A felt-lined tray is placed on the counter separating me from the gleaming shrines at the William Penn boutique store at High Street Phoenix Mall in Lower Parel, Mumbai. Slipping on a dark glove, the high priestess approaches a glass-enclosed shrine and turns the key. From a distance, you are already in awe of the fine craftsmanship of Japanese Maki-e artiste Kousen Oshita in creating this exquisite tribute to Lord Venkateswara. As the glass veil parts, the priestess delicately lifts the object of worship from its pedestal and rests it on a velvet bed.
Yes, this is a sacred ritual.
Darshan (viewing) becomes anubhava (experience) as my fingers curl around the barrel of the Sri Venkateswara Fountain Pen. I am finally holding No. 101 of the 108 limited edition pens from Sailor, one of the world’s most respected pen manufacturers and designed by a Japanese master craftsman, commissioned exclusively for Indian connoisseurs. The first sensation is that of a snug, smooth warmth of the urushi-lacquered body. Cradled between the fingers, my attention is drawn to the understated yet distinguished naamam mark inscribed on the 21K gold nib. The heft is just right. As I hesitantly ‘air-write’, the balance is poised, and the sway, rhythmic. When I gather the courage to scribble on a pad, Sri Venkateswara delivers on that cherished covenant between a man and his pen—ink flowing in perfect sync with the thought.
In neighbouring shrines, Caran d’Ache’s limited edition fountain pens—the Shiva and the Balaji—and Noblia’s Indian special, the Ganesh, shine benevolently amidst globally revered writing instruments like the Sheaffer Legacy Heritage, Visconti Ripple Black and Montblanc’s Jonathan Swift Platinum Trims.
It serves as a reminder. The world’s leading brands of luxury writing instruments are aggressively vying for the attention of Indian pen aficionados. However, Indian makers like Ratnam, Guider or Deccan (admired by fountain pen connoisseurs globally) are conspicuously missing from the boutiques that have sprung up across Indian metros.
A close encounter with Indian fountain pen royalty demands a hike outside the comfort zone of plush malls and air-conditioned outlets. One such pilgrimage takes me to the small town of Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh. Wandering in the narrow, nondescript lanes of the Fort Gate Street area, I find myself in front of a board reading, “Pioneers of Pen Industry in India since 1932. K.V. Ratnam & Sons, Ratnam Ball Pen Works, Mfrs: Swadeshi ‘Ratnamson’ pens, 14 ct-Gold Nib.” This humble workshop is where ‘Swadeshi Ratnamson’, the first Indian-made fountain pen, was born.
A frame on a wall contains a note dated July 16, 1935. The paper has yellowed with age, the hand is uneven. “Dear Ratnam, I must thank you for the fountain pen you sent me... I have needed it and seems to be a good substitute to the foreign pen, one sees in the bazaar.” It is signed MK Gandhi, an endorsement from the Mahatma himself, written in response to Ratnam’s gift of one of his first creations—a pen that was symbolic of India’s fight for freedom—by an Indian, for an Indian and of an Indian. Eighty years later, both the Ratnam establishments (run by KV Ratnam’s two sons) lining the narrow lane proudly display copies of this iconic letter.
At Ratnam Ball Pen Works shop, another ritual begins—this one, more basic, organic. As the contemporary range of Ratnam pens is laid out for me, I notice the stark contrast in presentation. No fancy lights or frills, just a purity of shared passion as he explains the salient features. The handmade ebonite designs are characterised by their zen-like simplicity. The appeal of these pens lies in the experience of owning a small piece of heritage. Ebonite, a form of hardened rubber, was among the first materials used to craft mass-produced fountain pens. These pens are remarkable for their carbon black or mottled appearance. The simplicity of the exterior is complemented perfectly by the precision of its operation.
In a telephone conversation, Ramanamurthy (one of Ratnam’s sons) has this to share: “My father Kosuri Venkat Ratnam met Gandhiji in 1921. It was Gandhiji who asked him to create a product that could be used by Indians. Inspired by this request, my father created the Swadeshi Ratnamson pen as his contribution to Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement.”
Siddiqui started designing pens under the Deccan brand in the late 1950s. These designs would be sent to Europe for manufacturing. “To this day, we only make fountain pens. The true joy of writing can be only experienced when you write with a fountain pen,” Mustafa says with a hint of snobbery. Deccan now has its own manufacturing unit and, like Ratnam, it is also thriving on a global demand facilitated by internet forums.
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(This story appears in the 18 October, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)
Could you please send me the address and /or e-mail of Ratnam pens? I need to contact them regarding some work to be done on a custom pen they made for me.on Oct 25, 2014
Hi! It was an interesting reading. There is an error though. In the text reproduced from Gandhiji\'s letter, you wrote (I see the same error made by many) ..\"I have needed it..\" The actual words were, \"I have used it..\" Any way thanks for the article. Eldtho Mathewon Oct 13, 2013
Take your pick. Lavish opulence or elegant simplicity ?on Oct 10, 2013