The Philatelic Society of India’s rare and priceless collection connects its members to each other as well as history, writes Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Pal Pillai

Dhirubhai and Kusum Mehta display their collection; inset: leaves out of another member's collection

The conference room of the Government Post Office bustles with 35 people who seem misplaced. The array seated around the massive oval teakwood table include doctors, lawyers, bankers, insurance officials, stamp dealers, housewives, retired government servants and rookie servicemen from the private sector. Ages range from 32 to 84 (though archived photographs shows even pre-teens in previous meetings). “The Philatelic Society Of India is soon to complete 110 years. We’ve had two stamps issued in our name,” Chairman Dhirubhai Mehta announces happily at the fortnightly meeting of an organisation which has had among its Honourable Patrons five Indian Presidents.
Discussion commences: Stamps whose issues were stalled, upcoming national exhibitions, the criterion for international philately competition, philatelic literature… the dealers tout rare stamps. Some members exchange. Others buy. Some of these members possess the rarest collections in town. But that’s not why they’re here. They’re here because long after the world wide web’s tentacles strangled post-office revenue, stamps continue to connect them, in Mehta’s words, “to each other… and to history!”

“Stamp collectors are fools who pay for printing errors,” Mehta smiles. “These errors create rareties.” Mehta met his wife, Kusum Mehta, through philately: “She was my sister’s friend. Exchanging stamps was our only correspondence.” Every serious collector here specialises – from aviation stamps, national stamps, state stamps, periods and Olympic events to butterflies… and even a species from the simian family. “Narrower specialisations are more credible, because they’re tougher,” advises Damayanti Pittie, Secretary of PSI. Pittie, a housewife, started her collection during “a long cold winter in Germany”. She reoriented focus from “German” to “the pre-stamp postal history of India” on returning to Mumbai. This means she collects cancellation notes on envelopes, document covers and seal marks prior to 1854, when Sein Dawk – the first Indian ‘stamp’ – was issued by the Governor of Sindh. M Kotaria has the Sein Dawk: “But what I’m in search of is this stamp with the queen’s ‘inverted’ head – merely 15 specimens remain.” Pittie has several Whaghron couriers – started by a Mr Whaghron along a shorter land route – each now costing up to 1200 pounds. Many other “covers” she picked up for Rs 2, are now valued at Rs 500. A specimen most coveted is the Indian Bishop Mark,
the earliest pre-stamp postal mark in India. The five traced marks cost up to Rs 32 lakhs each. Telgi aside, stamp trading is serious business.
Mehta illustrates the diverse histories: “I have correspondence between a Peshawar dry fruit dealer and a Russian merchant long ago.” He also has stamps from Junagarh, the first Indian native state to establish postal administration. His wife has stamps from Morvi – the last Indian native state to initiate such. Pittie’s collection boasts ‘campaign mails’ or war couriers pertaining to the 1857 revolt and the English-Afghan war. “Marks on each signify the complete land or sea route the mail took,” Pittie enlightens. Correspondingly, each collector has nearly a book on every variety’s history and geography. Conversation shifts to exhibitions. Pittie’s won a National Grand Prix. The next step is the International Grand Prix or the Grand Prix Honour, where some claim, Indian collectors are disadvantaged because of forex rates: “Brits or Americans buy our stamps cheaper than we can theirs.” Kotaria comes back to history: “Study the history of stamps vis-à-vis countries,
and you’ll understand currency – a five rupee stamp was the equivalent of an American two dollar stamp, which for us was Rs 100.”
Some PSI members are on the philatelic advisory committee, telling the post office what stamps to issue. “But it’s very disheartening, because of the minister’s veto,” says a disgruntled member. So a state minister, for instance, leads to a sudden philatelic flood commemorating that state’s festivals, institutes and celebrities.
While Gandhi stamps, army stamps and stamps commemorating a jubilee are declared “rare stamps of the future”, what is the future of philately vis-à-vis the electronic media? “Immense,” comes the unanimous reply. “Even if personal letters are reduced, important paper documents will persevere.” The absence of the younger members seen in previous snapshots casts doubt. Let’s hope it’s an inexpensive “printing error”.

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


One comment

  1. Anuj Parikh · March 22, 2012

    A very interesting piece that ignites new thoughts in me.

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