Luxmi Stylo Pen Works, Varanasi, was the first to make the “Swadeshi” pen in India.
Legend has it that the first “Swadeshi” Fountain pen in India was made by Kosuri Venkata Ratnam to honour the desire expressed by none other than the Mahatma – who wanted an inexpensive pen, made without any foreign materials that would be useful to the people of India. This had led to the establishment of the Ratnam Pen Works Rajahmundri (Andhra Pradesh) in 1932 with the first Swadeshi pen being handed over to Gandhiji in 1935. As a matter of fact, there is a handwritten note from Gandhiji, that the Ratnams proudly display “… I have used the fountain pen and it seems to be a good substitute to the foreign pen one sees in the bazaar …” dated the 16th of July, 1935.
It all fits into the narrative perfectly. Sulekha was established in 1934 in Rajshahi in the then undivided Bengal (now Bangladesh) to pay heed to the clarion call for Swadeshi by Gandhiji. Sulekha’s mission was to make Swadeshi ink, and it wasn’t long before turning fountain pens and making ink had become a major form of protest against the Raj – the activities gaining the stature of a ubiquitous village industry. The geographical distance between Rajahmundhri and Rajshahi with the simultaneous sprouting of pen and ink making facilities, being the case in point.
Naturally, the myths that grew around such “Swadeshi” enterprises were also innumerable and the way K V Ratnam had staked all his financial resources to make the pen; how a legal luminary had lent him a book from which he had learnt and perfected the art of pen turning; or how the Swadeshi pen that he had “turned”, in Gandhiji’s hands, turned mightier than the sword of the British establishment, are all parts of popular folklore. And herein lies a problem.
Without belittling the House of Ratnams and their contribution to the writing instruments industry in India, one is compelled to state that K V Ratnam’s fountain pen was in no way the first in India. It wasn’t the first fountain pen, commercially made in India, by an Indian, nor was it the first “Swadeshi” pen. The credit goes to Dr Radhika Nath Saha (1870-1933) who had set up and was known to manufacture fountain pens in the Luxmi Stylo Pen Works in Varanasi from around 1905. The point to be noted here is that Dr Saha had been there, done that and passed away before the Ratnam factory was even established and certainly long before the first so-called “Swadeshi” pen was presented to Gandhiji.
As a matter of fact, the “inventions” of Dr Saha were backed by patents – that too, as many as fourteen of them in four different countries including the USA, England, Germany and India!*
Another fact that needs to be set right here is the confusion over the term “stylographic”, with some experts expressing the opinion that stylographic pens, with their hollow tubular nibs and a wire acting as a valve, are different from fountain pens. But similar pens that were patented by Canadian Duncan MacKinnon and American Alonzo T Cross in the 1870’s in the USA and were fairly popular in those days, were commonly known as fountain pens only. This is also corroborated by the fact that the American Patent (No 962982) that was awarded to Dr Saha in 1910 was for a “fountain pen”. The invention was praised by Scientific American and it was these “patented fountain pens” that Rabindra Nath Tagore wrote to Dr Saha about, expressing his desire to buy.*
There is another contribution of Dr R N Saha that needs to be recorded for posterity. He had also authored “The Romance of Pen Industries”, the first Indian treatise of its kind and certainly of monumental academic importance, way back in 1911, the same year that he attended the Coronation Durbar of King George V, as an invited guest of the Imperial Indian Government. To put things in the right perspective, the then administration must have considered Dr Saha “important” enough to have extended the invitation.
The very term “Swadeshi” was coined in the early 1900’s by Lokmanya Tilak – Dr Saha attending the Durbar more than a full decade after it, would suggest, as historians point out, a certain tilt towards the ruling dispensations, which some use to snatch the honour of creating the first Swadeshi pen away from him.
But this had not stopped the Mahatma from writing with (in fact perhaps even extensively using) the Luxmi “Fountain Pen” as has been recounted by P V Mavalankar in an article entitled “Reminiscences of Gandhi – sweet and sad” written in 1948. Besides, there exists advertisements where Luxmi pens are presented as “Swadeshi”, which not only demolishes the popular myths about the antiquity of the first Swadeshi Pens, but also alludes to what many vouch unequivocally – that, at the least, towards the end of his life, Dr R N Saha had become a staunch nationalist. This fact alone should debar any poseur the moral right to claim to be the progenitor of the first “Swadeshi” pen!
The question that obviously arises, is how or why did India forget Dr R N Saha? Following the rules of nature, the old order must have yielded, making place for the new. Besides, the “Swadeshi” tag on the Ratnam pens, however unjust it may appear in hindsight, may have deflected the attention, with the carefully orchestrated romance of Gandhiji’s association unwittingly pushing the Luxmi Pen into the dark recesses of our collective consciousness. As a matter of fact, the narrative of Ratnam’s Swadeshi pen is so compelling that I, for one believed, till the other day, that it was certainly the first, as is the popular, internet driven, perception.
My perception was changed by Dr Sovan Roy and his seminal work: “Radhika Nath Saha – Unsung Hero of Indian Fountain Pen” (published November 1st, 2019). As a matter of fact, most of the information presented in this article have been gleaned from the book, which is not only a treasure trove in terms of content and their supporting documents, but is, in fact, a worthy successor of “The Romance of Pen Industries” which was penned by Dr Saha.
Says Prof K C Janardhan, who has set up the world’s first museum on Handwriting, Lettering, Calligraphy, Fountain Pens and Writing Instruments in Bangalore, India: “Dr Sovan Roy has done a great service to the fountain pen industry by shedding light on the life and achievements of Dr R N Saha. Not only has he established beyond doubt the antecedents of the first commercial maker and the brand he created, but Dr Roy has also pushed the age of the first Indian Fountain Pen by a few decades, not a mean achievement by any stretch of the imagination”.
Yusuf Mansoor, noted fountain pen collector concurs, “the Luxmi pens that I have seen, certainly predate any other fountain pen of Indian make and now that their history has been written with the passion that only a fountain pen lover is capable of, I can fill so many gaps in my understanding of the timeline and evolution of the Indian fountain pen”.
Dr Sovan Roy, academician and scientist remains noncommittal. “I have written whatever I had to” he says with usual nonchalance. “I have also provided all the supporting documents to prove the veracity of my claims. It gives me great pleasure to see that my work is creating a ripple on the surface of the fountain pen lover’s community and I am grateful to all of you for shifting the arch-lights back on Dr R N Saha, who I feel deserves a lot more than what we have given him so far”.
- Details of all the patents are in Dr Sovan Roy’s Book, which took him three years of hard research to complete and is the fruit of interactions with the direct descendants of Dr R N Saha.
- Dr Saha also had, among others, patented fountain pens – of the nib-feed variety – which too were commercially produced by Luxmi Stylo Pen Works.
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