The unintended memorial

How a stamp to honour Gandhi took on far greater significance.

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Postage stamp bearing a portrait of Gandhi wearing spectacles

It's over sixty years since Gandhi, the Mahatma or 'Great Soul', was assassinated at the hands of one of his own countrymen on 30th January 1948. At that time the stamp shown here was already in preparation by the Indian postal service. They intended it to be the first stamp to be issued by the newly independent nation on 15th August 1948, the first anniversary of Independence. It would still achieve that distinction, but by the time it was eventually issued, later that year, it had also turned unexpectedly into something of a memorial stamp. Since then more than ninety countries have issued stamps to honour Gandhi, beginning with the USA in 1961 and later including postal authorities as diverse as Benin, Rwanda and Namibia.

Ironically Gandhi fought for the policy of 'Swadeshi' (using only homespun products) throughout his later life, but his memorial stamps were printed by a 'Vedishi' (foreign) press since only the Swiss printing firm of Helio Courvoisier S.A. had the right photogravure process, introduced in 1928 and used by them for international postage stamps from 1931. Another irony is that Gandhi always used the cheapest mode of communication, primarily the postcard (many of which he recycled), but one of this range of stamps (not pictured) was issued in a 10 Rupees denomination. This was a very high value of stamp in those days and beyond the requirements of most ordinary Indians. From the 1920s Gandhi deliberately eschewed Western clothing and material possessions, but he did continue to wear his round eye spectacles. By the 1940s pictures show him wearing  downcurve segment bifocal lenses. The clothing of Gandhi in these stamps was only an approximation to Gandhi's manner of dress. The photographic evidence is mixed but certainly many pictures of the period show the Mahatma unclothed above the waist. The allegation is that certain bureaucrats thought that it would be inappropriate, even derogatory, to portray the 'Father of the Nation' in such a manner. So they asked the Courvoisier to cover the Gandhi's upper torso and they did so according to a Western European's impression of how an Indian robe should be worn.

A broken pair of Gandhi's spectacles was presented to the National Gandhi Museum by his son in 1954. They had been supplied by the firm of S. Benson & Co of Hornby Road, Bombay. We think it's a pity he didn't go to Messrs Barton Brothers at number 68-71 in the same street, where a member of the British Optical Association was practising as early as 1911.

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