FRIDAY REVIEW

Magnificent spread of history

PREMA NANDAKUMAR

A Sivalingam made of coins.

A Sivalingam made of coins.  

I MET him first in a Music Circle session in Srirangam where discussions were going on about the nuances of using the `gandharam' note in Todi. Someone in the audience began essaying the raga to prove a point. The face seemed familiar. Yes, this is the gentleman who walks with Ranganatha's chariot in the Chitra festival, distributing a mixture of cashew, sugar candy and badam from a silver pot!

With a strong namam on his forehead and flashing ear-studs, he had been introduced to me then as a leading jeweller of Tiruchi and as the chairman of the Board of Trustees, Sri Ranganathaswamy Devasthanam. It was quite a surprise to find in him a keen student of Carnatic music. But more surprises were in the offing when I attended an exhibition of his stamp collection in a local high school sometime later. K.P.S. Narayanan Chettiar tells me that he was struck by this desire even as a student to record history in his own way. Now his collection of half a century and more is a magnificent spread which has been displayed in educational institutions inspiring the student community no end.

K. P. S. Narayanan Chettiar.

K. P. S. Narayanan Chettiar.  

The history of stamp collecting goes back to the 1840s when Great Britain came up with the adhesive postage stamp. Apparently, it was looked down upon as `timbromania' (stamp madness) in those days. But the madness has continued unabated and even the advent of the electronic mail has not dimmed its popularity. It is said that at present there are 200 million collectors the world over. Certainly not a negligible army! And yet, each collector is unique. Hence Sri Narayanan's philatelic collection is extremely valuable. To go through the entire collection of Narayanan certainly lands us in a state of awe. He is a topical collector and has arranged the stamps with scientific precision, compartmentalising them under more than 150 themes. Actors, aviation, banking, butterflies, coins, costumes, dams, dances, animals, world wars ... all of creation is in his palm: Australia, Nigeria, Russia, Holland, Zambia. He challenges me to name any country of my choice; I do, and immediately there is a stamp or two held up for my inspection.

India basks in his special affection. There are stamps from the East India Company days. Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V — they are all here. After 1947, the volume expands in a multi-foliate manner. Children's Day, trees and flowers, animals, saints, scientists, poets, railways, religion, music, wild life: a quiz master's delight! Each stamp accompanied by information about it is enveloped in white polythene, so that one is able to get the information without disturbing or injuring the exhibit. An added attraction is the set of first day cancellation covers. Managing these 50,000 stamps, many of them probably not easily obtainable anywhere in the world, however, has not exhausted this philatelist. For he is a numismatic too!

The Ramthink dollar...

The Ramthink dollar...  

Narayanan's collection of coins is another wonder world. Apart from ordinary currency, there are some very precious ones like the Ramthink dollar which was in use during the times of the poet-saint of Andhra Pradesh, Bhadrachala Ramadas. Other rare gold coins in the collection belong to the dynasties of Vijayanagar, the Cholas, Gwalior, Canada and Australia. There are even a few mini coins that are sovereigns cast during the reign of George V.

Here are copper coins belonging to the times Before Christ, says Sri Narayanan showing some. They are Indo-Greek and Roman coins and go back to the times of Satavahanas and Harsha. A few are coins minted during the reign of Raja Raja Chola, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. A group of coins was minted by the states that existed before independence such as Travancore-Cochin and Mysore. They are all made of different metals like silver, copper, nickel, brass and aluminium. To get the onlookers - especially students - interested in the exhibits, Narayanan prepares pictorial arrangements of coins now and then. Once he wanted to do something tangible for communal harmony. The result was the triple exhibit of a mosque, a church and Srirangam Rajagopuram made of coins. He keeps the coins safe by sticking them on a graph sheet along with notes. Divine figures like Vinayaka and Sivalinga rise as if from nowhere. Apart from buying coins, Narayanan has even gathered quite a few rare ones by taking part in auctions.

Of the several awards conferred upon him are `Anjal Thalai Sekarippu Vithakar' and `Sadhanai Semmal.' The Annmalai University honoured him with the title, "Mudra Sekhara Kesari" in 1997. An unassuming person, Narayanan is a staunch Gandhian and wears only khadi.

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