Published on 13 September in The Hindu Business Line
Artist CR Pakrashi’s memoir describes the birth of stamps, 56 in all, on his drawing board
Chitta Ranjan Pakrashi is 94 years old. We meet him at his Kailash Colony residence in New Delhi over a typical Bengali mid-morning snack of tea and Marie biscuits. We are seated in his large living room, where his desk is overflowing with pencils, paintbrushes, drawing sheets and books. He finishes his tea and points to two huge frames on a wall that grandly display the 56 commemorative stamps he has designed over the last 50 years.
“I came to Delhi in 1945 after graduating from Government School of Arts and Craft, Calcutta. I was employed as an industrial designer by the Ministry of Commerce. Stamp designing happened completely by coincidence,” says Pakrashi.
In his 10th year in Delhi his eye caught a government advertisement inviting postal stamp designs for the 2,500th anniversary of Lord Buddha. Confident he had the skills, Pakrashi delved into the mechanics of stamp designing. He explored the various representations of Lord Buddha without actually showing the face or figure. He won first place for his symbolic design of the Bodhi (banyan) tree with Mohenjo-daro seals under a moonlit night — to denote that it was on such a night that the Buddha attained nirvana. This work fetched him the first of three national awards.
Pakrashi’s memoir, A Stamp Is Born (Niyogi Books), recounts several interesting anecdotes from his five-decade career. While the Jai Bangla stamp (1973) is a glimpse into his childhood in pre-independent Bangladesh, the original design of the Gandhi centenary stamp (1969) landed him in religion-related controversy. And while Mangal Pandey’s sketch in the 1984 stamp created to honour India’s freedom struggle raised doubts about its authenticity, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi’s portraits (1973) invited debates about copyright issues.
“A lot of study and artistic precision went into the designs. It took me days, and sometimes months to craft the stamps because I didn’t rely on anyone for the research. I created multiple drafts until I reached a design that made me happy before submitting it to the postal department,” he says.
His research included visiting the Ramakrishna Mission in New Delhi for reference material to commemorate Swami Vivekananda’s historic Chicago address, and spending hours in the Nehru Museum and Library and Gandhi Darshan Museum for a suitable design for the freedom struggle stamp.
Postage stamp designing is a unique art form with close links to a nation’s heritage and history. It requires not only visual skill but also the ability to capture the central theme within a 3.55 x 2.50 frame — the standard print area of a commemorative stamp. From carrying relevant and pithy messages from the issuing country to the rest of the world, to serving the everyday purpose of delivering mails, stamps command a following all their own. While e-mails may have overtaken handwritten letters in utility, Pakrashi is certain the postage system will never die out.
Meanwhile, his creations will continue to capture the nation’s imagination: the 1985 stamp for the Indian National Congress’s centenary bearing portraits of all the 60 Congress presidents till that date, a set of stamps to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations (1995), the stamp to mark the opening of one lakh post offices (1968), and the stamp in honour of Ustad Bismillah Khan (2008), among many others. “Art never loses its charm, and this form remains exclusive. I hope my book will be of use to philatelists, designers, art students and the general public,” says the veteran stamp-maker.