Chitta Ranjan Pakrashi, 91, has been designing postage stamps for more than five decades.
The room is large, with swathes of natural light filtering in. It is somewhat austerely furnished but the walls paint an entirely different picture. Chitta Ranjan Pakrashi, 91, sits in his Kailash Colony home-cum-studio, surveying the commemorative stamp collection designed by him for the Indian Postal Service and a few foreign countries.
In two big frames, 54 stamp originals are arranged chronologically, from 1956 to 2008. His originals would fetch a pretty sum. His first stamp, issued in 1956 for the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha Jayanti, is trading at Rs 525 on the Philsensex, the price having quadrupled in just as many years. Pakrashi though, is dismissive; his time occupied by more pressing concerns — his art exhibition in the capital in November, editorial work with a privately circulated Bengali quarterly Hindol, his account of the Bengalis in Delhi which is being serialised in another magazine, and taking his memoir A Stamp is Born to publishers. “I don’t have too much time. I have to pack in as much as I can,” he says.
When Pakrashi decides to tell a story, he does in a very methodical fashion. He brings in all his letters, album sheets and first-day covers (FDCs) and then rewinds to the summer of 1945, when he first arrived in Delhi and joined the government as a technical assistant. In 1955, a government advertisement calling for design entries on the occasion of the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha Jayanti caught his eye. He had never worked on stamps before, the proportions and requirements were lost on him. And he knew little of the religion. Despite these obvious handicaps, he won the nationwide competition (and Rs 1,000 in cash). His design was issued on a two-anna stamp, “at that time widely circulated”, he says. The design was a nod to a frequently recurring and revered motif in the Buddhist lore — the Bodhi tree, outlines of which he found in texts and even on a Mohenjodaro seal.
The neatly preserved album sheets are Pakrashi’s detailed record of the stamps. In those beautifully handwritten notes, he sets out every stamp’s personal history, from the birth of an idea to an FDC. “After the 1956 stamp, the philatelic department looked to me as an artist they could come to for stamp design. At the Nasik security press, designers are employed for regular postal designs, but for special occasions, the department sought outside artists, and I was one of the few. Stamp designing is not a flourishing art in our country. My second stamp came almost 10 years after my first, so I kept my job. It wasn’t a career option,” he says. Still, he is perhaps the most prolific stamp artist, with a parallel career spanning over five decades.
Three days. That’s the minimum time Pakrashi has taken to design a stamp. When the first parliament session of Bangladesh took place in 1973, India decided to honour this occasion by issuing a stamp. ‘Jai Bangla’ was designed and finalised in three days under high secrecy. “I wasn’t allowed to tell even my family,” he jokes.
When Pakrashi was commissioned to design a stamp for the Congress Centenary celebrations, he didn’t think it would become his longest and most difficult assignment. With the design done, all that was left was Indira Gandhi’s seal of approval. And then the entirely unforeseen happened, she was assassinated. While the Congress party pulled itself together, the centenary stamp was put in a deep freeze. But soon, ideas for the centenary celebrations were back on the table and the stamp got a fresh lease of life. “Rajiv Gandhi had to see it, but when he did, he rejected my design. Fresh designs were drawn up but he would reject them all. The postal department even held an all-India competition for this, but those chosen designs were also rejected. They came back to me, I submitted some more, but they too met the same fate. I was asked once more. This time though, I wanted to know what Rajiv Gandhi wanted, the idea in his head. All the 64 Congress presidents (1885-1985) depicted on one stamp. That’s when I asked them to let me design this on a se-tenant stamp — four stamps joined in continuous design, 16 presidents on each.”
Sometimes, getting the right research material was also a problem. For the 1982 national exhibition, the Post & Telegraph Department wanted a stamp depicting the 100-year-old railway mail service wagon. He had no photos or texts for reference. Railway museums, stations and officials were also of little help.
Poring over hundreds of documents, he came across an 80-year-old skeletal sketch of a railway mail service coach. He used that drawing to arrive at his final design, giving the railway car the outline of the Fairy Queen. Even for a 1986 stamp of the Camel Post Office, he had little evidence to go by. Eventually, he found a picture of the the post office at the Rajasthan Emporium. The stamp is the most light-hearted one in his body of work.
Pakrashi is an artist and, now, a writer. If the walls in house could talk, they’d tell you how his love for nature translates into generous oil canvases. But unlike other artists, his most prominent works are stamp-size. Why? He reasons, “The stamp is small. The space is full of limitations and compromises. But this is where there is clarity in my thought and art.”(Source-The Indian Express 9 Sep 2012)