Since 1999, every night, for five years, 13 year-old Sankalp Sharma, along with his cousin, would wait for the clock to strike 12. Covered from head to toe in woollens in the cold Rajasthan winter, they would stealthily push open the creaking gate of their home at 5 Batti Street, Jaipur, and walk into Ratnavali Hotel. There, the duo would wait for foreign tourists who visited the nearby Old City Wall and approach them to give them a coin from their country as a memento.
Then, one day in 1999, Sharma’s eyes fell on an envelope a tourist from Denmark was about to crumple and throw into the bin. The Yorkshire Terrier on the stamp kindled a craze that had lain dormant despite being raised in a family that ran a pet shop. Today, Sharma, the owner of Oh My Dog! chain of pet parlours and retail stores in India, has a collection of 400 international stamps with doggie photographs on them; the oldest being a 1931 Italian stamp with a German Pointer on it.
Now aged 26, Sharma is still as excited as he was back in 1999. After all, this is the first time he is showing his collection to anyone other than family, or those who have helped him put it together. “Every stamp tells you a story. It tells you of its history, the era, the year it was issued, and the relationship of dogs with kings, martyrs, regions and people,” he says, his fingers running nimbly over the collection. “My grandfather lived in the United States for six months every year and played a big role in procuring stamps for me,” says Sharma, who has even paid Rs 3,500 from his savings for a single stamp.” He has personally collected only 15 stamps on trips to Bhutan, Thailand and a few Schengen countries too, and stopped in 2004, after which, he claims, no stamp featuring dogs has been issued anywhere in the world.
Sharma also went to the extent of hanging out with an uncle who was a tour coordinator in Jaipur. Through him, he would meet tourists and request them to help him add to his collection. “I never really understood if they were insulting me or making fun of me. I was only trying to get them to give me a particular stamp, which sometimes seemed impossible to procure.”
Today, his album has stamps from all over Europe, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, US, Colombo, Africa, Bhutan and Thailand, etc, which are segregated according to the era, country and series. Filed neatly in a special stamp collection album, Sharma keeps them in a vacuum box so his prized possession isn’t ruined by moisture. “Countries usually issue stamps that feature their local breeds, with only a few exceptions. While Roman stamps have huskies and mongolians, Spanish ones have dogs that fight bulls. German stamps have pointers.”
Only one stamp from the collection is from India. Issued by Maneka Gandhi, it commemorates the 215 years of Remount Veterinary Corps in the year 1994. “India needs to realise the importance of dogs that serve the country. They need to be featured on stamp and given due respect,” says the dog lover.
Sharma is keen to organise an exhibition, though he is yet to plan the details. However, he is clear that his collection is a legacy that he wants to pass on to his future generations. “This collection will be a part of my will and it is the greatest treasure I will pass on to coming generations.”
He also keeps a tab on the Internet for news of any new stamps with canine pictures being issued in any part of the world. Recollecting the days when he chased foreigners, Sharma says he put to test a famous Marwari proverb: Saam Daam Dand Bhed (counselling, giving money, punishment, discrimination). “From convincing the employee of MI Road post office in Jaipur, to taking the liberty of lying harmlessly, to begging, it has taken a lot of determination and persistence to create this collection,” says Sharma, who believes that only those who are a little crazy go to such lengths to follow their passions.