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How selfie threatens to kill the autograph

While Indian celebrities are yet to speak their mind on the subject and the autograph may not be dead yet, it has certainly lost out to the selfie in the celebrity culture

Manoj Sharma

A few years ago, Shane Warne, Australian spin legend and the brand ambassador of Rajasthan Royals in the latest IPL season, predicted the end of the autograph, tweeting: “After doing 5 selfies with people this morning before 8 a.m. on my morning run/walk, I’ve come to the conclusion that the autograph is dead!” Similarly, American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift wrote in an article in the Wall Street Journal, “There are a few things I have witnessed becoming obsolete in the past few years, the first being autographs…The only memento kids these days want is a selfie.”

While Indian celebrities are yet to speak their mind on the subject and the autograph may not be dead yet, it has certainly lost out to the selfie in the celebrity culture. For millennials, who find the autograph not-so-cool, a selfie with a celebrity is a better memento, ensuring instant social media acclaim.

“The selfie has posed an existential threat to the centuries-old hobby of autograph collecting. Very few children and youngsters are now interested in it. Our membership has stagnated in the past few years,” says Santosh Kumar Lahoti, 50, the founder of the Autographs Collectors Club Of India (ACCI). Founded in 1997, it has about 2,500 members, about 100 of them in Delhi.

Unlike in the past when a celebrity’s signature style defined his identity and he or she worked hard to develop it—after all, one was not considered famous until one was mobbed by autograph hunters—the new generation of celebrities are more inclined towards selfie, say autograph hunters.

“Celebrities know that a selfie will be widely shared on social media. No wonder then, most are eager to strike a pose, flash a smile for the mobile camera,” says president, ACCI Delhi, Venkatesh Das Agrawal adding, “But what one needs to understand is that selfie-seekers are only glamour struck, autograph-seekers are history lovers. Older celebrities, especially writers, artists, still prefer an autograph to a selfie.”

But 21-year-old, Arunima Gupta, a medical student, differs, saying selfie is redefining the idea of memorabilia. “It is a visual keepsake of one’s meeting with a famous person, and helps vividly recall the moment,” she says.

Chinmoy Roy, a Gurgaon-based autograph collector, believes selfies are changing the relationship between celebrities and their fans. “Signing an autograph takes a while, and often leads to a small talk between a celebrity and his fan, but no such conversation happens during a selfie-session,” he says.

Unlike selfie-seeking, collecting autographs requires a lot of patience, perseverance and a love for history, autograph collectors say. While most prefer to personally take autographs (they often keep in touch and tip off each about the movements of celebrities in their cities), many also collect them through fan mail, and barter with fellow collectors. Fan mail is the most common method of acquiring autographs of many international celebrities and world leaders, people who are not easily inaccessible such as presidents, prime ministers, and the royals. “But whether you will get a reply depends on what you write, a celebrity needs to feel that you know a lot about his or her life and work. If you have written the right things, chances are you will get a reply,” says Lahoti, a company secretary, who had his name in Limca Book Of Records for the largest collection of celebrity autographs.

Amarjeet Singh, 27, a Faridabad-based autograph collector, can often be seen at airport arrival lounges, five-star hotel lobbies, and sporting arenas, looking for an autograph opportunity. A few years ago, he waited outside the house of Amitabh Bachchan in Delhi for five days and finally managed to get his autograph; last year he cut short a visit to Nainital when he got to know that Kevin Durand, his favourite baseball player, was in Greater Noida.

“He was surrounded by selfie-seekers when I met him. In one hand I had his big photograph on which I wanted an autograph, and a mobile phone in the other. As soon as he saw me he said, ‘Either you take an autograph or a photograph. I obviously chose the autograph,” says Singh, one of the country’s most ardent autograph collectors, whose 5,000-strong collection of autographs includes everyone from André Agassi to Madonna. “These days it is difficult to break into the swarm of selfie seekers around celebrities; they have made our jobs so much more challenging.”

The declining aesthetics of the celebrity signature, say the collectors, is also one of the reasons for the autograph’s declining popularity. “Sometimes what you get in the name of an autograph is hastily scribbled initials. Earlier, autograph was central to a celebrity’s identity, and they signed with patience, ensuring their signature looked beautiful on paper. They always wrote the date and some message for the fan. Mother Teresa, for example, used to write ‘God Bless’ above her signature,” says Romello Malaviya, 70, a veteran autograph collector.

Several factors decide the value of an autograph: the achievement, popularity, accessibility, the historical significance of a person, the probability of getting his autograph, and its demand. “A selfie is just a proof of the fact that you met someone; merely a personal memory, without any historical value,” says Vijay Jhinga, 31, a Delhi-based autograph collector.

But Vembu Shankar, a Chennai-based well-known autograph collector, disagrees. “Earlier people established a connect with celebrities through an autograph, now the younger generation does so through selfies. A selfie, which can also have time, date and location, is historically as important as an autograph,” he says. “Change is the only constant; even digital autographs could be in vogue in future.”

Interestingly, Chinmoy Roy, who has inherited the hobby and collection – it has about 2,500 autographs, including that of Subhash Chandra Bose –  from Romello Malaviya, his father-in-law, says an autograph establishes a connection with the person in ways people cannot imagine. “Whenever I am feeling down, I just close my eyes and run my fingers over Mother Teresa’s autograph; it has such a calming effect on me.”

Malaviya, his father-in-law, says the hobby now faces challenge not just from selfie-seekers but also from the private security personnel of celebrities. “I inherited the hobby from father who started collecting autographs in 1928. I started doing so in 1965. Getting autographs those days was much easier. There were no bouncers guarding film stars,” he says.

Lahoti says one of the objectives of the club now is to convert selfie-seekers into autograph hunters. “The idea behind the club was to promote signature as a hobby. Now whenever we come across young people taking a selfie with a celebrity, we request them to also a take an autograph by explaining to them its importance. We are happy to have persuaded at least 100 young selfie lovers to join our club in the past few years,” says Lahoti, who has penned, ‘Autograph Please’, a guidebook for autograph collectors.

Amarjeet Singh, who claims to have autographs of Albert Einstein, Thomas Alva Edison and Winston Churchill, acquired through other collectors abroad, says Delhi is the best place for autograph hunting. “Being the capital and a part of the golden tourist triangle with Jaipur and Agra, it is visited by global celebrities. But in these times of rising selfie-culture, an autograph collector has to do something different to attract the attention of a celebrity,” says Singh. “I often go with their big printed photographs, learn to greet them in their language, and at times I wait at airport lobbies holding a placard with the request for autograph. More often than not I get it.”

(HT Media)

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