Bhopal, March 5 The first man in space, several U.S. presidents, all Indian presidents and 216 heads of state, a retired engineer has preserved a virtual slice of history through his 40-year-old hobby of collecting autographed pictures. Arshad Kidwai, a 62-year-old retired Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL) engineer, in Bhopal has spent a lifetime collecting these photographs which is a Who's Who of the world.
US civil rights leader Martin Luther King, former Egyptian presidents Hosni Mubarak, Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, US presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and all Indian presidents from Rajendra Prasad to Pratibha Patil, all are part of his pictorial collection.
"As a teenager, I used to visit exhibitions in my native place Rampur (Uttar Pradesh) and in Jaipur (Rajasthan). Seeing the autographed photographs, I began to collect it and from then my journey began," says Kidwai.
In his collection, the world's royalty is represented by Queen Elizabeth II of England, Maharaja Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah of Nepal, Saudi Arabian King Shah Faisal, King Hussein of Jordan, P. Namgyal of Sikkim, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck of Bhutan, and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.
Apart from royalty and politicians, Kidwai has an impressive collection of over 500 space photographs.
From autographed pictures of the U.S. team of astronauts that landed on the moon in 1968 to cosmonauts of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
He has signed photographs from the first man and woman in space, Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova from the erstwhile Soviet Union. First US astronaut Alan B. Shepard, first man to walk in space A. Lenov of the erstwhile Soviet Union, first Indian in space Rakesh Sharma, and Indian-origin astronauts Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams.
The collection also has pictures of Apollo 7 to 17, Sky Lab 1 to 3, Apollo-Soyuz — a joint US-USSR mission and the missions of Russian spaceships Vostok 1 to 6, Voskhod 2, Soyuz 1 and 9 and Sputnik 2.
How did he manage to get hold of all these photographs?
Kidwai says he develops contacts with embassy officials and tries to get the pictures through them.
"In 1984, the U.S. embassy had held an exhibition in Nainital. I went there and seeing my interest, Dr. John, an embassy official, promised me that he would get autographed photos of astronauts for me. Later he went back to America but kept sending me pictures.
"In fact, I somehow contacted Yuri Gagarin, and he also sent me several photographs," said Kidwai, who started his collection at the age of 16.
Cajoling officials and trips to Delhi became a routine.
"It has always been difficult to get such photos personally, as there is high security. When I tried to take autograph of (former prime minister) Choudhary Charan Singh, it took me two days. Initially, he said he did not like to give autographs, but when I told him how much it means to me, he laughed and relented," Kidwai said.
"Later, I started using all my links — friends, relatives, different official departments and embassies, through correspondence. In the process, I met more than 60 foreign state guests who visited India."
Most pictures and correspondence were sent through mail. Some took days and some months of efforts.
Kidwai also had the policemen knocking on his doors.
"Rampur was a sensitive place and most autographed photos come by the post. As it used to come from several countries, including Pakistan, some intelligence officials tracked it and interrogated me too. But when they came to know what I did, they left me alone. One of the officials also provided me with Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri's autographed photograph," he recalls.
Kidwai longs to add three people to his collection, former South African president Nelson Mandela, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.
"I had sent my request to the South Africa government but they said there are a large number of applications in queue, and Mandela gives autographs on donations only," he said.
He also has more than 100 autographs of Hindi and Urdu poets, over 100 autographs of Indian freedom fighters and musicians.
After four decades of collecting pictures, Kidwai still goes about his hobby with a missionary zeal.
"Now I want to collect autographed pictures of Nobel Prize winners," he said.
And that's not all. Wait till you see his stamp collection. Running into thousands, Kidwai has many rare stamps.
"So far, 130 countries have issued stamps on (Mahatma) Gandhiji and I have got them all," he says proudly.
Kidwai has got three international awards in Delhi (1984), in Italy (1988) and in China (1990) for his stamp collection on Mahtama Gandhi.
Now, Kidwai has a helping hand. His 24-year-old son, Ashar, an interior designer, has joined the family hobby.