Sulekha Inks – scripting India’s success story since 1934
There used to be a time when no Bengali Bhadrolok (gentleman, of refined stock, the lettered variety) was complete without the de rigueur fountain pen in his shirt pocket. And nine out of ten, I guess, had Sulekha ink in them. The school boys with their ink-stained fingers and the ink blotch on the shirt pocket that was a kind of badge of honour to the academically inclined Bengali? That too, was Sulekha. The ladies who carried their pens in their purses (Vanity bags, as they were called in those days of yore)? Yes, they too were Sulekha. Government Offices, business establishments, hospitals, police stations… there was no place where the fountain pen was a persona non grata and by default, no place where the Sulekha ink had not left its indelible mark!
Little wonder, there is a place called Sulekha in Kolkata, where once stood the factory of the ink company – a feat that even the global majors cannot match. And talking of feats, I guess, being named by a noble laurate (the brand was christened “Sulekha” by none other than the bard of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore, though the more probable, but less romantic possibility is that the name was coined by Satish Chandra Das Gupta, freedom fighter, who had, on the request of Mahatma Gandhi prepared the first swadeshi ink, “Krishnadhara”, the formulation of which was given by him to the Maitra brothers, for further development, from which had flown the indelible Sulekha) is another that is virtually unassailable. Oh, the company had even offered technical assistance to the first ink factories and help set them up in faraway Africa, that too through a global tendering process supervised by the United Nations.
Not a mean feat, considering the humble beginnings of Sulekha – which was the original “start-up” as start-ups go, only, there was no garage a-la Microsoft. As for “women’s empowerment”, another cliché that is in vogue these days, the entity was started in 1934 in Rajshahi (Bangladesh) with inks made primarily by ladies: Purnima, Urmila & Kalpana – wives and sister-in-laws of Nanigopal and Sankaracharya Maitra who were the first hawkers, selling their ware door to door.
Ambica Charan Maitra and Satyabati Debi, Nanigopal and Sankaracharya’s parents, who had not only given their life’s savings to finance the fledgling swadeshi enterprise, were also involved, hands on, in the manufacture of the ink and it was their resolve that the company honours till date – to provide the best products at the cheapest possible price. “Family Enterprise” and “inclusive pricing” for those in the lookout for more clichés.
The shift to Calcutta was logical and the first foray into the city was from Bowbazar. Shortly thereafter, a new set-up was hired at Kasba in South Kolkata. Success must have been inked pretty early, for they soon bought a farmhouse in Jadavpur which was then in the fringes of the city, where the factory was set up. Another factory was to follow in Sodepur region, while the company’s forays into the North Indian market was spearheaded from a factory in Gaziabad. It will not be out of place to mention here that there used to be time when Sulekha alone used to sell more ink in India than the rest of the manufacturers (and importers) put together. Sulekha inks were highly regarded and regularly exported to the Far East, the Middle East, Europe and Australia, that too, braving the constant flip-flop of Government policies that often made the company vulnerable to competition from cheaper imports of qualitatively inferior products.
As for Swadeshi and Nationalism, yes, Sulekha was a response to Mahatma Gandhi’s clarion call to replace imperial imports by embracing self-reliance. Legend has it that Dr Bidhan Chadra Roy, the Chief Minister of the state post-independence, was not only a patron of Sulekha’s inks, but was also an indulgent supporter of the homegrown enterprise’s growth pangs. Buddhadev Bhattacharyya, another Chief Minister of the state, a known wielder of the fountain pen himself, was also enamoured with the brand and it was during his tenure that Sulekha, after a near death experience following the steady depletion of its market due primarily to the constant stabs of the ballpoints, and Sulekha’s stubborn refusal to rationalise its workforce (read “fire” the hundred and fifty odd refugees it had adopted in its workforce post Partition) to access the much needed infusion of Bank finance, tried to gasp for the breath of life. Contrary to popular belief, Sulekha was not forced to down shutters due to militant trade unionism – Sulekha workers were partners in progress, stakeholders in the company way before the rest of India had even understood the true purport of the term. The forced closure was more due to, to use another cliché, “circumstances beyond the control of the management”.
Today, Sulekha has sold off much of its assets and has paid off all its dues. Changing with times, Sulekha has already curved a distinct niche for itself as a provider of Solar power solutions, apart from diversifying into a line of Home Hygiene Products that are very well accepted in the market. A move into printer inks has also paid off, thanks largely to the inhuman efforts that have been put in by the team led by Kalyan Kumar Maitra, the octogenarian Chairman of the Company.
With the flanks secured now under the leadership of Kaushik Maitra, Sulekha’s Managing Director, Sulekha is all set to rededicate its energies to do what the Maitra brothers had originally set out to achieve – make the ink that will write independent India’s forays forward, to fame and fortune.
Watch this space, Sulekha is not only alive and kicking, but is raring to go!
For more information visit the Sulekha website: www.sulekhaink.co.in