Raising a flag

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By The history of flags comes alive in philatelist Sekhar Chakrabarti's rare collection of stamps, says Suktara Ghosh Photographs by Rashbehari Das
  • Published 8.05.10
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PROFILE

He made it to the 2009 Limca Book of Records as the owner of the largest collection of stamps featuring the Indian national flag. Yet he feels that his work in the field is “almost rudimentary”. For 64-year-old eminent philatelist-turned-vexillogist (a person who studies flags) Sekhar Chakrabarti, flags have been an enduring passion.

“The flag is a symbol of belongingness. It stands for one’s heritage, aspiration and hope and is therefore very significant,” says Chakrabarti. His knowledge on vexillogy is encyclopedic — he reels off names, dates and incidents effortlessly — and his collection consists of more than 10,000 stamps, along with a formidable collection of paper cuttings. The principal driving force behind his work is an urge to preserve flag history.

“Government bodies and even some scholars furnish the public with incorrect information, and that is what I seek to put right,” he says. For instance, few are aware that the Indian national flag was hoisted on August 16, 1947 from the Red Fort and not on the 15th as believed. Or that it was Sister Nivedita — as Margaret Noble, Swami Vivekananda’s disciple was known in India — who first conceptualised and designed a flag for India. Her flag, depicting the vajra or the thunderbolt with Vande Mataram inscribed on either side, was made by the students of her Calcutta school and displayed at a Congress exhibition in the city in 1906.

Chakrabarti has taken it upon himself to rescue from oblivion such forgotten nuggets of history. “I’ve just started my own blog on http://flagstamps. blogspot. com/ and also have a book in the pipeline,” he says.

Encouraged by Lady Ranu Mukherjee and Dr Triguna Sen, Chakrabarti began collecting stamps at the age of 14. He soon discovered his interest in flags and took it up as his philatelic theme. His first solo exhibition was held in the American Society in 1962 and he followed it up with many more around the world under the patronage of the Fédération Internationale de Philatélie.

Chakrabarti was the first Indian member of the Flag Research Centre, US, and he has won various national and international awards and even acted as a jury member at exhibitions organised by India Post and other philatelic societies. He has also actively promoted philately in conferences organised by the Indian postal department and the Dhaka University.

“Authenticity is of prime importance in philately. A philatelic journal should be like one’s personal diary, where one cannot lie or distort facts,” Chakrabarti insists. It is this love for authenticity that drove him to write to and thereby correct misinterpretations in William Crampton’s The Observer’s Book of Flags. On another occasion he wrote to the postal administration of the UN — and received an explanation from them — pointing out the wrong depiction of the Ashok Chakra with 12 spokes instead of 24 in a 1985 Flag Series stamp.

Labour of love

An engineer by profession, Chakrabarti devoted long hours after work to build up his priceless collection, acquiring stamps from dealers or by exchanging them with fellow collectors. More lately, he has taken to purchasing stamps on eBay.

“I worked whenever I had time. Flags are more like an obsession to me and I never tire of them. The work of a philatelist is like a detective. One must have a lot of patience to pursue this hobby fruitfully,” he says. And since retirement he has devoted much time on his book.

Chakrabarti has also built up an enviable library of flag-related books —possibly one of its kind. It’s a collection of “a few hundred” books — a veritable treasure trove for enthusiastic vexillogists.

Rare raves

One of the rarest in Chakrabarti’s collection is the Azad Hind Fauj stamp in which the charkha is replaced by a springing tiger. It was never used but was approved by Subhash Chandra Bose and printed for future use in 1943 at Reichsdruckerei (a printing house) in Berlin. “It is priceless,” Chakrabarti says.

Another is the 1942 cover depicting the Congress flag — then banned in India— circulated by Indian patriots in Malaysia under Japanese occupation during the Quit India Movement. Or take the cover showing the Swadeshi flag — never officially adopted — which was popular in 1921, after Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha. It had the colours white on top, green in the middle and red below. However, saffron replaced red in the Purna Swaraj flag adopted officially in 1931. This flag was similar to the final version of the Indian flag except that it had a charkha in the middle instead of the chakra.

Another eye-catcher is the first day cover issued from Moscow to commemorate Mission Soyuz-T11, which carried Rakesh Sharma into space, with original autographs by the astronauts. Or the very rare stamp issued by Pakistan during the first SAARC summit in Dhaka on December 8, 1985. It showed Kashmir as a separate state between Indian and Pakistan. Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister protested and compelled Pakistan to withdraw it the next day.

Another 1969 English stamp depicts Mahatma Gandhi, against the Indian flag. The Mahatma made history by being the first non-British person to be depicted on a UK stamp — it was issued on his birth centenary.