Soumitra Sanyal, Kolkata’s only Pen Turner on his passion for the turning
Soumitra Sanyal of Kolkata is a turner of fountain pens in India – one who does it for the sheer joy of creation, someone who not only has an enviable amount of knowledge about pen turning, but also ensures that the passion is given concrete (or is it ebonite) shape. A Marine Engineer by profession the master turner talked exclusively to inked happiness. Excerpts:
Q1. How does it feel to be Kolkata’s only fountain pen turner, especially in view of the fact that the city used to be the synonymous with the fountain pen trade (both manufacturing and otherwise) at one point of time?
Soumitra Sanyal: I really don’t know about the legacy of Kolkata as a major centre of hand turned fountain pens for by the time we grew up, while writing with fountain pens in school was customary, the so-called “luxury” pens were out of our reach. The fountain pens that I remember from my childhood and early youth were mostly lower end mass produced ones. Yes, I am talking of a time, when even the Wing Sung and Hero pens that were available in the market were considered as upscale products.
As for me being Kolkata’s only fountain pen turner, I would not like to comment. I am merely paying heed to my inner passion and doing what I love to do in my spare time. Honesty l am still a learner who has received so much love from so many pen lovers!
Q2. How did this passion spread in you? How many years have you been turning pens?
Soumitra Sanyal: Strangely it was my son’s insistence for fountain pens that triggered my passion. He wanted many Lamy pens whose price his mother thought was too steep to pay for a writing instrument. It was then my time of re-visiting my childhood memories and places of fountain pen related stuff that in itself remained a long journey. One thing led to the other and before I knew it, I was sucked into the world of fountain pen collecting.
Being an engineer by profession, I was naturally inquisitive about the hardware and the engineering aspects and it was in the high seas that I gradually developed the hobby of turning. As all ships are equipped with workshops, where a lathe machine that remain virtually idle is present, the roots went down pretty soon and I was turning out my first pens.
I also started learning about pen making, especially from the different forums in the net, most important one being www.penturners.org and slowly started turning pens from ready to use kits. The forums also helped me post about my progress and the initial words of appreciation literally whetted my appetite, turning the hobby into a full-blown passion.
In the parlance of pen turning the so-called kit-pens are considered “basic”, “kitless pens” are considered to be the ones for more experienced pen makers! So, l shifted to kitless and continued to enjoy the freedom, limited only by own imagination.
I have a small hobby workshop, set inside a ten by ten room inside my garage space. Equipment and tools are low cost Chinese ones. For a family man to set aside those three or so lac Rupees solely for own hobby had become a bone of contention at one point of time, however we moved on from there.
Slowly l moved on to making the fountain pen in entirety – clips and trims, et all, and fitting them with standard nibs and converters. That is supposed to be the mark of a full-grown pen maker by some!
The fact that my creations were appreciated, earning me a position as an acknowledged turner was a vindication of my labour of love – something that has made my search for excellence even more exacting. As a matter of fact, when I am on leave, I spend much of my time in my workshop.
Q3. Tell us about the five pens that you have turned that are the closest to your heart?
Soumitra Sanyal: I really love all the pens that l have created, all of them are really very much loved. What is more, each of them is a way-point on my learning curve.
No, I don’t have any particular favourite pen – they are all my favourites.
Q4. What are you doing to share the knowledge that you have gained over the years? How many disciples do you have – people who will take your unique creativity and expertise forward?
Soumitra Sanyal: None. I have no disciples.
And the reason for not having one is not far to seek. Fountain making involves investments of time, money, premise and physical labour that push it automatically out of the reach of most aficionados, especially in India.
It really calls for a huge amount of physical exertion that is not acceptable to most enthusiasts, barring the most serious ones. And finally, the prospect to turning passion into profession – of earning one’s keep by turning pens is really not exciting enough to attract people into the calling, especially in the urban, Indian scenario with no additional income resources.
I am more than willing to share the little that I know, but where are the takers? It takes two to tango, you know.
Q5. Fountain pens are generating a lot of interest these days – from your vantage point, how does it look? Is it just a flash in the pan or is the interest here to stay?
Soumitra Sanyal: A fountain pen as the main instrument of writing is a thing of the past and we have to accept it, whether we like it or not. There are cheaper, more efficient options and there will be. However, fountain pens will continue to be used by hobbyists and loyalists and the surge in their numbers is really heartening.
Q6. Why are your masterpieces not available in the market? Why haven’t you gone commercial? Surely, success is near certain, that commercialisation will also give your creativity a much longer life and legitimacy – yet?
Soumitra Sanyal: First of all, l am yet to come to the level of making masterpieces per se! If you are looking for masterpieces, l recommend you take a look at the work of David Broadwell and like.
There are many reasons for not going commercial.
For one, this is my passion, and every child that I bring forth is priceless to me – a piece of myself that I do not want to sell.
Secondly, because of my professional commitments to my job which entails long periods in the high seas, it is not possible for me to either ship on schedule or meet customer issues with the immediacy that they might demand. On principle, I do not want to get into a commercial transaction where I will not be able to give my all to keep my customers happy.
Thirdly, a hand turned fountain pen is expensive.
More so by Indian standards. The bulk of the raw material has to be imported
which, apart from the high costs involved, is also fraught with problems
Manual labour makes the cost more. In the western market handmade pens fetch a justified price, one reason many hand-made pen-sellers have a large oversea client base. Flip side remains however, to a western buyer, a handmade pen from lndia, had better be cheap! Why to buy from lndia if the price is not the key?
One common way out opted by many lndian pen sellers is to employ low cost professional pen artisans and to stick to premeditated, minimalist designs and churn out replicas by rote, which is not acceptable to me as a creator.
Again, if I were to take commissions and create as per the “wish” (dictate) of the buyer, the cost of my time will have to be built into the final price which would make the product somewhat expensive.
That said, much of the reason for not going commercial is that l have not yet given a serious thought to selling my pens so far. I, at the present make for my own collection, striving to perfect my skills. May be once l retire from active duty, l would give a good thought on this aspect.
I make pens purely for my own happiness, which l do not feel inclined to ruin by going through the details of commercial process.
Most of the times I start to make a pen completely extempore, with no drawing at hand. I let the pen take a shape as it goes. I let my inner creativity flow as I turn the pen. In a commercial situation such creative freedom will not be available as I will be hemmed in by the restrictions imposed by set designs and other needs to conform, which is not really acceptable to me.
Finally, fountain pen making is my passion and I want to keep it that way. Honestly, I have never considered looking at it commercially. Even if it did, the sheer hassles of marketing, that too a fountain pen is something that I find daunting.
You may simply sum it up by saying, here is a collector who buys as well as makes some of his own pens.
Q7. Your message to fellow fountain pen enthusiasts:
Soumitra Sanyal: Adore your pen and enjoy its value. Do not attach a price or possession issue to it, your love for it matters the most. All pens are adorable. Your genuine adoration of the pen and the happiness you receive is what matters.
Also please go slow and easy and enjoy writing with your pen. Pen is writing instrument, not a showpiece, please write plenty using your pen. Avoid rushing to possess too many pens in too short a time, slow and easy develops the bonding.
There is a lot to do in life, passion for the pen is a small part of it only!
For more information follow his blog: https://soumitrapencollections.blogspot.com