa, without ever leaving Chennai. Sitting in the 1900-built Electric Theatre, among the first cinema houses in South India and now home of the Philatelic Bureau, which flanks Anna Road Post Office, I journey to Biafra, once a secessionist state in Nigeria.

Rolands Nelson, a 76-year-old retired Chief Engineer from the Highways Department, who collects stamps of countries that no longer exist, showcases his collection of Biafra in a presentation — among them, stamps of an Igbo mother and child and a decapitated body highlighting the civilian massacre – holding forth on Biafra’s brief time as an independent country between 1967 and 1970.

G Rammohan, an Indian Railways engineer who helped rebuild Nigeria after the civil war that followed, embellishes the talk with his experiences. A presentation by G Anil Reddy on stamps of the United Nations issued simultaneously in Geneva, New York and Vienna, and the latest stamps issued by the Indian Department of Posts, concludes with the introduction of new members, who have signed up from as far as Thiruvananthapuram and Tiruchi, ending with a round of warm hellos to Satyanarayana Murthy who is visiting from Tirupati.

Members of the South India Philatelists’ Association outside the Philatelic Bureau, Anna Road

Members of the South India Philatelists’ Association outside the Philatelic Bureau, Anna Road | Photo Credit: M VEDHAN

Here, in this old white and red-trim building fronted by a red cast-iron pillar box of the Travancore Anchal, is where the members of the South India Philatelists’ Association (SIPA) meet on the second Sunday of every month. Before mobile phones, the only reminder for the scheduled meet was an announcement in The Hindu classifieds.

“SIPA is affiliated with the Philatelic Congress of India and was started by five keen stamp collectors of Madras on December 30, 1956,” says Mahesh Parekh, an optician and the secretary, SIPA. “Within six months SIPA designed and issued a First Day Cover for the Centenary of the First War of Indian Independence (1857). It is now gearing up to host a national-level exhibition at Olympia Tech Park, Guindy, between August 13 and 15.”

SIPA has brought out many special covers to create awareness. Mahesh himself collects postal cancellations from 1854-1874, with a focus on Aden and Singapore, both British colonies then. G Amarchand, president, SIPA, has among his collection the very rare Red Scinde Dawk, issued in 1852.

Encouragement for SIPA, which has 600 members, with a life membership costing ₹2,500 and no age limit, has been aplenty from successive Chief Postmasters General of the Tamil Nadu circle, whether for weekly exhibitions at the bureau or contests and summer workshops for school children.

Stamps on Queen Elizabeth II from the collection of G Anil Reddy, vice-president, SIPA

Stamps on Queen Elizabeth II from the collection of G Anil Reddy, vice-president, SIPA | Photo Credit: R Ravindran

Stamp collecting stands at the crossroads of history, nostalgia, beauty and individual passion. It also is a passport to a more romantic, pre-digital life.

Says Nelson, vice-president, SIPA, who was raised in Pasumalai, a suburb of Madurai. “I started collecting matchbox labels. They were available in plenty as Sivakasi, the firecracker and match hub, was close by. My attention turned to stamps when an uncle sent me a packet that had a hundred from all over the world. Some of those countries don’t exist now.”

While most philatelists begin with collecting stamps the traditional way, ie country-wise, they grow into being thematic collectors. “Collecting thematically is easier on the purse,” says Nelson, who, in keeping with his profession, has collected stamps on roads and bridges. “My favourites are the ones on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in different denominations. Issued in 1932, I started looking for them 50 years later and it took me two years to get the whole lot. Now every two-three years I build a new theme.”

It is a love he has passed on to his teenaged grand-daughters who now participate in exhibitions; somewhat uncommon as philately largely remains a male preserve.

Searching for the Mahatma

Mahatma Gandhi is a thematic favourite. “He is honoured by over a 100 countries. There are Gandhi stamps used on first flight covers, on covers marking the first moon landing, even one from Burkino Faso and on a cover from an Arctic base station, whose post office was on a slow-moving glacier — I found the temporary nature of this fascinating, ” says Nikhil Mundra, 33, a strategy professional, who collects only stamps on Gandhi.

Nikhil has the first stamp issued on Gandhi by India in 1948 and was drawn to collecting these because “I value harmony. I’ve made friends and won quizzes thanks to my fascination with the Mahatma. It’s both edutainment and creativity”.

Anil, vice-president, SIPA, also has a rare Gandhi stamp, although he also collects stamps of British India 1854-1947, Great Britain and joint issues. “I recently won a Large silver in Bangkok for my stamp collection with holograms. The cover from the Gandhi collection is unique as the slogan cancellation was issued only for one day. ‘Communal harmony will save Gandhiji’ was issued in English, Hindi and Urdu. I’m perhaps the only one to have the Urdu version. It was issued during his fast for communal harmony,” he says.

Philatelist Anil Reddy

Philatelist Anil Reddy | Photo Credit: R Ravindran

His meticulously maintained stockbooks are well known, although he laughs: “once we remove them for exhibitions it takes a while to get them organised again”.

“It’s a forensic exercise,” says long-time collector and lawyer Vikram Raghavan. “It calls for great reserves of discipline, patience and, sometimes, money.” Vikram, who has been collecting since he was in school, says “most are partial to the 1854 issue, especially the 4 anna stamp, although there are a lot of forgeries and that’s part of the challenge of collecting it. It costs more if it is still on the envelope as it means it has travelled somewhere and that gives rise to a whole new branch of collecting — used postal history. Serious collecting began only in the 1880s. And you even have Cinderella stamp collectors”.

A portrait of war

Vikram collects stamps that trace historical events — such as those used by the Allies after the fall of Berlin. “They cut out the swastika from the Nazi-era stamps and issued them. Similarly, I have one from Mosul where old Ottoman empire stamps were used by the British Field Post Offices when it became part of British Mesopotamia after the First World War. In a way it led to my interest in international law.”

A selection from Vikram Raghavan’s collection

A selection from Vikram Raghavan’s collection | Photo Credit: Ramu Srinivasa

While Vikram has built his collection largely by exchanging and harvesting stamps off envelopes, many others look to online marketplaces such as eBay guided by that bible of philatelists, the Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogue.

Bengaluru-based Ramu Srinivasa is among the very few Indians who is a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society London, the oldest in the world. His inheritance of stamps from his grand-uncle, a station master in Rangoon, set him off on a life-long love. “I have among the largest collection of stamps on birds, nearly 15,000, from across the world,” he says.

The HR professional has converted the ground floor of his house to stock 5,000 books and magazines printed since 1854. Ramu who also holds a 1911 airmail collection, won gold at Europex 2019 for his collection of rocket mail stamps; a bizarre method of using a rocket to deliver mail. Keeping with the times, Ramu also owns an NFT of the British Guiana 1c Magenta. Considered the world’s rarest stamp with only one specimen known to exist — it sold for over $8 million last year. The barely inch-sized piece of dark red, insignificant perhaps to the non-collector, was then thrown open to fractional ownership.

What then about stamps holds this grand allure? Says Vikram, “They present in a microcosm, pictures of a fast-changing world.”

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Printable version | May 25, 2022 4:47:08 pm |