Monday, October 3, 2016

Stamped for posterity

where it all began:A view of the Mumbai General Post Office.— photo: special arrangement 
Anirban Dutta’s The Tale of Stamps reflects the glorious history of the Indian postal system

Did you know that the first country to officially deliver mail by air was India, way back in 1911? Or that Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore wrote nearly 7,000 letters? He was so fascinated with the post office that he wrote to Lady Ranu Mukherjee, sharing his desire of becoming a village post master. So enamoured was he that he wrote a play called Dakghar in 1912. Likewise, many may not be aware that the first stamp in post-Independent India was released on August 15, 1947. It depicted the national flag, Ashoka emblem and air services.

Nuggets such as these, along with several interesting stories about stamps, post offices and philately, are what emerge from Anirban Dutta’s 30-minute documentary The Tale of Stamps . Dutta says the film is not an attempt to walk down memory lane. “I am not trying to invoke nostalgia about the good old times gone by. Aware that technological advancement will inevitably phase out exchange of letters and usage of stamps, I was keen to document my research in the film to make people aware about the history of stamps and postal system. More so, since these have not been archived and more than 80 per cent of the material is with private collectors,” he says.

The film brings together postal historians, well-known philatelists, offices and stamps designers, and each person contributes delightful slices of history about stamps and the post office. For instance, Kavery Banerjee, the secretary, department of Posts, shares details of how the courier system operated in the past when rulers used messengers on foot and horses to deliver important communiqué . She also explains how the East India Company set up the first postal system in the country for its officials; it was opened for the public only later.

Philatelist Vispi Dastur tells us about the world’s first postage stamp, ‘Penny Black’, and the aristocracy of Indian philately, the Sindh Dawk, the country’s first adhesive stamps issued in 1852.

Though the film is fact-driven, Dutta does well not to make the proceedings boring by including plenty of tales on stamps and the postal network. “By bringing in these stories, I wanted to emphasise how the two are an integral part of our history. After all, how long can viewers’ interest be sustained by showing stamps?”

Citing examples from the film, he says, “It is fascinating to know that Lord William Bentinck, the Governor General of India, scrapped the unpaid letter system, wherein the receiver had to pay for the postage, since people would invariably peep at the contents and return the letter.” Likewise, one is amazed to know the superior skills and enterprise of Indian postal officials, who were sent to other parts of the British Empire to establish post offices where Indian stamps were used. So we get to see postcards and letters from faraway places like Baghdad, Zanzibar, Aden, Burma and Nepal with Indian stamps on them.

For Dutta, stamps were an important part of growing up. “Spending a childhood in faraway places, letters were the only means of keeping in touch, and through them I became fascinated with stamps. They became a window to the world and knowledge. [For instance], intrigued by Polaska and CCCP written on stamps, I came to know about Poland and the USSR, while ‘alpaca’ on a Peruvian stamp provoked me to know about the animal and the country,” he says.
Dutta feels that collection and study of stamps should be inculcated among children and youngsters in school, and encouraged by parents. He argues that as a visual teaching tool, they would make learning more fun, while triggering eagerness to know more. “Indian stamps on national leaders, statesmen, and cinema, sports and performing art personalities will certainly kindle an urge to learn and acquire knowledge.”

In today’s hectic life, stamps can initiate some quality conversations between parents and children. “On seeing stamps on IPTA, Mohenjo Daro, the Ashoka emblem, Bhimsen Joshi and CK Nayudu, my son and daughter became inquisitive. We have had many delightful interactions thanks to stamps,” Dutta says.

Dutta hopes to make a longer film on the topic. “I have many more stories to share with the audience, such as the one on the issue of stamp by India which coincided with the liberation of Bangladesh.” Appetite whetted by this film, the audience is sure to wait for more.

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