Do our stamps evoke nationalism?
The stamps of modern India need to be studied carefully.
PHOTO: ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY
HISTORIC: A high domed roof and Ionic-Corinthian pillars give the General Post Office in Kolkata an imposing appearance.
THE images on postage stamps record history and transmit political messages. In his autobiography, Interesting Times, Eric Hobsbawm recalls tracing the traumas of Europe in the early 20th-Century through his stamp collection. Postage stamps can also be the site of political battles. Tony Benn attempted philatelic regicide when, as British postmaster general in the 1960s, he commissioned stamp designs without the Queen's head. This attempt to advance the cause of British republicanism was promptly squashed when the Palace communicated its displeasure to Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Stamps are especially important bearers of nationalist ideology. They frame national identities and carry messages to both the outside world and the home population. The first stamps of the new Indian republic communicate the vitality and energy of a nation coming into being. These stamps defined, and continue to define, Indian nationalism in five ways. The first set of commemorative stamps in 1947 announced the symbols of the new nation. The three sets of definitive stamps issued in 1949, 1955 and 1957 outlined an official view of India as a cultural, economic and territorial nation. Finally a large number of occasional commemorative stamps celebrate the heroes of the nationalist freedom struggle.
The 25-paise stamp from the "Map of India" series, issued April 1, 1957.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was profoundly aware that for the nation to come alive, it had to be visualised in the imagination of its citizens. He wrote at length in The Discovery of India about how images of the Indian landscape should be used to conjure up a picture of the nation. In this spirit, the Department of Post and Telegraphs made an important contribution to shaping the national imagination. The change in postal imagery displayed on Indian stamps during the closing months of 1947 symbolises the transfer of power and the end of colonial rule. The colonial state used the sovereign's head as a symbol of British rule. Images of India made infrequent appearances on stamps before 1947. The stamps issued by the Princely states offer some variation from the colonial genre of stamp art. The first set of commemorative stamps issued by the new Government of India in 1947 reflects new priorities. These are the first official postal representations of the new nation.
Two stamps from the "Indian Independence Series", issued November 21, 1947, depicting the National Flag and the Ashokan Lion Capital.
The first set of three stamps issued, the "Independence series", publicised the symbols of the Indian state. The first stamp carried the Indian flag, which with its vivid colours, stands in contrast to the dowdy colonial stamps that preceded it. The second stamp carries the new emblem of India, the Ashokan Lion Capital, which deposed the crown emblem of the British Raj. The third stamp portrays a plane soaring into the skies and reflects a mood of optimism on the part of an Indian Post Office ready to serve the new nation.
Stamp from the "Archaeological Series", issued August 15, 1949 depicting the Nataraja.
Images of significance
The humble definitive stamps, the ordinary issues in everyday use, are of greatest political significance. To invoke Michael Billig's memorable phrase, definitive stamps are an expression of "banal nationalism". The images seep into our consciousness and we hardly notice them. Their ubiquity helps persuade us that the nationalist images they convey are part of our daily experience. Thus the construct of the nation becomes a normal or a banal part of our everyday lives. The first set of definitive stamps issued by the new Government of India was released on August 15, 1949. The Archaeological Series featured 16 engraved images of Indian monuments that ranged from large edifices, including the Taj Mahal, to smaller statues such as Nataraja.
Stamp from the "Archaeological Series", issued August 15, 1949 depicting the Golden Temple Amritsar
Superficially, the stamps appear to be a celebration of the greatness of Indian civilisation. This generic theme would not have been out of place in the construction of any number of postcolonial nationalisms. However given the contested nature of Indian nationalism the selection of images has deeper significance. The monuments are linked to a number of Indian religions and important Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Jain and Sikh sites are included. The implicit message being that India's great civilisation includes within it the influence of a number of religious traditions. These stamps bring to mind Nehru's famous comment that India "was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously". . The "Archaeological series" represented an attempt to shape the modern Indian nation by taking a backward look at the glories of Indian civilisation.
Stamp from the "Archaeological Series", issued August 15, 1949 depicting the Sanchi Stupa East Gate.
In contrast, the second set of definitives, the "Five Year Plan Series", were forward looking and depicted the nation assuming its historical destiny as it sought to reconstruct its greatness through economic modernisation. These stamps were issued in 1955 at a time when the First Plan was drawing to a close and a more rigorous approach to planning was being adopted by the Planning Commission. The indignities of colonial exploitation meant that economic themes had long been a feature of Indian nationalism.
Projecting economic progess
The objective after 1947 was, in Nehru's words, to raise "the whole level of the Indian people". The legacy of colonial neglect could be symbolically erased by achievements in areas where India had been held back. The eight-anna stamp shows an engine being built at the Chittaranjan Locomotive Works. The plant began production on January 26, 1950, with the objective of reducing India's dependence on imported rolling stock. Later that year, the plant was re-named in honour of the freedom fighter Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das. The large engineering and construction projects of the 1950s, such as the Damodar Valley dams, were celebrated by a number of observers as embodiments of the vibrant spirit of the new nation. Shortly after opening the Tilaiya dam, pictured on the one-anna stamp, Nehru commented in a letter to the chief ministers that "the sight of those works filled me, as it did others who were present, with a sense of great achievement."
The territorial basis of nationalism is proclaimed on the third set of Indian definitive stamps. The "Map of India series" carries the same image of the map of India in various shades with an attractive arabesque pattern down the left hand side. The map highlights the main river systems and mountain ranges and does not include internal boundaries.
Stamp from the "Archaeological Series", issued August 15, 1949 depicting the Gol Gumbad.
The series was released on April 1, 1957. Pakistan had already picked up the theme of maps in the stamps released to proclaim the unity of West Pakistan in 1955 and then the unity of East Pakistan in 1956. The separate depictions of the two-winged state did save the Post Office of Pakistan from having to depict the intervening territory of India on one of its own stamps. The sequence of the issues (the West celebrated first) also reflected the priorities of the ruling elite. In a further twist to this apparent philatelic phony war, the Post Office of Pakistan countered the "Map of India series" with a stamp of its own in 1960. This shows West Pakistan and a portion of India with the phrase "final status not yet determined" printed over the area of Jammu and Kashmir. Territory is a basic component of the claim to nationhood. If anything it is surprising that it took 10 years for the "Map of India series" to appear.
Trend of official nationalism
Many of the commemorative stamps, issued a number of times a year since 1947, perform the vital function of fostering the sense of common history that is a vital part of any national identity. However it is not just any history. These stamps narrate, albeit in a rather irregular fashion, the history of the freedom struggle against the British. Interestingly, the first day covers (though much rarer than the stamps themselves) offer an opportunity for further commentary and interpretation. The dalit icon Dr. Ambedkar was feted on a 1973 stamp showing his image juxtaposed against the Parliament building. The first day cover includes the quotation (not present on the stamp) "we must make our political democracy a social democracy as well", an epigram entirely in keeping with the ambitions of the Congress government of the time.
Stamps for the "Five Year Plan Series", issued January 26. 1955, including depictions of the tilaiya Dam and the Chittaranjan Locomotive works.
An analysis of the postage stamps issued by the Indian Post Office, and especially those issued in the first 10 years after Independence in 1947 tells us a good deal about how official nationalism has been projected. The three themes of a shared culture, a self-reliant economy and a common territory were prominently featured in images that were in everyday use. The images are distinctive and represent a deliberate turn away from the trappings of the colonial era. Stamps help define India and build a national community. Fifty years on, it is clear that the Indian Post Office has made a singular contribution to nation building.
(A comprehensive collection of the stamps of modern India is on display at the National Philatelic Museum, Dak Bhawan, Sardar Patel Chowk, Sansad Marg, New Delhi.)
Andrew Wyatt is with the Department of Politics, University of Bristol, U.K.
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