Monday, November 27, 2017

The Bengalurean who tracked every bit of airmail history from pigeongrams to the first flown letter

Bengaluru: A letter carried by Ranjit the pigeon, a postal cover flown on the first Indian airline flight by JRD Tata — these are some of the rare items in the collection of the late Mahalingswar Athani who managed to trace this fascinating bit of postal history.
Mahalingswar Athani, considered a pioneer in philately in Karnataka, passed away on November 11 in Bengaluru at the age of 89. His body was donated to medical research as per his wish.
Well-known for his coin and stamp collection, Athani had a lesser known side to him - a love for airplanes. Anyone who steps into his Sanjaynagar-residence can see that -- there is a table clock shaped like an aircraft engine propeller, ceramic coffee mugs with images of flying planes, and numerous knickknacks with aviation imageries.
What is surprising is how he managed to combine his two passions to trace airmail's history through his collection, which is considered one of the best in the country. Right from rare pieces of Pigeongram (mail carried by pigeons) to material from the first official airmail flight in the world, this Bengalurean has pieced together the unique history of posts and aircraft. Sadly, as this newspaper article progressed, he breathed his last.
Childhood passion
"He told me he was fascinated by aircraft right from his childhood. Determined to make a career in aviation, he joined the civil aviation department in 1955 as a radio technician," recalls Shivraj Athani, his son.
Athani senior's love for aircraft and post drove him to collecting items primarily related to airmail, which according to experts is a rare passion and requires herculean effort. He began collecting postal covers, pigeongrams and other collectibles through his career, sourcing items from across the world.
Mail from first airmail
The first official airmail flight took off in India on February 18, 1911 when Henri Pequet piloted a Humber-Sommer biplane from Allahabad to Naini, both in Uttar Pradesh, with 6,500 letters and 50 postcards. Athani's collection includes one of the original covers bearing the seal 'first aerial post,' which according to Charles Lobo, chief post master general, Karnataka Circle, is a rare piece.
Airmail flight services continued to be in its experimental phase in India for a while. Meanwhile, pigeons were used to carry letters. Athani managed to collect some of the rare pigeongrams, including one from 1933 sent by the then Viceroy of India to Kolkata through a bird called Ranjit. The Park Street post office in Kolkata had recorded the event with a receipt.
Tata's letter
Among Athani's collectables is a postal cover flown by JRD Tata himself on Tata Airlines' (now Air India) first flight on October 15, 1932, which made a stop at Ballari. Tata, the first pilot license holder in India, flew a Push Moth from Karachi to Chennai via Mumbai and Ballari and back. This historic aviation achievement contained a bag of airmail with seal reading, 'First Flight Madras-Karachi Airmail Service.'
"Athani was famous for his coin and stamp collections but not many are aware of his collectibles recounting the airmail history of India and the world. They are a treasure," says city historian and author Suresh Moona.
He says that Athani was also a keen historian and collected items such as the postal lantern stick with a bell carried by postal runners. Back in the days, runners would protect themselves from wildlife with this contraption. The tinkling bell also alerted locals to the arrival of the postman.
27/11/17 Petlee Peter/Times of India