His hobby bears the stamp of history

Hemchandra Rao. — Photo: S. Thanthoni

Hemchandra Rao. — Photo: S. Thanthoni  

Hemchandra Rao's collection includes a Pallava coin Collection of stamps, coins and banknotes carries images of ships

R. Sujatha

CHENNAI: A room with huge pillars, unpainted and unadorned walls, wooden beams for the 20-feet high ceiling and wooden floors... Strange environs to be in for today's children. But this is the place that kindled philatelist-turned-numismatist Hemchandra Rao's interest in history.

He collects stamps, coins and banknotes with images of ships and possesses books on ships.

When students of a city school entered Clive Hall at the Fort St. George and seemed disappointed by the modest display of photographs of Madras and the collection of stamps and coins, Hemchandra Rao asked them, "Don't you want to see how Clive lived?" He then went on to explain that Clive got married at St. Mary's Church and "this is where he danced after marriage."

Recalling his childhood, Mr. Rao said, "When I was their age I did not have the opportunity to come here." His father, grandfather and great grandfather were doctors and the family moved from Kochi to Madras in 1941, when he was two years old.

In an interview to The Hindu , he said "we lived in a large house in T. Nagar. We had a motor car but no electricity." The family lived without electricity and contended with dry latrines for 10 years. My mother used to seat me in bus route no. 10. That still exists," he said.

This alumnus of Ramakrishna Mission School was denied an engineering admission because he did not know to kick a football. The British teacher declared that he would never make it as an engineer. An Indian teacher ticked him off because he wore the sacred thread.

Mr. Rao, however, proved them all wrong and went on to qualify as civil engineer from the Birla Institute of Technology.

His father took him to the Victory Stamp Company at Moore Market when he was seven. "Every day I would look at my stamp collection for 10 minutes. A hobby is a stress buster." In 1989, he became president of the South India Philatelist Association, a post he relinquished in 1990 when friends wanted him to start the Madras Coin Society.

"Though India has a rich maritime heritage only two dynasties minted coins with ships on them," explains Mr. Rao whose collection includes a Pallava coin. The Satvahana dynasty's only existing coin is at Smithsonian Institute in the U.S. "If I have Rs. 10 I will spend only Rs. 9 on my hobby. I have stamps on warships. I have books too. An advanced collector must also possess books." He has been urging the Reserve Bank of India to set up a museum because he thinks it is important "to give something back as heritage."

He plans to give his collection to the Indian Navy for the proposed museum on INS Vikrant.

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