Know your Baba Saheb

A definitive stamp of Dr. Ambdekar issued in 2001.

A definitive stamp of Dr. Ambdekar issued in 2001. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


In April 2021, a Gudivada special cover was released featuring a rare photograph of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar with a group of young women. It was taken in July 1942 at the Depressed Classes Women’s Conference held in Nagpur. The cover says, “Dr. Ambedkar had brought out many welfare measures like equal pay for women, maternity leave and fixed working hours while he was holding the position of Member (Labour) portfolio in the Viceroy Executive Council.”

“Baba Saheb: An Extraordinary Philatelic Journey” is possibly the first exclusive philatelic exhibition on Dr. Ambedkar that puts together a comprehensive philatelic archive on the architect of the Indian Constitution. “It is significant because it introduces Ambedkar and his message through a new medium and curates less explored archival material that can open newer avenues of research not just on Ambedkar but also on the post-colonial state in India,” says Vikas Kumar, the curator.

A special cover of Dr. Ambedkar in Gudivada.

A special cover of Dr. Ambedkar in Gudivada. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Trained as an engineer and then economist, Kumar presently teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He began collecting stamps in 1984 and specialises in themes such as census, family planning, caste and the Northeast.

Starting from 1966, when Dr. Ambedkar became the first Dalit figure on a postage stamp to 2017 when a commemorative stamp showcased Deekshabhoomi (where Dr. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism), Kumar has divided the exhibition into three periods: 1966-1991, 1992-2010, and 2012-22.

In the first phase, Ambedkar appears as a standalone personality in the philatelic sphere, limited to commemorative issues released on his birth anniversaries.  “In the second phase, he features on a wide range of postal material: his quotes are reproduced on inland letter cards and postcards; he appears on stamps of other personalities and is referred to in the information brochure of commemorative stamps of other personalities and institutions; he and monuments related to him, feature on the cachets of the first-day covers of other commemorative issues and, most importantly, he features on a definitive stamp.”

A 1993 inland with a quote from Dr. Ambedkar.

A 1993 inland with a quote from Dr. Ambedkar. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The third phase is about Ambedkar emerging as a subject of special covers, picture postcards, and booklets across the country.

Kumar says the shifts in Dr. Ambedkar philately broadly overlap with the shifts in the political climate. “In the 1960s, the transition to a multi-party polity made room for more personalities including Ambedkar in the philatelic world. The churning in the late 1980s and early 1990s marked the onset of the (political) empowerment of weaker sections and included more personalities in the country’s philatelic collection. It helped to expand Ambedkar’s footprint.

On how the depiction of Dr. Ambedkar and other stalwarts on postal stamps changed under different regimes, Kumar holds the Nehruvian Congress responsible as it did not accommodate several key figures in the philatelic space including Sardar Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose and Baba Saheb.

“Netaji featured on commemoratives barely a few months before Nehru’s death. This might be explained by the controversy around his death. But even Patel was honoured with a commemorative stamp only after Nehru’s death. Ambedkar had to wait until Indira Gandhi came to power.” The Nehruvian era, he adds, was also marked by a near-complete absence of Muslims on stamps. “We need further research to understand some of these trends and patterns in Nehruvian-era that arguably produced some of the most beautiful, thoughtful and inclusive stamps in post-colonial India.”

The entry of Ambedkar and others including Savarkar into the post-Nehruvian philatelic space, Kumar says, was a consequence of the growing diversity in the political space. “Sardar Patel, Netaji and Baba Saheb were formally inducted into the postal pantheon by the Vajpayee government when it released a special definitive series. More specifically, Ambedkar’s journey towards the pantheon began in 1993 during Narasimha Rao’s tenure when his quotes appeared on inland letter cards.”

The BJP governments, he points out, have issued the greatest number of stamps on Ambedkar and, also, the most important ones too. “We see greater use of Buddhist iconography in some of the recent stamps on Ambedkar, but this is part of a long-term shift in Ambedkar’s philatelic portrayal that began with the 1973 commemorative’s information brochure, which referred to his conversion.”

The exhibition, hosted by the IIC, took two and a half years of planning. The idea emerged when Kumar was experimenting with the use of stamps to introduce students to economic history and five-year plans. “The response of students suggested that use of newer media such as philately not only introduces them to a new archive but also nudges them to revisit questions that they have already explored using conventional academic material.”

Kumar agrees the importance of philately as a hobby has certainly diminished with the rapid decline of the postal medium as a means of communication but maintains that philately’s role as a means of building archives will grow over the next decade.

The exhibition is on at India International Centre, New Delhi, till June 21

Important dates and stamps that signify shifts in how the icon is seen
1966: The first commemorative stamp on Ambedkar was issued, making him the first Dalit on a postage stamp.
1973: The second commemorative was issued, putting Ambedkar among the handful of personalities who had featured on two commemorative stamps.
1991: The third commemorative was issued, wherein he was referred to as Baba Saheb, a year after he was conferred with the Bharat Ratna.
1993: The first quote of Ambedkar emerged on postal stationary in the form of an inland letter card.
2001: The first definitive stamp of Ambedkar was issued.
2012: The beginning of grassroots engagement in the making of Ambedkar’s philatelic image.
2013: The first commemorative on an Ambedkar memorial was issued featuring Chaitya Bhoomi.
2015: A commemorative stamp, showcasing Ambedkar and the Constitution of India, marks the confluence of different philatelic imaginations of Ambedkar and his emergence as the foremost icon of the Republic.
2017: The commemorative stamp showcasing Deekshabhoomi marks the end of anxiety about Ambedkar’s place in the national imagination.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2022 5:23:20 pm |