A philatelic journey

The world’s first postage stamp the British ‘Penny Black’ of 1840, and a collection of more than 150 rare postal stamps from the Nizams of Hyderabad are on display at the New Delhi’s Bikaner House. The story of a humble postage stamp begins with the image of the most prominent monarchs of the 19th century. The world’s first pre-paid postage stamp was engraved with the image of Queen Victoria, who was christened with the title of Empress of India. This one-penny stamp issued in the colour black was popularly known as ‘Penny Black’. It was issued on May 6, 1840. There was no indication of the country’s name on British stamps, a tradition that still continues. On display is a remarkable King George VI series depicting the different modes of transportation which were used to deliver mail.

The show of stamps, postcards, letters, and other ephemera, is titled Property of A Gentleman: Stamps from the Nizam of Hyderabad’s Dominions. Presented by the Gujral Foundation and curated by Pramod Kumar K.G., the exhibition showcases an iconic collection of the Ewari family dating back to their grandfather Nawab Iqbal Hussain Khan, the Postmaster General under the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad. The family now holds a huge collection of three million stamps of which 158 are on display in the Capital for the first time.

It is believed that the first postage stamp of Hyderabad was issued on the day of the coronation of Nizam Mir Mahboob Ali Khan Bahadur, Asaf Jah VI, on September 8, 1869. The design of the inscription is a masterpiece of calligraphy in an architectural pattern. It is said the stamp is an example of calligraphy in the Persian script known as Tughra. The stamp was eventually withdrawn in 1892. The ‘6 pies Claret’ was the very last postage stamp issued by the Government of H.E.H. The Nizam of Hyderabad in 1948 CE and 1949.

Stamps with their semiotic status communicate great meaning despite their tiny size. The simplicity or complexity of philatelic design is a tribute to the artistic capabilities of calligraphers, engravers, plate makers, colour mixers, paper specialists, and printing press operators.

Going through the journey, one can understand that while the Indian Post Office was established in 1837, Asia’s first adhesive stamp, the Scinde Dawk (Sindh, Pakistan) was only introduced in 1852.

Hyderabad is believed to have printed its own stamps from 1869 onwards until it became a part of the Indian Union in 1949. On display are rare examples of original postage stamps from Hyderabad ranging from individual stamps to entire stamp sheets as well as valuable and related ephemera such as original letters, postcards, revenue stamps of the region, erroneous stamps, seals, and monogrammes. In today’s age of rapid technological changes in communication, postage stamps are vital remnants of a bygone era.

“The Ewari family’s philately collection has a deep personal connection with Hyderabad. The genesis of the collection begins with the legacy of their grandfather, Nawab Iqbal Hussain Khan, the Post Master General in the Government of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan. The collection today consists of more than three million stamps and includes unusual and representative pieces from across the former Indian Princely States. Additionally, it has important holdings from around the world including the Penny Black, the world’s first stamp issued in 1840,” explains curator Pramod Kumar K.G.

These seemingly insignificant objects played an essential role in a complex and vast communication network that spread across the world. From their original role as payments to help transfer messages, stamps were also used to facilitate revenue collection, taxation, and served other fiscal purposes. Apart from their practical usage, several states utilised stamps as a way of celebrating the material heritage and culture of the issuing region.

“The collection”, says Kumar, “has a rich holding of related material culture and ephemera that are vestiges of a changed world. These include handwritten, calligraphed, and illuminated letters in several scripts, postcards, monogrammed envelopes, notes and seals, greeting and invitation cards, and a wide repository of blind stamps, wet stamps, and other stamping formats which were popular tools of communication and revenue.” The collection also includes exceptional stamps issued in Hyderabad to commemorate the victory of the Allied Powers in the Second World War.

“The World War stamps”, says Kumar, “are the only stamps with human images depicting a soldier returning to his wife and child. They decided to show the compassionate arrival of a soldier. This tells you how evolved the state was.” Endowed with rich architecture, landscapes, and cultural heritage sites including the Ajanta Ellora caves, architecture was their next natural choice. “An early stamp depicts the Ajanta caves, while another one has the Kakatiya gateway. This is a Muslim ruler who had no qualms about using the image of a Hindu site, a Buddhist site or a Muslim site. The last Nizam, Osman Ali, built a series of important institutions like the High Court, the General Hospital, and universities all featured on stamps,” says Kumar. “The architectural take-off point of the stamp collection is something unique,” he explains.

According to Kumar, very stylised monograms and Arabic calligraphy, which is a great art form in Deccan, was revived and calligraphers worked on creating beautiful stamps. For Hyderabad, the use of exquisite calligraphy, multifarious languages, and architectural tropes, exemplifies the princely dominion’s influences and outlook.

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