Growing up in the quintessential countryside Odisha, a village named Olihan near Astarang in Puri district, Priyabrat Biswal's story of collection of autographed-photographs of celebrities across the world is indeed fascinating. It’s a hobby which is popular in the West, but pursued by very few people in India. Interestingly, Priyabrat didn’t know if such a hobby existed when he started it. He came to know about it after almost 10 years.
Living in a small village hasn't come in the way of his building up a veritable treasure trove of autographed images and letters from the Who's Who of the world – 600-plus and counting.
Priyabrat's instinctive journey of writing heartfelt letters and collecting autographed photographs of celebrated personalities dates back to over three decades now.
How did this 51-year-old man do it? By writing simple, yet touching letters to celebrities from different walks of life!
“Out of curiosity, I started writing letters to eminent personalities of the world, hardly realizing that it could develop into a hobby. It was like seeking an answer to a question: Do celebrities actually respond to the letters of common men? The answer has put me on the journey of collecting autographed-photographs,” said Priyabrat.
“Since then, it has been a relatively unique and difficult journey with an assortment of successes and failures. I have been writing letters all these years to celebrities in several fields,” he added.
His first letter of request was addressed to the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. But before he could get a reply from her she was assassinated. Then he gave up. He restarted the process by writing to the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and was thrilled when he got a response from the ‘Iron Lady’. And it encouraged him to write to the celebrities requesting for their autographed-photographs.
He's received responses from US Presidents such as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush (senior), Bill Clinton, Barack Obama -- as well as incumbent Donald Trump. Other notables include Kofi Annan, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, as also almost all former Indian Presidents and Prime Ministers after 1986.
Celebrated authors like Manoj Das, Vikram Seth, Dominique Lappierre and Nobel laureates like Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, first man to set foot on Moon Neil Armstrong and first man to conquer Mt. Everest, Edmund Hillary also hold a special place in the albums.
He also has signed photographs of sporting icons like Pele, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Michael Jordan, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Steffi Graff, Richard Hadlee, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, and their Indian counterparts like Ramanathan Krishnan, Ramesh Krishnan, Prakash Padukone, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar, P.T. Usha, Vishwanathan Anand -- not to speak of Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Nandita Das and many more.
When asked which one is his most prized possession, Priyabrat said, “Each of my collection is unique in its own way. With each autographed-photograph, I feel like possessing a rare treasure, reading a slice of history. Still, the most prized collection is that of Mother Teresa. It was such a magnanimous gesture from her to respond. And that of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on Moon.”
The 1999 super cyclone dealt him a body blow and almost wiped out his 1500-odd collection, but his never-say-die resolve saw him painstakingly re-build it to its present state.
Is it really so easy to convince a celebrity and get his/her autographed-photograph?
“No; convincing a celebrity for an autographed-photograph is really a tough job. And the success rate is really very very low, 1 percent you can say. But that has not discouraged me from pursuing such a unique hobby – unique in the sense that I have been collecting autographed-photographs (not autographs) from the comfort of my home, without having to meet the celebrities,” Priyabrat quipped.
With human life becoming more fast-track in the internet and social networking age, he still prefers sending hand-written letters, justifying it as a more personal way of communication.
Asked about the future plan with the collections, Priyabrat said he plans to have an exhibition where he can showcase these unique and precious collections to people, especially the young generation, making them realize the antique value of these genuine autographed-photographs and handwritten letters. “I am also planning to set up a museum where I shall place my entire collection for public view. But, it needs an investment which is beyond my resources at present,” said he hoping that his dream may turn into reality some day.