Volume 23 - Issue 07 :: Apr. 08 - 21, 2006
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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Art in miniature


The designing of stamps has come a long way since Independence, but much needs to be changed still.


INDEPENDENT INDIA'S FIRST postage stamp, issued on November 21, 1947.

THE story of one of the first stamps of independent India is an interesting one. In January 1948, the Director-General of the Post and Telegraph Department asked the Security Press, Nashik, to produce design samples depicting Mahatma Gandhi. The plan was to issue a set of four stamps in different denominations. As artists worked on the designs, Gandhiji was assassinated. This lent greater urgency to the need to commemorate him, but complications arose on how to represent him on the stamp.

Changes were made, some positive and some at odds with what Gandhi represented. While Jawaharlal Nehru's suggestion that the word `Bapu' be inserted in both Hindi and Urdu as a symbol of communal harmony was appropriate, the change in the stamp's denomination from the modest `anna' to Rs.10 was inexplicable. Even more bewildering was the sudden decision to place the print order with the Swiss printers, Helio Courvoisier, Sa. LaChaux De Fonds. The Master of the Nashik Security Press was enraged, but Communication Minister Rafi Ahmed Kidwai insisted that the Swiss printers would produce the desired result because they had the photogravure press.

THE FIRST COMMEMORATIVE stamp on Mahatma Gandhi, issued soon after his assassination. It was printed in Switzerland.

And so, ironically, India's first postage stamp commemorating Gandhi was printed in a foreign country even though the man being honoured had battled for swadeshi. The high denomination made the Father of the Nation out of reach for the common man; that was the case also with many collectors. Ironic, because Gandhi himself had always used post cards. But the deepest cut was the bureaucratic decision to clothe the Mahatma above the waist, instead of depicting him in his customary dhoti-only style. The bureaucrats felt that would not be dignified enough. The Swiss printers were asked to cover the Mahatma, but their artistic rendition was not true to the way the Mahatma draped himself.

More than 1,700 stamps have been issued since then. Changes in design styles and technology have resulted in an enthusiastic philatelic culture in the country, encouraged by the Department of Posts. Most striking are the changes in style over the years. Early stamps were sombre in style and content, with a central symbol and some design elements on the side. A dull monochrome of Asoka's pillar was acceptable as a mass circulation stamp half a century ago. With changing attitudes, less formidable designs are more common and the vibrancy of today's stamps may seem almost flippant in comparison.

While it is true that bureaucratic tastes still favour personality and commemorative stamps, definitive themes are immensely popular with the public and with collectors. Themes of recent years range across Indigenous Cattle of India, Yoga Asanas, Army Service Corps, Children's Day, Puppets, Temples, the First Sunrise of the Millennium and the Pigeon Post. Changes in printing technology, perforation, cutting machines and colour processing have ensured that stamp designs are radically different from what they used to be. The designs now are bolder, use more colours and incorporate more elements. The potential offered by different media, ranging from classical fine art skills to computer-based technology, results in remarkable creations.

PAINTINGS DONE BY CHILDRENas part of an annual competitionon Children's Day. Theprize-winning painting each yearis put on a stamp by theDepartment of Posts.

So how does a stamp make its way from being an idea to a collector's item? Not surprisingly, there is a bureaucratic process involved. The process is centralised and the designers are all based in Delhi, with a few exceptions such as when people are invited to design stamps; the annual Children's Day stamp is designed through a national competition. It seems unreasonable that in an age when most artists use computers, the Department of Posts does not expand its network of artists outside the capital.

Choosing the denomination of stamps is another interesting matter. The commonly used denominations of Re.1, Rs.2 and Rs.4 - which serve purely as postage - usually have simple commemorative subjects such as Gandhiji or a national symbol like the tiger, and are printed in monochrome to save cost. These are printed in millions. Five-rupee stamps and stamps of higher denominations are considered to be of philatelic value. They are designed with greater care and are printed in limited quantities - four to eight lakhs - so as to maintain their philatelic value. These are usually printed over a period of six months, and there are no reprints. Anyone - an individual or an organisation - can suggest a design idea.

A COMPARISON OF an American se-tenant (above) with the Indian Panchatantra series (below) shows up the greater flexibility that more advanced perforation machines give to the American artists.

The Philatelic Advisory Committee receives hundreds of design ideas, but only about 70 to 80 are approved in a year. Most of these are commemorative and personality-oriented. This, in fact, is a major grouse of designers who say they find this shackling. "The bulk of the stamps are unfortunately personalities. I wish there were more on flora, fauna and heritage," said Shankha Samanta, one of the freelance artists whom the philately department commissions regularly.

Bharati Mirchandani, another artist, expressed a similar opinion. "There are international standards and guidelines for stamp design that are accepted in philately. A certain percentage will be on personalities, anniversaries and other important events. The rest are purely secular. In India we are too personality-oriented and too political," she said. She, however, believes that current thinking in the department favours reversing the trend gradually. She said she would love to see more of culture and wildlife: "I want to depict our festivals and fairs but we have this rule that says subjects should be secular and every festival has some religious link so it can't be done. This secular label is enormously restrictive."

There was a controversy over a stamp with Mahavir depicted on it. There were objections, partly because a religious figure was being depicted and partly because the stamp would be licked. The problem was solved by replacing the figure with a symbol.

Working in isolation is another factor that hampers the craft. Artists say they are given hardly any background information when a stamp is commissioned.

Samanta said: "We have to do a lot of research before we can come up with an idea. Now I use the Internet for information, but before that it used to be very difficult. I would buy books, visit libraries and sometimes even travel to places so that I could evolve a concept for the stamp."

A tiny canvas

So what does it feel like to design something for such a tiny canvas? How does one visualise and conceptualise a subject that has to be true to the given subject, has restricted dimensions, must include vital elements such as denomination, country and title, and ultimately will be judged as a miniature work of art?

There are some design parameters, which artists have learnt on the job. Bharati Mirchandani said: "While texture is important in the artwork when we present it for approval, it actually disappears in the final product. I also find that a high contrast adds richness to a stamp." Apart from this, the guiding principle is to work on a large canvas but think small. Though it is ultimately the stamp that gets the maximum visibility, philatelists take an avid interest in details such as miniature sheets, first day covers, cancellation stamps and information sheets. These are mostly taken care of by different people, but on the few occasions when an artist is entrusted with the entire package a wonderful unity of theme emerges.

Most stamp designers love their work and resent what they see as a casual approach to an art form. Bharati Mirchandani remembers how thrilled she was to be asked to design a stamp on Ramana Maharishi: "I really respect the man and I couldn't believe the miracle of being asked to design this stamp." She designed a four-colour stamp and was speechless when it was released in monochrome. "His eyes have a very special quality and that had been depicted in the original. In the final reproduction the eyes were lost."

Artists says they would love to be involved at all stages of the printing process. (Bharati Mirchandani has studied printing processes to make the necessary compensations in her original artwork.) But security restrictions, and the fact that the press is located in Nashik, prevent a creative back-and-forth interaction. Poor colour correction is a universal complaint from artists, as is the quality of the paper and the printing ink.

There is no doubt that some amount of flexibility on the part of the Department of Posts would enhance creativity. Designs are constricted by the standard size of 2.9 x 3.9 centimetres, in a horizontal or vertical format. While there is some leeway in the size, there is almost none in the shape, which is either a square or a rectangle. There was a time when circular and triangular stamps were issued, but the idea never really caught on. An attempt to create an embossed stamp for the Golden Jubilee of the Indian Parliament failed miserably.

Design restriction

Another restriction is that living persons cannot be depicted. So when Samanta designed a stamp to commemorate Guru Dutt, he could not include Waheeda Rehman though she had been an integral part of Guru Dutt's life and art. Restrictions also extend to the manner in which personalities depicted are dressed and the extent to which the pictures can be cropped. Looking at a United Kingdom stamp of Prince William in which the top of the Prince's head has been cropped to achieve maximum artistic effect, Samanta said: "We would never be allowed to do this here even though the visual impact is so strong."

Some artists feel that such limitations prevent stamps from becoming a potential money-spinner for the country. Philately is an important source of revenue for countries such as Monaco, Bermuda and the South-East Asian island nations, which print stamps in numbers that surpass their postal needs. They create limited runs of elaborate stamps designed mainly to be bought by stamp collectors.

One of the most popular variants for artists is the se-tenant style in stamps. French for "joined together", the word is now so much a part of philately that it has lost its `French-ness' and is often spelt setanant. In philately, it refers to two or more stamps with a contiguous design. Each pane can be viewed as an entity complete in itself or, if viewed as a whole, as part of a larger design. Samanta said he loved working on se-tenants because "it expands the canvas". The origin of this popular style is lost.

Unfortunately, complex se-tenants are possible only with accompanying perforation technology that allows for irregular perforations. Standard perforating machines, which work in straight lines, are restrictive. Compare the Nature of America se-tenant series with India's Panchatantra series or the series on 150 years of India Post. The vibrancy and richness of the American design is largely thanks to the fact that the artist was free to play with the canvas and that the perforations were dictated by the design and not the other way around. The Indian artists who worked with the se-tenant style were restricted by an older perforation technique.

Anonymous art

With no credit lines or signed works, stamp artists work in the best tradition of Indian art - the artist remains unknown but his work lives on forever, as an offering to the nation. Perhaps the best indicator of their commitment to their art is the fact that they consider it an honour to be asked to design lower-denomination stamps. This is in direct contrast to other countries where artists vie for the privilege of designing higher-denomination stamps. Bharati Mirchandani recalled how her Korean counterparts were shocked to know Indian artists preferred designing lower-denomination stamps. "The reason is simple," she said. "The lower denomination stamps have the maximum circulation and are seen by so many people. For us, the prestige lies in the frequent viewing of the art rather than the price of the stamp."

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