Rishi Majumder meets Kishore Jhunjhunwala, a collector of rare currencies

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Kishore Jhunjhunwala

As inflation touches an all time high at 6.58%, consider this. A thief stole a bag from Kishore Jhunjhunwala’s car. Finding in it decaying slips of plastic wrapped paper, printed with ‘Bank Of Hindostan’ and ‘Bank Of Bengal’, he tossed it into a gutter. Rag pickers sold the bag for Rs 10 — the paper slips went back in the drain. Jhunjhunwala traced them there, after requesting help from heads of police and the Home and Chief Minister and issuing advertisements in every newspaper. Some of these slips, resting relieved in his bank locker today, date back to 1823, and are among the oldest paper currency to be issued within the Indian subcontinent. Their assimilated value might run into crores. “I hate it when people put price tags of Rs X million on my collection,” Jhunjhunwala protests. “That is ‘nominal value’. ‘Real value’ is what a collector is willing to pay!” A retired industrialist, Jhunjhunwala has steadfastly built one of the city’s rarest collections of Indian paper notes and coins related to Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel. What does an astute businessman from Marwar do in his pastime? Easy silly, he collects money!
“I don’t collect for myself!” Jhunjhunwala
protests again. He shows us his book, The Standard Reference Guide To Indian Paper Money, which documents the history of Indian note currency. The book won the Book Of The Year Award from the International Bank Notes Society. “And my coin collection is specialised — Gandhi, Bose and Patel — for a reason!” Jhunjhunwala continues. These are the only people, he feels, who did not “encash on their struggle for freedom”. “This is how the awareness of such men is kept alive!” he emphasises, before posing a quandary: “Will anyone make so many coins for any current ‘neta’ long after they’re gone? Will anyone make them for you or me?”
Jhunjhunwala was a rubber manufacturer. Busy deliberating the value of rubber in his heydays, he sits back in his retirement… deliberating the value of greatness. His Gandhi coins depict the Mahatma from the time he wore a turban and include coins from foreign countries
such as the USA and Liberia. His Bose collection includes the coins first issued by the Azad Hind Fauj when they didn’t have a mint — a sovereign’s head with “Provisonal Government Of Azad Hind 1943” welded across it. As our photographer clicks away, his monetary mind observes, “‘Digital’ hai, that’s why you’re click happy. ‘Film’ camera mein parvarta nahin hai.”
His currency notes go from the earliest bank notes to Uniface Government Of India notes to Indian notes with portraits of British kings to Prisoner Of War coupons to Indian notes issued in Burma and Pakistan – when their mints were yet to be formed. Occupying pride of place is a Gandhi medal he earned himself, walking the Dandi March route on the event’s 2005 anniversary. “While so-called ‘leaders’ were driving down most of the way — only to stop for press conferences!” he exclaims angrily, showing us a Gandhi coin which has inscribed: “To change
the world, you must
be the way you want the world to
While most collectors don’t know who to bequeath their treasures to, Jhunjhunwala has secured his collection’s future: “I’ve found a man who shares my passion.” A collection is like a child, he explains. So while he “made this child study for a BA degree. This man will make it do an MA and Phd.” Which means he will triple it, and finally open a museum.
“But stamp and currency collection will fade out soon,” remarks Jhunjhunwala on the macro picture. “Already they are being replaced by email and plastic money.” He then grumbles about how the rupee is being devalued everyday: “Note how the smaller denomination coins have gone.” Saying this, Jhunjhunwala lays out two items. One is a 1942 paper coupon issued during a coin shortage: “The silver in a one paisa silver coin was worth one anna. So coins were being melted for sale.” Another is a recently issued 100 rupee silver Gandhi coin, sold by the government, strictly as a collector’s item, for Rs 800 “because that’s what the silver’s worth. But why don’t they write that figure on the coin then?” A Rs 800 coin for Gandhiji? Parvarta hai?

notes to a past

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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