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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  1931 Camlin | Colouring the map
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1931 Camlin | Colouring the map

Camlin's ink, paints and pencils, first made as 'swadeshi' products in British India, have told the story of a nation in flux

Dilip Dandekar, chairman and managing director, Kokuyo Camlin. Abhijit Bhatlekar/MintPremium
Dilip Dandekar, chairman and managing director, Kokuyo Camlin. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

In 1930s Mumbai, D.P. Dandekar and G.P. Dandekar, proprietors of Dandekar & Co., had just begun selling ink and ink powders under the Horse Brand moniker, but found their family unenthusiastic about the name when branching out into the fountain pens business. What could they do? They needed something easy to pronounce and write in every Indian language. It had to be distinctive but neutral, associated neither with the family name nor religious affiliations of any kind.

photoD.P. Dandekar, sitting in an Irani café with a friend, drinking tea, found his eye drawn to an advertisement for Camel cigarettes. In his book Oontavarchaa Pravaas (Travels With the Camel), he explains the idea that sprang from this sight. A camel, storing essential nourishment in its hump, can run for miles across the desert. What was the ideal fountain pen but a camel?

“Once you store ink in it," says Dilip Dandekar, D.P. Dandekar’s son and chairman and managing director of Kokuyo Camlin, “you can write for miles." So the Camel brand came to be. To associate the animal with its drink of choice, the word Camlin, a catchy combination of “camel" and “ink", was coined.

photoThe story of middle-class education in the country is written in Flora pencils and Scholar geometry sets. This reporter has several “participation prize" certificates from the All India Camel Colour Contest. Camlin is now one of the leading lights of India’s 10,000-crore stationery market.

Yet, when it began in 1931, the Camlin story was the size of a bucket. “Not exactly a bucket," says Dilip, “but a small vessel not much bigger than that." D.P. Dandekar had left his government job in search of a start-up. Having realized that quality stationery products in India were almost entirely imported from the UK, Germany or Japan, the Dandekar brothers decided that their business would be in the stationery line. And so, in their family home in Girgaum, they were given one room in which to manufacture their product. The first ink was made in a small vat, then distributed and tested in nearby schools. Adhesive and paste gum followed, and then fountain pens—a departure from the old system of inkwells in school desks.

photo“All of this was from 1931 to about 1947 or 1948," Dilip says. Very quickly, the Dandekars made a name for themselves among Maharashtrian and Gujarati businessmen in the erstwhile Bombay Presidency. Space quickly became a constraint, and the family moved to Shivaji Park. By the 1950s, manufacturing had moved into the suburban wilds of Andheri. Camlin’s current head offices are located in Andheri (East), but they have multiple factories in Maharashtra and Jammu (where they set up business 30 years ago; wood for Camlin’s wood-case pencils came from the Kashmir Valley).

“But real growth started," says Dilip, “when we started making colours." Dilip’s elder brother Subhash, currently chairman emeritus of Camlin, inherited their father’s love of chemistry, and decided to diversify the business. Camlin’s art supplies business, which includes watercolours, crayons, oil pastels and poster colours, thrives today. A 2010 Aditya Birla Money report states that it is a market leader in the art materials product category. The company reported a turnover of 397 crore for the financial year 2011-12.

photoCamlin focused on building their brand from shop to shop: Their packaging, they recognized, would have to be on a par with anything the world could offer. Meanwhile, students would remember them for things like the Camel colour contest, which turns 40 next year. Last year, the contest entered the Guinness World Records for receiving 4.8 million entries—the largest number ever recorded in an art competition.

“When liberalization happened," says Dilip, “we were equipped to fight with foreign products. Many Indian companies failed because they never changed their mindset."

The future has not left Camlin untouched. In 2011, the company entered a joint venture with Kokuyo, the Japanese stationery giant, which acquired a controlling stake in the company. What was once Dandekar & Co. underwent yet another transformation, from Camlin Ltd to Kokuyo Camlin Ltd.

All the beloved old product names remain, at hand for succeeding generations. But who will use Camel ink in future?

Dilip is sanguine. The market is not growing, but as long as children are compelled to use fountain pens in school—and this is still true of most major states in the country—it will stay steady.

Meanwhile, the future belongs, once again, to geeks. Once they dreamed of ink tablets: Who is to say what they will make tomorrow?

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Published: 13 Aug 2012, 12:21 PM IST
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