The music philatelist S. Sankaranarayanan has produced monthly articles for the magazine Sruti almost without a break since April 2004.
Each article covers the issuance of a stamp (or group of stamps) by the Indian Department of Posts and includes a philatelic report along with a first day cover and background information on the stamp’s subject—these have included exponents of the Karnatak and Hindustani traditions as well as Indian folk musicians, dancers, musicologists, and patrons of the arts.
Above, a first day cover of a 1961 stamp honoring the Karnatak composer Tyāgarāja (1767–1847); Sankaranarayanan’s article about this stamp appeared in Sruti 269 (February 2007), pp. 40–41.
Music philately began with the issuance of some of the very first postage stamps in the mid-nineteenth century: The inaugural issues of several European countries included images of post horns. Purists may argue that post horns were mere signaling devices, but at that time they were already being used in classical compositions, so their depictions may be considered musical images.
Other nineteenth-century stamps featured depictions of prominent political figures who were also musicians—for example, Argentina issued a stamp honoring the statesman and composer Juan Bautista Alberdi in 1888 (left)—but they were concerned with politics rather than music. The first explicitly musical stamp was Poland’s issuance honoring Ignacy Jan Paderewski in 1919.
Through the 1950s countries increasingly celebrated Western classical musicians and composers. In the 1960s all aspects of musical life became potential subjects—institutions, festivals, instruments, dancers, and so on—and non-European countries asserted their national identities with images of their own traditional and historical music cultures. In the later twentieth century images of popular and jazz musicians gained increasing demand .
This according to A checklist of postage stamps about music by Johann A. Norstedt (London: Philatelic Music Circle, 1997), which lists some 14,000 stamps with music-related images.
Above, stamps issued in Northern Cyprus in 1985, which was designated European Music Year by the Europa Federation (click images to enlarge). Below, a curious video about Robert Burns iconography.
Postage stamps are singular sources for music iconography. Since these images comprise officially sanctioned national and international recognition, they provide windows on what governments and constituencies in various cultures and at various times have deemed worthy of celebration.
For example, the South Indian magazine Sruti regularly features philatelic reports on stamps issued by the Indian Department of Posts; these include an impressive number of commemorations of composers and performers from India’s classical Karnatak and Hindustani traditions. The stamp pictured above was issued to honor the śahnāī player Bismillāh Khān (1915–2006) on 21 August 2008.
Below, the music of Ghanaian postal workers canceling stamps.
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