With a growing number of people discovering the joy of writing the old-fashioned way, the spotlight is back on this pre-Independence company.
Sulekha is today a blend of the past and the future: its factory in Kolkata that manufactures, among other things, ink for the fountain pen, runs on solar power. But thanks to the growing number of people in India who are discovering the joy of writing the old-fashioned way, it is the past, more than the future, that has put the spotlight back on this pre-Independence company.
It was in 1934 that, on the suggestion of Mahatma Gandhi, brothers Sankaracharya and Nanigopal Maitra started a small factory in Rajshahi (now in Bangladesh) to manufacture swadeshi ink. In 1939, they shifted to Calcutta and thereafter there was no looking back for Sulekha — it was making over one crore 60-ml bottles annually in its heyday — until it was hit by the trade movement in the 1980s. Sulekha ink, like fountain pens, became a thing of the past, preserved in the memory of its once-users and also in some of Satyajit Ray’s stories and films.
“Problems began from the late 1970s due to the socio-economic and political conditions prevailing in Bengal at the time. Militant trade unionism was causing low productivity, resulting in recurring cash loss. We finally closed down in 1988. Many other factories in Jadavpur (where the company is located) — Bengal Lamps, Usha, Krishna Glass, Annapurna Glass and others — also downed their shutters,” Kaushik Maitra, managing director of Sulekha Works Limited, told The Hindu.
The company reopened in 2006, after overcoming the cases piled up against it in various courts during the 18 years of closure, and this time it diversified into homecare and hygiene-care products and also into solar projects, making only a small amount of ink for sentimental reasons.
“We ventured into solar products in 2011-12. Initially, we were making solar lanterns and were soon assigned by Indian Oil to solarise a petrol pump near Siliguri. More and more people showed interest but at the same time many were sceptical. That’s when we decided to instal solar power in our factory — it has nearly eliminated our energy cost and helped us convince others,” Mr. Maitra said.
It was not until the Deepavali of 2020, amidst the pandemic and also when the growing number of fountain-pen enthusiasts in India had organised themselves into various social-media groups and become an influential voice, that Sulekha (literally, beautiful handwriting) formally relaunched its once-popular ink, causing an instant buzz.
“Orders are coming from all over India and enquiries are coming from all over the world, thanks to social media,” Mr. Maitra said. The relaunch began with ‘Swadeshi’ line of inks — a set of Royal Blue, Executive Black, and Scarlet Red sold in a khadi pouch made in Santiniketan.
This was followed by the Swadhin range: red, blue, black and green. “The shades have been chosen deliberately to create consciousness about sustainability: black for carbon footprint, red for global warming, blue for clean energy and green for sustainability. It is a journey from darkness to light, from good to bad, from subjugation to being ‘swadhin’ (free),” Mr. Maitra said.
Then there is the Samarpan series, which includes a blue-black dedicated to Mother Teresa and a moss-green limited edition that’s dedicated to 50 years of Bangladesh, where the Sulekha story began.
“We are soon going to launch 10 more colours. Giving expression to your creativity through fountain pens, through different colours of ink — the job is unmatchable and it is back in fashion. Ball pens, on the other hand, are nothing but plastic waste; each weighs 10-12 gm and lasts for about a week in the hand of a student. So if a student writes for 40 weeks in a year, he uses up 40 pens and therefore generates 400 gm of plastic waste annually. Considering there are tens of millions of students in West Bengal alone, you can imagine the damage,” Mr. Maitra said.
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