How India's First Homegrown Ink Company Was Born During The Swadeshi Movement

How India's First Homegrown Ink Company Was Born During The Swadeshi Movement

Fountain pens may be a rare sight today but there was a time, not too long ago when a Bengali gentleman of letters would be incomplete without the quintessential fountain pen in his coat or shirt pocket. And all of the pens had India’s first homegrowns ink, Sulekha, flowing through them. Fountain pens were found everywhere — with teenagers returning from school with ink-stained hands and ink-blotched shirts, in the vanity bags of ladies, in government offices, hospitals, business establishments — you name it! And the ink in all of those fountains pens was, you guessed it, all Sulekha.

Post globalization, thousands of ink companies have flooded the Indian market but to date, none has left a more indelible mark than Sulekha. Sulekha, an almost century-old ink company has a rich history with its roots in Bangladesh. It is a tale of an old successful ink company that has been used by legendary revolutionaries, dignified poet laureates, and the common folks of India and Bangladesh.

How India's First Homegrown Ink Company Was Born During The Swadeshi Movement
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Sometime between 1930 and 1934, when the Swadeshi Movement was at its peak, Indians were responding to the calls of Mahatma Gandhi to boycott foreign goods. But at one crucial juncture, Gandhi found himself in troubled waters. During that time there was no concept of local inks. To pen down any documents, one needed to use foreign ink. Gandhi thought to himself that it would be rather ironic if he had to write a manifesto banning foreign goods using foreign ink. It was then that he decided that India ought to have its own, locally-manufactured ink. The pages of history turned when he contacted Satish Chandra Dasgupta with the proposition.

A newspaper clipping about  Mahatma Gandhi’s request to start Sulekha Ink
A newspaper clipping about Mahatma Gandhi’s request to start Sulekha InkBetter India

Dasgupta was an activist in the revolutionary liberation movement and also had ties to Bengal Chemicals. He had once prepared his own ink named 'Krishna Dhara'. He handed over its formula to two brothers from Rajshahi (a city in present-day Bangladesh) - Nanigopal and Sankaracharya Maitra and encouraged them to open an ink factory that would outperform any foreign ink brand. The two brothers also managed to secure a heavy investment from their father, Ambikacharan Maitra, who poured his lifelong savings into the Swadeshi dream.

How India's First Homegrown Ink Company Was Born During The Swadeshi Movement
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Sulekha Ink’s slogan was "Swadeshi industry is the backbone of a nation, foreign factories are adverse to independent India". The ink company became synonymous with India’s struggle for independence. In a short span of time, Sulekha Ink gained mass popularity. The two brothers quickly realized that there was a huge demand for swadeshi ink in Calcutta and so in 1936, Sulekha Ink opened a showroom at the Mahatma Gandhi Road in Kolkata. In 1938, a new Sulekha Ink factory was opened in the Boubazar region, which moved consequently to Kasba and Jadavpur in the coming years, in relation to demographics and demand. In 1946. Sulekha became a private limited company and by the end of 1948, its annual turnover exceeded one lakh rupees, which was an incredible amount of money back in the day.

A Sulekha Ink poster
A Sulekha Ink posterThe Business Standard

The name Sulekha is a Bengali word, which literally translates to ‘good writing’. Although there is no official document supporting this claim, the Maitra family says that the person behind the naming of the ink company was none other than the great Rabindranath Tagore. There are some who claim that it was Gandhi who came up with the name.

My father's 'Hatekhori’ (Bengali for ‘writing initiation’) happened with Sulekha Ink because it was said that one's handwriting would get better if written with this."

Falguni Maeed, renowned Indian lawyer

Rabindranath Tagore writing with a fountain ink pen
Rabindranath Tagore writing with a fountain ink

Quickly, Sulekha became a household name. Several dignitaries have fashioned fountain pens while endorsing Sulekha. Legends such as Gandhi, former prime minister Morarji Desai, former West Bengal chief minister Dr. Bidhan Chadra Roy, and legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray wrote with pens with Sulekha’s ink. The ink bottles of Sulekha Ink even made cameos in Satyajit Ray’s renowned stories about the exploits of the great Bengali sleuth, Feluda. Ask any Bengali about Sulekha, and they will recall it with fond nostalgia. Sulekha Ink reached its zenith during the 1960s to the ‘80s, selling almost a million bottles per month.

Satyajit Ray writing with a fountain ink
Satyajit Ray writing with a fountain
A Double Decker Bus in Kolkata with a Sulekha Ink advertisment
A Double Decker Bus in Kolkata with a Sulekha Ink advertisment

It came as harsh news when Sulekha shut down in 1989. However, as the whole world was wrestling with the fatal pandemic, amidst the lockdown in 2020, something miraculous happened. Some Sulekha loyalists opened a Facebook group named Sulekha Ink Lovers and started pushing the authorities. The group shared their nostalgic memories with the ink and received an overwhelming response from Greece, Australia, the UK, the USA, Bangladesh, Nepal, and undoubtedly, India. Orders began to pour in and so much so that the stakeholders of Sulekha Ink realized the potential of the market, and decided to bring it back in 2020, that too in Sulekha's classic Swadeshi-themed packages.

The news spread like wildfire and has delighted fountain pen aficionados all across the globe. Sulekha has once again returned to its birthplace, Rajshahi. Currently, Sulekha Ink is imported to Bangladesh by only one person, Mizanur Rahman Mizan. On the ground floor of Gausul Azam Super Market in Dhaka’s Nilkhet area, Mizan has a shop named "Dolphin International" where the ink is available for purchase. He also takes orders through his Facebook page "Pen Bazar BD" and offers a home delivery service.

The new bottles of Sulekha Ink
The new bottles of Sulekha InkBetter India

History has a way of repeating itself and somehow the past has a way of catching up to you in all sorts of new ways. If one knew the story of Sulekha, they would agree with me. We are seeing a considerable rise in the popularity of fountain pens more than it was even five years ago. No one knows what the future holds in store. Maybe, Sulekha Ink will once again be restored to its glory days, and in the streets, you will find people sporting a de rigueur fountain pen in their shirt pockets.

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