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More than just fandom: Taking sports autographs is now a serious business in India

FEATURED COLUMNIST
9.27K   //    12 May 2016, 17:36 IST
Virat Kohli signing autgraphs for fans

The history of the autograph can be traced to 3100 BC, when signatures were embedded on Sumerian clay tablets as a gesture from royals to their supporters. Having withstood the test of time, an autograph remains a highly prized possession during the ‘celebrity-crazed’ commercialisation era. Successful people from various fields, particularly Cinema and Sport, have been the primary autograph targets for fans across all nations.

In India, it’s no hidden fact that cricketers are second only to gods. Hence, garnering even a hasty uninterested signature on a napkin from Sachin Tendulkar is considered an achievement in itself. However, a handful of people are pushing the realm of collecting autographs beyond the fandom narrative to a structured, more organised passion.

A legitimate community with passionate collectors

Amar Jeet Singh is your average 24-year-old from Delhi with a zeal for sport. Having grown up with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly dominating cricket, he often fantasised about meeting India’s sporting greats. Ever since taking his first signature two years ago, the graduation student has collected over 3,000 autographs from athletes across the world.

One of the top sports autograph collectors in India, Amarjeet believes the passion is not just restricted to his fanaticism for sport. He said, “These are people whose lives will be revered across the world. Despite his god-given abilities, Tendulkar is a mortal, he will pass away one day; what will we have but his memories to remember him? His autograph. I will collect as many as I can to create a museum, so that their contribution is always remembered.”

Meticulous in his process, he has never got an autograph on a piece of paper. A huge poster with a significant message about the sportsperson is a must to maintain professionalism. He added, “We are a small community in India, sports autograph collectors. Our goal is not to to stick just to cricket; we take signatures of Indian athletes who excel across all formats. We all believe if an athlete doesn’t want to give an autograph, it's unwise to force them. Nor do we try and get them through contacts. The autograph should always be on a fan basis.”

Amar with Chris Morris after his magical IPL innings of 82 this season

The higher the number the autographs, the more valuable one’s collection becomes. There are brownie points for qualitative acquisitions as well. The collectors are divided into two factions – money making and a non-money making. A small section chooses to sell autographs for a designated amount after getting them, and the others exchange as hobby.

For example, a good Tendulkar/Rahul Dravid autograph will cost you at least Rs 25,000 in the market. The price reduces based on the autograph’s quality.

A second group believes in exchanging these autographs, in an attempt to increase community size.

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Amarjeet belongs to this second group. He added, “So let’s say I have a Pele photo, I have had offers of 200 autographs in exchange for that. So there is a lot of bargaining regarding that, but the end goal is to preserve. I have been asked by various event management companies to sell my autographs but I never do as I don’t believe in that.”

Fought with Security, attempted 11 times to get Sachin Tendulkar’s autograph: The journey of a true collector

According to Amarjeet, garnering each autograph requires street smartness, ability to capitalise on the moment and of course, opportunism. He had to attempt 11 times before eventually getting Tendulkar’s autograph.

He said, “I was always within a crowd whenever I wanted Sachin’s autograph. Every time he was in Delhi, I used to take the specially created poster, but of course within such a crowd he didn’t notice me. So one day I sneaked into the hotel lobby. I had already called his manager, who didn’t respond to me on Whatsapp.”

Amarjeet added, “While sitting in the lobby, I saw a short guy walking with at least four five cameras around him. Couldn’t notice then, but through the crowd I noticed it was Sachin. I was baffled, but I knew this was my only chance to ask him. But as I was approaching him the manager spotted me. He instructed them to throw me out.”

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A collage made by Amar for Sir Vivian RIchards

Having been kicked out, Amar Jeet didn’t leave the hotel boundary as Sachin himself didn’t say no to him. At around 2 pm, he noticed a black BMW come to the hotel entrance. With the lobby exit being relatively empty, he saw Sachin enter the car with three bouncers behind him. Watching the car leave, he lifted the designed poster towards Sachin's window.

The car stopped 2 metres ahead, with Sachin asking Amarjeet to come towards the window. He took the poster in his hand and thanked Amarjeet, also signing it for him. He said, “After 11 attempts, I finally got to speak to him and he agreed with what I was doing. As I said if the person himself says no, only then do I give up.”

He even had a tryst with security and the police while attempting to garner Shane Watson’s autograph. Having asked Amar to wait outside the hotel for an autograph, Watto went inside to keep his training kit. By the time he came out, there was a massive crowd. As he approached to give Amar the autograph, a bouncer shoved him from behind so that he wouldn’t get it.

He added, “I got angry and foulmouthed the bouncer, and the security was going to throw me out. But luckily Watson stopped the fight and gave me an autograph, after coming down from his room. That particular bouncer and me still don’t see eye to eye. His goal is still to not let me get autographs.”

Kohli’s autograph the most difficult and valued: Singh

Not every autograph attempt has been that fruitful for Amarjeet. He feels that Indian Olympians or other sports athletes are far more welcoming than cricketers. He said, “I can’t blame anyone, but for example I still haven’t gotten a signature from Kohli. He doesn’t say yes or no, just ignores even if I’m in a one on one position with him. But he hasn’t said no, and he is from Delhi, so I will get his one sooner or later.”

According to autograph collectors, Virat Kohli’s good condition autograph could sell for a very inflated amount, if the demand is high. Hence, several were rooting for India’s success at the World Cup.

The Flying Sikh Milkha Singh with Amar

Rating his top five autograph experiences, he put Sachin on top, closely followed by batting legend Vivian Richards, then Indian badminton ace Saina Nehwal, chess veteran Gary Kasparov and football great Pele.

He showed Dhoni a Jersey and Mini-bat designed specifically for him, and asked for an autograph, Amar added, “Dhoni was very kind about it gave me an autograph and also taught me how to sign a jersey. In front of a huge crowd, he signed it for me with a smile.”

Now completing his graduation, Amarjeet is the youngest of a small community of 40 to 50 attempting to professionalise sports autograph collecting in India. He has also ventured into non-sporting streams by meeting the likes of Jackie Chan and Dalai Lama.

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