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600 and counting: Odisha villager Priyabrat Biswal has goldmine of autographs!

Priyabrat Biswal lives in a small village in Odisha but this 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 and counting.

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How did this 47-year-old, who lives in Olihan, some 60 km from state capital Bhubaneswar, do it?

By writing simple, yet touching letters over the last three decades to celebrities from different walks of life.

“Out of curiosity, I started writing letters to eminent personalities of the world, hardly realising that it is a hobby to collect autographs. It was like seeking an answer to the question: Do celebrities actually respond to the letters of common men? The answer has put me on the journey of autograph collection through letters,” Biswal said.

Lady Diana, Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Mohammad Ali are just some of the famous people who have replied to his letters.

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.

Celebrated writers like Manoj Das, Vikram Seth, Dominique Lappierre and Nobel laureates like Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Neil Armstrong and Edmund Hillary also hold a special place in the albums.

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“The most prized one in the collection is that of Mother Teresa. It was such a magnanimous gesture from her side to respond,” Biswal said.

He’s also received responses from US Presidents such as Ronald Reagan, George Bush (senior) and Bill Clinton — as well as incumbent Barack Obama. Other notables include Kofi Annan, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, as also almost all former Indian Presidents and Prime Ministers after 1986.

The 1999 super cyclone dealt him a body blow and almost wiped out his collection but his never-say-die resolve saw him painstakingly re-build it to its present state.

Biswal feels the public relations skills he has built up over the years have greately helped him in his endeavour. And, with life becoming more fast-track in an internet and social-networking age, he still prefers writing letters, justifying it as a more personal way of communication.

“The probability of response (of late) is very low. I cannot help but keep writing,” an optimistic Priyabrat said.

He also aims at sensitising the public, especially the youth, on the dying art of writing letters and promoting autograph collection as a hobby.

“An autograph collectors’ club in the state would be a good option for helping newcomers start this hobby. It will not only bring them closer to their favourite heroes but also help others to know about them from close quarters,” Biswal concluded.

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