Sankha Samanta loves pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, so much so that he keeps looking for them in archives, libraries and museums across the city. Gandhi has been a recurring motif in his art. A freelance designer on the panel of India Post, he has designed 14 of the 35 commemorative stamps on Gandhi that the postal department had released since 1947.
"Designing Gandhi's stamps is always challenging because several countries have released innumerable stamps on him over the years, exhausting most images. I have to research for a new image. I like to keep the design simple and stark, reflecting his indomitable will, ideals and simplicity," says Samanta. Though he is best known for his Gandhi stamps, he has designed more than 350 other stamps so far.
Samanta says designing stamps takes the skill of an artist and the temperament, patience and perseverance of a research scholar. Designing a stamp can take between one day and four months, depending on the subject. "For me, a stamp is a miniature canvas on which I seek to tell larger stories. I conduct a lot of research on a subject before designing a stamp," he says.
But he regrets that not many people in the country appreciate the fact that stamps are more than a mere means of paying for postal service; they are a visual tool of communication which many countries have effectively used to record important events, to honour people, to deliver social messages and promote the popular culture.
"In a culturally rich country like ours, stamps can be a powerful means of promoting our soft power," he says, adding, "The Internet may have killed the traditional post, but it has fuelled interest in stamps and has enabled stamp lovers across the world to exchange information. I have got more recognition in the Internet era than before," says Samanta, who lives in Vikaspuri with his artist father, wife and two daughters.
Samanta says designing a set of four stamps to commemorate 150 years of India Post in 2004 was his toughest assignment. "It took me four months of research. The challenge was to trace the evolution of India Post since its inception in 1854. It spent hours researching in libraries and archives. Besides, I conducted interviews with veterans of the postal department," says Samanta.
As a stamp designer, he has many firsts to his credit: the country's first embossed stamp, first fragrant stamp (it releases sandalwood aroma when rubbed), first Braille stamp and the first Gandhi stamp printed on khadi cloth. Samanta has won the national stamp popularity poll organised by India Post five times.
While he has designed stamps on many great personalities, including Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi stamps have remained the bestsellers. "But Vivekananda has influenced me most. In his writings, I found the answers to complicated questions of life. I have also incorporated many of Gandhi's principals in my life," says the soft-spoken Samanta, sitting in his small bed-room-turned studio.
Samanta is unhappy that the stamp he was commissioned to design on India's cricket World Cup victory in 2011 has not yet been released by India Post. "The victory was a momentous event. Millions were out on the streets with the Tricolour in their hands that night. I hope that the department soon releases the stamp," says Samanta.
Samanta gets Rs 9,300 for an approved stamp, Rs 2,300 for an unapproved stamp and Rs 1,600 for a first-day cover, an envelope or postal card bearing the newly issued stamp with the postmark. Most stamp designs are generally approved by the deputy director-general of the postal department but some stamps, especially on figures such as Gandhi, can go up to the levels of the secretary and the minister for approval. But Samanta regrets that living personalities never feature on Indian stamps, unlike in other countries.
Samanta is a stamp collector too. His vast collection boasts of rare stamps and first-day covers apart from several colourful contemporary stamps from across the world. "Our country is still far behind as far as trends and innovations in stamps such as engraving, gold embossing and 3D imaging are concerned, but things are beginning to change," he says.
Samanta, who also designs wall escapes, book covers, murals in glass tiles and wood, is working on a personal project to commemorate 100 years of Indian cinema. For this, he is preparing the portraits of 100 people who have left their marks on Indian cinema for an exhibition that he plans for next year. "Painting has been my first love. I began designing stamps to earn money and survive as a painter. But I never had enough money to pursue my passion for painting. But I hope to do so some day," says Samanta, as he gives finishing touches to a hand-drawn Guru Dutt portrait.