Through the Philatelist’s Lens: The History of a Nation

Updated: Jan 1, 2019

In today’s electronic age of smartphones and skyscrapers, at a time when people are too busy to send letters or cards, the tiny postage stamp is often overlooked as a tool of effective communication design. These illustrated bits of gummed paper encapsulate the ideologies of a nation, its triumphs and ideals, myths and geographies into a miniature work of art. Apart from its utilitarian purpose of adorning the corner of every envelope as a token of payment, the postage stamp has become significant in the dissemination of nationalist ideas and the commemoration of key events in an effort to instil a sense of pride and identity amongst citizens.


Logging on to the national portal of postage stamps, you are introduced to the announcement of an android app that delivers stamps right at your doorstep. The irony of using a smartphone to purchase stamps in order to seal those envelopes perfectly summarises the travails of preserving the romance of letters in an era of instant messaging. Squares of paper breathe life into an entire nation’s heritage, politics, history, personalities, geography, wildlife, and architecture, developments in science and technology, modes of transport, music, dance, art and more. It is the brand image of a nation clipped together by the state and holds immense value as marketing and communication material. Just like a painting reflects the intention of the artist to evoke certain ideas and emotions, similarly, the artist of the stamp is the state and ruling elite. The design of a stamp could be called a micro-construction activity of nation building. Ideally, a stamp should distill the cultural aspect of a country and a mere glance must tell a story of nationalist pride. There is no room for abstract and metaphorical imagery in a 2 cm x 2.5 cm area of paper.

After Independence in the year 1947, the first postage stamp released depicted the Indian flag along with ‘Jai Hind’ written in Hindi. The other two stamps in the Independence series portrayed the national emblem and a Douglas DC-4 aircraft. Marking the independence of India, the stamps were commemorative of this momentous occasion.


(i) National Flag (ii) Ashoka Lion Capital (iii) Douglas DC-4 Aircraft

15th August 1948 marked the first anniversary of Independence and this event was honored by the release of four stamps titled the ‘Gandhi Mourning Issue’ with the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi which had ‘bapu’ written on the top left corner in both Hindi and Urdu as a message of communal harmony. The stamp was supposed to be released in January 1948 but before they could be issued, Gandhi was assassinated. He was the first personality to feature on the Indian postage stamp. Four sets of stamps of the value 1.5 annas, 3.5 annas, 12 annas and 10 rupees were issued, the one priced at 10 rupees out of the reach of the common Indian population. Hundred such stamps were printed with the word ‘service’ were issued to the governor-general’s secretariat for official use and now these stamps are of the most coveted items amongst Indian philatelists. A unique strip of four such stamps was auctioned for a record price of half a million pounds to an Australian investor this year in April. Such an exorbitant purchase represents the strength of the market for Indian collectibles, which is largely supported by the wealthy Indian diaspora.

A stamp with an Air India aircraft was issued on 29th May, 1948 to celebrate Air India’s first international flight on 8th June 1948. The aftermath of the partition included communal riots and atrocities and while India was still struggling with state machinery and assets, Mr. JRD Tata wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru suggesting that the Government of India sponsor the first international airline. Owned 49% by the Govt. of India, 25% by Tatas, and 26% by other shareholders, Air India was born. When this stamp was printed, it was decided by postal officials to print it in limited quantities and be valid only on the day of the flight, that too only on mail flown on that flight! This was a unique proposition for the issue of a stamp in the history of philately and this is why the stamp is highly valued today.

(i) Mahatma Gandhi portrait stamp for the value of 1.5 annas and (ii) 10 rupees (iii) Commemorative stamp depicting the first international flight


(i) Mahatma Gandhi portrait stamps with service imprinted on top. These rare collectibles were sold for a record price of a half a million pounds.

Such stamps were designed with the intention of inculcating patriotism among Indians with the use of slogans like ‘Jai Hind’, the national emblem, the father of India and other such signifiers of pride for the nation. On 26th January 1950, India made its first step towards becoming an independent republic by putting its constitution into full force. The philately fraternity rejoiced this day by issuing four thematic stamps that announced the arrival of a new republic. They depicted the waving of Indian flags and trumpets, the remembrance of revolutionaries who transformed India through their writing and thinking symbolized by an inkpot and quill pen with Gandhi’s prayer ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, Patit Pawan Sita Ram’ written on four strips of paper, the importance of agriculture to revere the hard work put in by farmers symbolized by a plough and wheat, and in recognition of the contribution of the ‘charkha’ or the spinning wheel which helped produced indigenous cloth – ‘khadi’ and became synonymous with the Swadeshi Movement. All of these images are through the eyes of a young boy and girl, representative of the aspirations to uphold nationalist honor and to respect the immensely rich bounty and history of the country, and remember the martyrdom of the ones who freed the nation.

(i) Announcement of Republic India (ii) Remembrance of the martyrdom of thinkers and writers


(iii) Recognition of agriculture and honoring Indian farmers (iv) Homage to the contribution of the ‘spinning wheel’ in the production of khadi to help boycott British goods in the Swadeshi Movement

After the year 1950, stamps were issued with particular themes of art, wildlife, science, technology, personalities, music, heritage and dance. Postal material on art included paintings by artists Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindra Nath Tagore, Gagendranath Tagore, Raja Ravi Varma, Nandlal Bose, Jamini Roy, Amrita Sher Gill, S.H. Raza and M.F. Hussain.


(i) Stamp by M.F. Hussain depicting Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s historic proclamation ‘Swaraj is my birthright’ in 1988 (ii) Stamp by Raja Ravi Varma “Damayanti and Swami” issued in 1971 on his 65th death anniversary (iii) “Hill Women” by Amrita Sher Gill issued in 1978

Music and dance are routinely depicted on stamps and has featured musicians like Thyagaraja, Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu, Begum Akhtar, Ustad Ghulam Ali Khan , Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan and dancers like Rukmini Devi and Uday Shankar. Postage stamps have also featured tribal dances like the Reangs of Tripura in the East, the Garasias of Rajasthan in the West, the Kinners of Himachal Pradesh in the North and the Kundividians and the Nairs of Kerala in the South.

i) Thyagaraja, issued in 1961 in Commemoration (ii) Begum Akhtar, issued in 1994


(iii) Dance of the Reangs (iv)Valar, the dance of the Garasias from Rajasthan

As you can notice in the above stamps, the old inscription of “India Postage” has been replaced with “भारत INDIA,” this move was made in1962. Other stamps depicted the tribes of India to showcase the diversity of the country. Naga tribes on the east, Toda tribes from Tamil Nadu and Bhil and Gond tribes from Madhya Pradesh were issued in 1981.

(i) Khiamngau Naga tribes who live on the extreme fringes of eastern hills (ii) Toda tribes who inhabit Tamil Nadu

Important feats accomplished by India have been captured on stamps including the Indian Everest expedition, 100 years of Indian Railways and 100 years of Indian Post.

(i) Issued in 1965 to mark the conquest of Mt Everest by the Indian expedition (ii) issued on 16th April, 1953 to mark the amazing 100 years of Indian railways which was founded on April 16, 1853

It wouldn’t be wrong to call postage stamps ‘miniature art’ and I believe that philatelic studies can trace the entire history of a nation through these tiny bits of paper. Nationalist ideals are built through these little stickers and they are designed to spark pride in one’s country. There has been an immense effort to make these stamps inclusive and portray marginalized communities and their culture. We must also note that letters and affixed postage travels not only within the country but also beyond borders. Here the political implications of the stamps become important as they seek to represent an idea of India to the world. Stamps are innately personal in nature. What do we first do when we receive a letter? Apart from looking at the date of the newspaper to check whether we have traveled back in time, we look at the sender and check the stamp for interesting designs. Although the life span of stamps is ephemeral as it is used only once and readily disposed off, but that brief encounter with the stamp conveys the ideologies of a nation, its history and its collective vision.

References:

Cusack, Igor Brian. Tiny Transmitters of Nationalist and Colonial Ideology: The Postage Stamps of Portugal and Its Empire. Nations and Nationalism. September 2005.

Easton, Joe. “Rare Indian stamps of Mahatma Gandhi sold at record price by British dealer.” Livemint.com. 19 Apr. 2017. Web. 14 Jun. 2017. <http://www.livemint.com/Politics/U1G763CvftHEYpXeaRwAcM/Rare-Indian-stamps-of-Mahatma-Gandhi-sold-at-record-price-by.html>

“The First Flight - 8th June 1948 An Aerophilatelic Tribute.” Airindiacollector.com. Web. 14 Jun. 2017. <http://www.airindiacollector.com/aerophilately.html>

“On World Post Day Here Are Some Of The Most Amazing Vintage Stamps Released By India Post.” Betterindia.com. Apr. 2014. Web. 14 Jun. 2017. <http://www.thebetterindia.com/15183/world-post-day-list-amazing-vintage-stamps/>

Pictures extracted from: Postage Stamps of India. Postagestamps.gov.in. Web. 14 Jun. 2017