Gandhi at Birla House,
Mumbai, 1942 (Photo: Alamy)
MOHANDAS KARAMCHAND GANDHI DID not like to pose. Photographers and artists were more than welcome, but they would have to be content with capturing him at work. Kanu Gandhi had to work within these restrictions, as had Feliks Topolski and John Henry Amshewitz. There have been other chroniclers too of Gandhi’s day-to-day life, but some of the most iconic images we have of Gandhi sitting with pen and paper came from these men. Kanu, Gandhi’s grandnephew who lived with him, had unprecedented access and was more than generous with his images without insisting on credits, which is why while we are familiar with his work, we don’t often know he was the eye behind it. Topolski’s sketching of Gandhi writing even as Pyarelal leans over can be found in Sketches of Gandhi while Amshewitz’s pencil sketch, inscribed by Gandhi in 1931, was auctioned in 2017 by Sotheby’s for £32,500.
In a 2009 article in The Hindu, Gandhi’s grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi wrote, ‘…if his working hand were to be imagined, it would be at the spinning wheel or in the act of writing.’ The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi boasts over 31,000 letters alone, written by him. From statesmen to princesses, from politicians to writers, Gandhi wrote to all and they wrote back. Gandhi famously observed silence on Mondays, but there wasn’t a day when he didn’t write. Gandhi frowned upon the use of pencils for writing as the words would get smudged, or erased, by the time they reached the recipient.
In 1921, KV Ratnam, a young man from a family of goldsmiths in Rajahmundry, met Gandhi, who advised him to try and make at least one article using only Indian components. “He asked Gandhiji, what is the item I have to make [sic] and was told, you can make anything from a pin to a pen,” recalls KV Ramana Murthy, Ratnam’s son. Murthy, 76, claims that his father got his first lesson in making a 14-carat gold nib from P Ramamurti. “He took apart fountain pens, studied them, made detailed drawings and, in 1932, set up Ratnam Pen Works,” says Murthy. In 1933, the fledgling pen-makers sent a fountain pen to Gandhi, who, however, declined to accept it as imported raw material had been used. In 1934, the secretary of the All India Village Industries Association, JC Kumarappa, visited Rajahmundry and Ratnam made a pen for him using only Indian material, which was carried back to Gandhi. ‘Dear Ratnam… I have used the fountain pen and it seems to be a good substitute to the foreign pen one sees in the bazaar,’ Gandhi wrote to him. Murthy can recite the contents of the letter without pausing for breath but there are also physical reminders of it everywhere in the cramped workshop of Ratnamsons Ball Pen Works even today. There is a scanned copy of the letter (actually more of a note) and a laminated reproduction, complete with a photograph of the Father of the Nation. Every inch of the room is covered with reminders of the makers’ illustrious associations: for instance, there’s a photograph of VV Giri standing outside the workshop and another of Jawaharlal Nehru. There is no evidence whether Gandhi continued writing with a Ratnam pen or not after the first one was sent to him, but the brand soon acquired the label of a ‘swadeshi’ pen and still uses it rather proudly.
The Swadeshi movement is associated with Gandhi in our minds but thinkers like Gopal Hari Deshmukh and Bholanath Chandra had been propagating the use of home-made goods as opposed to foreign-manufactured ones since the late 19th century. It was during that time that Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata started his Swadeshi Mill and Ardeshir Godrej, Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Company. For Gandhi, ‘swadeshi was the spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings’ and he wanted ‘every village in India to be a self-supporting, self-contained unit.’ His idea of swadeshi was of people producing everything they could possibly need, including pens and ink. For a writer as prolific as Gandhi, it would have merged beautifully with the idea of penning down one’s own story with indigenous tools of writing. In 1934, he wrote a letter to B Pattabhi Sitaramayya on ‘village paper’, with village-made ink and a pen made of village reed (as he himself wrote in the letter).
It was with the 1905 Partition of Bengal that the Swadeshi movement acquired the large-scale character it eventually did. Rabindranath Tagore, in his ‘Swadeshi Samaj’ address, had spoken of the revival of a traditional community in villages even as there was a decline in Manchester’s cloth sales. However, historian Sumit Sarkar, in his book Modern India, attributes this drop more to a quarrel over trade terms between Calcutta’s Marwari dealers and British manufacturers. But at the same time, there was an increase in home-grown businesses. Cotton mills were set up and ‘there were some fairly successful ventures in porcelain, chrome tanning, soaps, matches and cigarettes. The patrons… came mainly from the professional intelligentsia,’ writes Sarkar. It is from this perspective that the establishment of an ink brand, Sulekha, forever associated with the Indian freedom movement, needs to be seen.
Even as KV Ratnam and his brother were getting down to the business of producing 100 per cent Indian fountain pens, Sankaracharya Maitra and Nanigopal Maitra in Bengal were coming out with Sulekha, an indigenous ink brand, to break the monopoly of British brands like Parker’s Quink. The Maitras were acting on the instructions of Satish Chandra Dasgupta, a close associate of Gandhi, who had given the brothers the formula of Krishnadhara, a fountain pen ink developed by him. It wouldn’t have been easy to create an ink formula with restricted resources but Sulekha, set up in 1934 in Rajshahi, now in Bangladesh, was able to make a mark in the market from the word go. By 1946, the company, which had shifted to Calcutta by then, had gone public. Sulekha Ink wasn’t the only Indian ink brand in the market. Dandekar & Co had been selling ink and ink powders under the Horse brand but felt the need for a more market-friendly name. An advertisement for Camel cigarettes provided the inspiration to DP Dandekar and, thus, Camlin was born. Bibek Debroy, in an article in The Indian Express earlier this year, reminisced about the use of fountain pens when he was in school and also of ‘branded’ ink. ‘It was, and had to be, Sulekha,’ he wrote, because of its association with Gandhi and self-reliance.
“There were fountain pens in the market in the 1930s but they were only assembled here. All the components came from outside the country. My father’s decision to leave the family business to focus on pen-making was his way of contributing to the freedom struggle. In my youth, I would sometimes squint at photographs of Gandhi to see what pen he was holding just in case it was a Ratnam pen but I have never been able to determine,” says Murthy, flashing an all but toothless grin. Every five years, they send off a fountain pen inscribed with the names of the current occupants of both 7 Race Course Road (now 7 Lok Kalyan Marg) and Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. “I started pen-making when I was 14 years old. Today, my sons have followed me in the business but it is just the three of us now,” Murthy says, gesturing at the room where his sons, Gopal and Chandrashekhar, are busy crafting fountain pens out of ebonite rods. Murthy was Ratnam’s only son who followed in his father’s footsteps to make pens while the others migrated to cities like Hyderabad.
Neither Sulekha nor Ratnam has been spared the ravages of time and the pressure of our times. Sulekha Works had to shut down in 1989 owing to reported trade union trouble. It restarted operations in 2006. Today, it has diversified into stationery, homecare, solar-powered goods, etcetera, with a firm emphasis, of course, on ink. KV Ratnam and his brother split in 1958 and two separate brands were set up—Ratnamsons and Ratnam Ball Pens. “We don’t advertise or hype ourselves. The quality of our penmanship speaks for itself,” says Shiva Ratnam, the grandson of the other brother, Kasuri Satyanarayana. While Murthy insists the families still work together, the two brothers say the establishments are different. “The original letter from Gandhiji is here,” says Shiva, pointing to a frame hung high on the wall. “But we don’t cultivate political patronage, nor do we make claims about who all used our pens because while the truth is that yes, pens were sent to the greats of this country, we don’t know how much they used them. Our buyers are ordinary pen lovers,” he elaborates. Both houses of Ratnam pen-makers offer the same kind of products, hand-made ebonite pens with customisable nibs. They even mould the nib according to the function one needs the pen for, so as to make writing easier. For a journalist, Murthy says, he will craft the nib from all sides in such a way as to make writing possible from every angle, since “they scribble so fast.” For a doctor, he recommends his flagship pen, the Supreme Pen, which has a thicker nib.
TODAY, THE VERY FUTURE OF handwriting is uncertain, as technology offers us so many substitutes. Across the world, many schools have dropped cursive writing altogether, even as voice commands threaten to undo typing. Email has replaced postal mail. Fountain pens were dealt a body blow in the 1980s when ballpoint pens began flooding the market. The apparently inferior quality of these pens, prone to leaking, staining, etcetera did not help either. But even as the physical act of writing by hand struggles, there has been a revival of sorts for the fountain pen industry in India. Several home-grown brands, such as Ranga Pens, which has an international following, have sprung up with various specialisations. This year, in February, the first ever Indian Pen Show was held in Mumbai. “Writing with a fountain pen is an act that requires your writing to stay apace your thoughts. An ink pen, as opposed to a ball pen, is not conducive to writing fast and as a result you think more about what you are writing and hence retain more,” says Murthy, even as he fishes out a model of a pen made in 1935. Slight to the touch, it’s a thin instrument in a dull orange colour. In 2016, the Sabarmati Ashram had placed an order with Murthy to stock a few of the ‘swadeshi’ pens. It takes the Murthys two days to make a pen and there is a pile of orders waiting. KV Ramana has been unwell for some time now and can’t sit on the machine like he used to earlier. The cousins across the road, too, always have a backlog. “There is a shortage of manpower. No one wants to work in a pen workshop anymore. Everyone wants to go to a mall,” says Shiva.
A decade ago, to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s 140th birth anniversary, luxury pen-maker Montblanc came out with a range of limited edition Mahatma Gandhi pens. Thoughtfully designed, the top of the cap and the cone were inspired by the charkha while the ivory of the pen’s body was meant to hark back to Gandhi’s message of non-violence. Unfortunately, at upwards of Rs 10 lakh, the pricing seemed to make a mockery of the man it sought to commemorate. Montblanc eventually withdrew the series.
For Gandhi, spinning the charkha was not just an act of defiance against a colonial empire. It was also about empowering the self, spiritually and physically. Handicrafts were the pathway on which the nation’s self-fulfilment lay. ‘My swadeshi… centres round the hand-spun Khaddar and extends to everything that can be and is produced in India,’ he wrote. Mahatma Gandhi would have approved of both Ratnam Pens and Sulekha Ink and their attempts to continue to write their own history.