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Stamps: Ephemeral emblems of the past

  • A unique stamp exhibition in Delhi hopes to teleport visitors to 19th century Hyderabad
  • The collection, at present in possession of US-based Hanut Ewari, once belonged to his grandfather

Mir Osman Ali Khan, the seventh ‘nizam’ of Hyderabad; and stamps that will be displayed as part of the collection.
Mir Osman Ali Khan, the seventh ‘nizam’ of Hyderabad; and stamps that will be displayed as part of the collection. (Photograph by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

What could a piece of paper, frail, dated and perforated at the edges, possibly convey? Stamps, ordinary and often overlooked, have been rendered almost redundant in the digital era. These small postage imperatives, however, serve as a gateway to history. Now, a collection of 120-odd stamps from 1869-1949, a majority of which were printed during the reign of the seventh and last nizam of Hyderabad, will be exhibited at Bikaner House in Delhi.

The collection, at present in the possession of US-based Hanut Ewari, once belonged to his grandfather, the postmaster general of Hyderabad State, Nawab Iqbal Hussain Khan.

Presented by The Gujral Foundation, Property Of A Gentleman: Stamps From The Nizam Of Hyderabad’s Dominions will be on view till 24 March. It will feature the stamp collection, along with handwritten letters, postcards, monograms and seals. Lounge spoke to exhibition curator Pramod Kumar K.G., the managing director at Eka Archiving, ahead of the opening. Edited excerpts:

What portrait does this collection paint of Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last ‘nizam’ of Hyderabad?

In this exhibition, the architecture series is perhaps the most powerful and important section. You must remember, Hyderabad was a Muslim Princely State and depicting human figures went against Islamic doctrines and thereby the nizam, in an extraordinary nod to modernity, chose a stamp series featuring architectural wonders from his dominions. So, you’ve got the Buddhist caves of Ajanta, the great Kakatiya gate at Warangal, besides the Charminar at Hyderabad and the Madrasa of Mahmud Gawan at Bidar. Furthermore, he included several of the newer monuments commissioned in his reign such as the high court, Osman Sagar reservoir, town hall, power house, Unani general hospital, university etc., all centres of advancement and modernity for the benefit of his citizens. Stamps from Hyderabad were also unique as they very often featured text in the four languages—Marathi, Telugu, English and Urdu—that were common lexicon in the region. We thus realize that the nizam, a ruler of a Princely State in pre-independent India, ensured adequate representation of all his people and their varied cultural heritage in an extraordinarily broad-minded and democratic manner. These are the remarkable and layered stories that emerge while examining a small group of material objects like stamps. Perhaps we need to engage with our pasts through multiple prisms and contexts and not just through conventional tropes of received wisdom, often coloured by colonialist propaganda.

(Courtesy the Ewari collection)

Where in Hyderabad were these stamps printed at the time?

Most of the artwork for the stamps was created in England; some of the earlier stamps were probably even printed there. Eventually, however, Hyderabad began printing its own stamps. Now, we don’t know exactly where the printing press was. For this, we have consulted some scholars whose research focuses on this particular stamp period in Hyderabad for more information. You see, that is the reason we also wanted to hold such an exhibition, because as mediums and modes of communication across the world are changing, we are slowly forgetting and losing all the information we have on mediums such as these stamps.

(Courtesy the Ewari collection)

Stamps carry with them layers of symbolism and history. When you looked at the collection, did you discover something you weren’t aware of earlier?

There is one stamp you will see that is quite interesting. As you might be aware, the nizam supported the British during World War II. Among the collection, there is one stamp which features a nameless man. You don’t see his face; all you see is his back. He is entering his house and as he enters, he is being greeted by his wife. During the war, the nizam’s troops were serving in Egypt, and this stamp signifies the celebratory return of the soldiers from the war. So, you suddenly realize that these stamps tell you such fascinating stories, which you wouldn’t know about otherwise.

(Courtesy the Ewari collection)

How do you plan to display the collection of stamps?

As you know, these stamps are extremely old, as are the letters and the postcards. And all of these are of great historical value and significance. Therefore, we want to ensure that they receive the least amount of exposure to light, which is crucial. For that, we are creating custom-made box-frames which have LED lights, to ensure that there is no heat or light damage. We will have two levels of display, one is going to be against the walls and some will be placed in the middle of the room. We’ve been working on this exhibition for nearly six months, since The Gujral Foundation wanted us to look at it.

Stamps are on the verge of being forgotten. Why is this exhibition important?

As our lives are changing rapidly, we are losing out on knowledge on other vital means of communication. Today, we take the internet for granted. We don’t look at how information was passed earlier. We have to realize that stamps have great symbolical meaning—there is an emblem, there is a seal, there is imagery. The beauty and the history behind them needs to be conveyed, and, hopefully, we will be able to do that through this exhibition.

Property Of A Gentleman: Stamps From The Nizam Of Hyderabad’s Dominions will be on view at Bikaner House, Delhi, till 24 March.

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