Coimbatore: Every morning, before going to his company’s offices to sell metal screens, R. Krushnaswami would visit the Venugopala Swamy temple for a quick prayer.
Around 30 years ago, though, an observation he made at the temple, which he would later chalk up to divine providence, pitched the fortunes of RKS Metal Screens into an entirely new direction.
Noticing the priests ringing the temple bells themselves, and thinking about the drummers that many temples find too expensive to retain, Krushnaswami wondered if those tasks could be automated.
That was the birth of the invention that RKS calls the auto drum bell.
RKS Metal Screens now dominates the manufacture of the automatic drumming and bell-ringing machines, doing their duty in thousands of Hindu temples across the world. It has been a story of noisy success, but Krushnaswami would attribute that, too, to God, just as he does the idea of the auto drum bell itself.
RKS Metal Screens had started life under a different name, in 1952, manufacturing and selling perforated metal sheets for various uses in heavy industry. It entered—and actually created from scratch—the auto drum bell business only in 1980.
Krushnaswami, elusive in person and cryptic in conversation, provides an appropriately mystic origin for his idea. “It would be too long a story to go into now,” he says. “But this was more like a divine revelation, presented to me by the almighty.”
The offices of RKS Metal Screens sit in the midst of clusters of lathe shops in an area of Coimbatore called Ganapathy. Even its lobby is striking. On one side of the manager’s office, lined up in serried ranks like earnest little drummer boys, are the red-and-yellow auto drum bells.
The drum bell design has changed little over the years—a metal frame with two bells, two cymbals, and a large drum. When it’s switched on, a motor kicks clappers and drumsticks into operation. In perfect rhythm, the clappers ring on the bells and cymbals, and the drumsticks mark out a background tattoo.
In the enclosed RKS Metal Screens lobby, the auto drum bell creates a deafening clamour. In the larger spaces of a temple, though, that noise would ring out sharply and clearly—but still very loudly.
One temple in New Delhi admits that it uses its auto drum bell only on special occasions. “We’re situated in a residential area,” says R. Vaidyanathan, president of the Meenakshi Mandir at Shalimar Bagh. “It doesn’t prove very popular if we use it every single day.”
Red-and-yellow drummers: Auto drum bells designed for temples in the RKS Metal Screens office lobby in Coimbatore. (Samanth Subramanian / Mint)
RKS Metal Screens sells around 300 units a month, many for export to Singapore, Indonesia, Canada, the UK and the US, says N. Manian, a manager at RKS Metal Screens.
It is in India, however, that the RKS auto drum bell has truly found fame. Despite competitors having sprung up over the last few years, the auto drum bell of choice remains RKS’—“partly because ours was the first, and people have come to rely on us.”
So, when Manian says, for instance, that the RKS auto drum bell can be found in temples “from Kanyakumari to Kargil”, it isn’t just alliterative hyperbole.
“During the Kargil War, one unit of troops stationed there prayed at a Kali temple, and they decided to pitch in funds for an auto drum bell,” Manian says. “One of the soldiers was from Coimbatore, so he suggested the RKS brand—and since then, other temples in the area have bought the RKS auto drum bell as well.”
The auto drum bell comes in seven sizes, ranging from a 10-inch drum diameter (priced at Rs5,063) to a gigantic 46-inch drum (Rs52,000), and the motors churn out a stream of power between 20W and 3HP. “The medium-sized ones are the most popular,” Manian says. “The Tirupati temple complex has seven of our auto drum bells.”
Assembled by hand at the RKS factory on the outskirts of Coimbatore, the auto drum bells face remarkably few maintenance problems. “Only the leather on the skin of the drum wears out a little, or it’s sometimes gnawed through by rats,” says one of the four unfriendly priests at the Venugopala Swamy temple.
The auto drum bells often perch on ledges above or outside the garba griha, or the inner sanctum, their switches within easy reach of the priests performing the rites within.
The Venugopala Swamy temple has replaced its machine only once, 15 years after it bought its first one in 1980. Its auto drum bell sits in a green chicken-wire cage just outside the main shrine, blackened with grime but still robustly functional.
But success seems to have brought with it a measure of headache for Krushnaswami. “Initially, we’d issue advertisements, and a couple of articles appeared in some Tamil magazines,” he says. “But then competitors would come to our store, buy our product, and make it themselves at a lower quality and price.”
On a few occasions, Krushnaswami even took competitors to court, for stealing what he says is a proprietary design. “But they would make some slight modification to their version, so the court would have to rule in their favour,” he says.
After 15 years with RKS, though, Manian still finds a certain thrill in the success of the auto drum bell. “It’s like Tata Steel—when people think of quality steel, they think first of Tata Steel,” he says.
“Similarly, when people think of buying a good auto drum bell for their temple, they think of us. That’s a very satisfying feeling.”