From a business need to beatnik back alleys - the story of the Indian typewriter | 101 Traces.
There are quite a few things that come to mind when someone asks me what it was like to grow up in Bangalore (growing up, that’s what it was called). The trees, carefree attitude, great weather, open roads, amazing food and an inherently diverse demographic (all no.1 on my list) are easy to explain to someone you don’t want to indulge for more than two minutes. There are also a lot of socio-cultural things I don’t usually have the energy to explain. Maybe it’s because it irks me to talk about the beauty of the city like it’s extinct. The price of development and rapid urbanisation, not to mention the omnipresent corruption we endure nationally, has left Bangalore barren of what made it magical. Standing in the heart of the heat, in the bowels of our notorious gridlocked traffic, I am contemplating, “Maybe it’s time I get out of here.”
Keys to another world
But unless I skip the idea of living in a city all together, I’d probably feel the same wherever I go. My happy place is simple: small stone house on the hill, farm, animals, tractors, books, vinyl records, and of course, a typewriter.
Before I’m labelled old (or extinct), let me clarify. Growing up, I was always surrounded by typewriters. My mother and uncle were journalists and considering both my parents had government jobs, their desk always had a huge typewriter with the letters ‘FACIT’ on it. I’ve spent quite a few days hammering incoherent lines with paramount joy since they couldn’t be bothered with things like daycare back in the day.
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Which brings me to my destination - I’m here to meet a man who made me fall in love with typewriters again. I’m here to meet Mr. Velayudhan, proprietor of Sheeja Typewriters.
“I’m not going to retire. My heart and mind are still sharp. The body, not so much”, he says with Christopher Walken style enunciation. Originally from Palakkad, Kerala, Mr. Velayudhan moved to Bangalore at the age of 15. After a few stints with different factory jobs, he took his brother’s advice and started to pursue a career as a typewriter technician. All roads then led him to Mr. S R Siddaraju (we’ll talk about him later) who let him set up his small shop in the building complex that was a cornerstone for Kannada typewriting. #220, Cubbonpet Road.
Officially founded in 1979, Sheeja Typewriters at Hudson Circle, is truly a time machine. Stepping into his barely 90 sq ft establishment feels like time does forget some places. We sit back and sip tea as Mr. Velayudhan tries to recollect as much as he can. “This is how it’s been from the start.” he says as he points to typewriters that cover every inch of every wall and surprisingly, a good half of the tiny ceiling. His desk looks like a nest in the mountains, where he has sat, with hermit-like patience, everyday, for the last 38 years.
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“No one has any real use for them anymore. I see a lot of youngsters like you, who like the smaller, more colourful, personal typewriters as opposed to the big ones which were mainly used in offices. Banking, Insurance, Telecom, Defence, Administration, Law, Accounting, were all highly dependent on the typewriter to make things easy and efficient.”
With the advent of computers and printing technology becoming easily accessible, the typewriter, similar to many old-time gizmos like the landline phone and the gramophone, have become a thing of vanity. I have my seldom-used Olivetti Studio 46 sitting smack-bang centre of my living room, which I procured from Sheeja Typewriters during my first visit many years ago. I use it occasionally and the aesthetics of it suffices its need to be displayed. Well, we can’t all be Hemingway, and I’m sure he’d use a laptop if he could have.
Types only in song
“Personally, I love the old Remington Typewriters, they have a certain finesse that makes them stand out. But if you ask me about utility, nothing beats Facit Typewriters. I’ve been a Facit dealer for over 30 years and I’ve seen most machines outlast the people using them.” In his arsenal are typewriters of all sizes, shapes, colours and languages. Well, a couple of Kannada and Hindi typewriters amidst a ton of English ones. Some heavier than most one bedroom houses and some that looked like they were meant to be snuck past airport security.
Tools of the trade
“I don’t wish for much. I only hope, after selling thousands of typewriters and servicing even more, that something worthwhile was enabled through one of my devices.” While chatting he led us into another part of the building. “I have something interesting to show you.”
S R Siddaraju, was the head of `Sri Vinayaka Institute of Commerce’, a 50 year old typing establishment founded by his father. The space truly carried forward the essence of the shop. The rhythmic, syncopated clamouring of a dozen typewriters was hypnotic. So was the sight of a bunch of teenagers were attending a typing class.
“It’s still part of some government college curriculums,” said the third generation proprietor. He explained how typing might seems irrelevant today, but still has a few merits. A lot of the kids have learnt English though this exercise. The more ambitious ones have become typists, working in important government positions, and working mostly on computers. Except when the power runs out and they go back to the typewriters.
A strange contraption that looks a little like a ball studded with typewriter keys! Image source: theconversation.com
For the longest time, Bangalore and typing went hand in hand. Thousands of young Indians, who could not pursue graduation, attended typing courses and provided for their families. For many of them, this was life’s work. Of course, with the IT boom, the fate of typewriters was forever sealed.
“I see my kids trying to run this place after I’m done, because it’s what I did. I carried the legacy forward and I’m hoping they will too.”
As we bid farewell to our extremely hospitable hosts, I suddenly realised where I was. Long before it was christened Hudson Circle (because of the beautiful Hudson Church across the street) or Cooperation Circle (because of the Cooperation building), this place was once called Ulsoor Gate, an area as old as the city itself. This was also one of the first places developed by Kempegowda (refer Bengaluru airport), and served as a multi-faceted, multi-cultural business epicentre for the city.
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Remembered now only by the Police Station that bears its name, Ulsoor Gate was a crucial part of Tippu Sultan’s stronghold. This exact spot was also the starting point for the third Anglo-Mysore war in 1791, between Lord Cornwallis and Tippu Sultan. A dozen British men, including Colonel Moorhouse, lost their lives in the battle, which eventually favoured the British after a 5 day seize.
Tom Hanks’ obsession has led to a collection of over 50 typewriters. Image source: catawiki.com
Some historic stuff went down here, and we have no sign of it ever happening. This inevitably will be the fate of Sheeja Typewriters, Vinayaka Institute of Commerce, typewriters and Bangalore itself. But for half a day, I was transported to a time when Bangalore wasn’t fighting to be the next big city. I was in a Bangalore that didn’t give a damn at all. I may gone through my whole life not knowing about this magical little room, but I somehow chanced upon it, and feel richer for it.
The death of Colonel Moorhouse at the storming of the Pettah Gate of Bangalore. Image Source: Wikipedia (Robert Home)
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com
By Anand Vijayasimha
Photographs by Amyth Venkataramaiah
Cover photo credit: www.nma.gov.au