New Delhi: To enquiries about its existence, the most common response is “No", followed less often by “Let me know if you find one" or a slightly annoyed “Why do you even want one?"

However, there it is. Hidden deep within the folds of Shahdara, in north-east Delhi, is an aged iron hulk, sitting in the middle of the most ordinary room, covered in its own grease and ink: an early 20th-century letterpress.

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Rajiv Vats, the letterpress’ owner, waves at his operator to cut the machine, and it spins with groans to a stop. It’s remarkable it’s even running. For much of the letterpress industry, the end came many years ago; only a few devotees, such as Vats, hold on to their presses. “People still think this is what a press looks like," Vats says. “They don’t have a concept of the big computerized machines of today."

Letterpress technology dates back to the 15th century, to Johannes Gutenberg himself, and its operation is time-consuming and labour-intensive. Every letter in a line of text is set by hand on a plate. A sheet of paper is then hand-fed into the machine, as the plate rolls over ink and then impresses itself onto the paper.

Printing process: (clockwise from top) Letters being picked; corrections being carried out; a photo-etched zinc plate; and Rajiv Vats, the owner of the Sampark letterpress at Shahdara. Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

In Sivakasi, the locus of the printing industry in south India, D. Selvin owns Bishop Art Printers. He knows there are a few letterpresses still around in his town, but hardly any are still operating, “in spite of the area having more than 500 printers", he says.

Previously, Selvin adds, when letterpresses were still in use, most of them created labels for cartons, biscuit boxes or matchboxes. The print industry is the natural ally of Sivakasi’s main trade—the manufacturing of matches and fireworks.

In Kolkata, College Street has harboured a large, unorganized printing and binding industry for years. Even here, in a city otherwise resistant to change, not even 1% of the production passes through letterpresses now, says Chandan Mallik, the owner of a print shop on College Street.

For his part, Vats is not in denial; he seems to accept that the letterpress’ heyday has passed. As further evidence, his own letterpress shop has competition nearby; a signboard for “Future Point" advertises its computerized design and publishing services. The declining demand for letterpress printing has forced owners to modify their machines for other work; one now uses his press to crease envelopes or cards, or for cutting dies.

There is barely enough printing work to survive. Vats’ shop is awash with question papers and answer sheets —one of the mainstays of his business, along with orders for bill books, sweet-box labels and school report cards. (“Why question papers?" Vats reasons. “Well, who would think that they would be printed in a place like this?")

The work is often seasonal; the forthcoming festive season is, for instance, a boom. “Diwali is a comparatively better time, because of sweet-box labels," says Satya Prakash Jha, who owns another letterpress in Shahdara. While Vats manages to keep his business afloat by outsourcing some of his work to screenprinters, Jha still holds on to his sole letterpress, albeit tenuously. He hardly earns enough to pay his workers, so he ends up doing much of the manual work himself. He pays rent for his tiny shop in two instalments every month.

Jha’s affair with the letterpress started in 1973. He closed his press in 1984 and dabbled for a while elsewhere, but soon enough ran back to his letterpress. He bought his machine’s skeleton for Rs15,000 around 15 years ago, and then purchased other parts from sundry dealers to put it together. “You could buy one today from a scrap dealer, if you know where to look," Jha says.

Vats’ story is different. His father— a freedom fighter, Vats asserts repeatedly —started his business in the 1940s, buying his first machine from the Navbharat Times and registering it for Rs414. The present machine cost Rs13,500 when the family bought it in the 1980s. It is at least 60 years old, and it was made by Chandler and Price, a Cleveland-based manufacturer that went out of business in 1964.

“Like any other technology, limitations were identified with the letterpress and tackled," says Rajesh Dahiya, founder of Codesign, a Delhi-based design and communication firm, and a typography enthusiast. His office wall sports, among other things, a large wooden typeface.

The letterpress still holds some value, Dahiya says, in learning if not in production. He teaches at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, and “I always thought it would be good for design students to see where and how it started, and how hard it was, to show what it took to set one line of text", he says. “If something went wrong, it meant two more hours (of work)."

Accordingly, a few colleges and training institutions still retain some old letterpresses as history or even as part of their course work. Dahiya adds, after some thought: “Typography is very tactile. When you press your fingers against it, you can feel the letters, feel the corners, feel the sharpness. But typesetters don’t exist anymore."

Not many, anyway. Shahdara was, at one point, the centre of Delhi’s printing industry. Raj Kumar Bhardwaj, who has been in the printing business for 25 years, attributes that to the easy supply of paper from nearby Old Delhi, as well as to the cheap labour. Most print shops have now moved to Noida or Okhla, he says.

Shahdara’s glory days, Jha says, made for “a bright and optimistic world, where everyone had work. At least one person in each household did hand composing (of text for presses). Even uneducated people can set letters, you know". Then, with an almost-imperceptile catch in his voice, he says: “Now there are three left in this area."

Into Vats’ shop, thousands of letters, numbers and characters, in various styles and sizes, are packed like sardines; the ‘z’s lie in a corner and the vowels, more commonly used, are centrestage. Vats’ typeface rack would be an ideal play kit for a child learning the alphabet.

New fonts are hard to come by now. Vats says he hardly places any orders for new typefaces, which have to be manufactured at foundries. “There are only two foundries left in Delhi, which might still do it," he says. “But it is costly and doesn’t justify the payout."

The economics of letterpresses are, to put it mildly, challenging. Vats earns Rs75 to print 1,000 answer sheets, which takes him an hour. “If I earn Rs75 an hour, how much can I pay labour?" he asks rhetorically.

Letterpresses are never able to accept work with short deadlines. “A booklet of 600 pages will take a month just to compose, with 10 men at it," Bhardwaj says. “With offset, it will take an hour." It is, Bhardwaj notes, “a standing job, an accident-prone job. There is not even a second’s rest". Wages range between Rs3,000 and Rs4,000 for 8-hour days and six-day weeks.

The work is even fraught with danger. Vats injured himself in a letterpress as a teenager, when his hand got stuck in a machine. The risk isn’t hard to imagine. As he feeds paper in every second, the letterpress operator has a massive chunk of iron bearing down upon his hand. Timing is everything.

As a result, labour is in perpetual short supply. Both Vats and Jha have decades-old operators working for them. “Low wages and too dangerous," says Jha. He laughs when he is asked if his kids will ever work. “Never. Even my wife thinks of this as lowly manual labour," Vats says. “This will end with me, unless my kids turn out to be useless at everything else." Jha too doesn’t know how long he will continue.

Bhardwaj has held on to his letterpress, but it sits idle. “Mala chadha ke rakha hai (It’s been retired)," he says. His press will eventually be sold for scrap. But refreshingly, he dismisses the melancholy. “Cycles are still here, no? Though we have cars and bikes?" he says. “Letterpresses will be around somewhere, even years from now."