For Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, its launch was the symbol of an independent and industrialised India.
India’s romance with this machine started with the advent of Godrej typewriters—a master example of ‘swadeshi’ manufacturing, it symbolised independent India.
According to historian David Arnold, who has a keen interest in the evolution of human society, typewriters styled the office life of the country and made India look like a modern state in the late 19th century. “Novelists, journalists and politicians rapidly—and often enthusiastically—adopted its use,” he writes.
In the 1940s, typewriters were imported, or assembled in India. Most of them were from the American manufacturer, Remington and Sons. Arnold has noted that Remington offered vernacular typewriters in Marathi, Gujarati, Devanagari, Urdu, Arabic, and Gurmukhi as far back as 1910.
Typewriters were enormously famous and much in use those days.
India wanted to invent its own typewriting machine instead of using imported technology. In fact, the idea to manufacture typewriters locally was conceived in 1948 but had to be put on hold at the time as Mumbai-based company Godrej and Boyce was manufacturing ballot boxes for independent India’s first general elections.
Nearly a decade after Independence, in 1955, the company was ready with the machine, and became the first enterprise in Asia to manufacture typewriters. India’s first locally made typewriter was named Godrej Prima.
The launch of this typewriter, for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was the symbol of an independent and industrialised India.
It was a remarkable achievement for a young republic to indigenously manufacture one of the most sought-after pieces of typing equipment, given it was designed and executed by Indian engineers.
In a few years, Godrej typewriters were everywhere—defence agencies, courts and government offices, which became the top users of these machines across India. They started competing with imported machines manufactured by Olivetti, Smith-Corona, Adler-Royal, Olympia, Nakajima apart from Remington.
In the 1990s, the period which is considered the ‘golden era’ of typewriters in India, Godrej used to produce half a lakh machines against the total requirement of approximately 1,50,000 typewriters for India. The company also exported typewriters to several countries including Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Philippines, Mozambique, Angola and Morocco.
The clickety-clack of the typewriter was India’s favourite and the domestic market did not respond well to the noise-less models.
“When I started my job, having a typewriter was a status symbol. I remember the German Erika typewriter was very smooth to type on. But I had a Godrej Prima in standard grey colour. While Godrej was more popular, we preferred noise -making models over Erika’s smooth alternative and other noiseless pieces available in the market,” said Satish Kalakoti, a 60-year-old notary who sits outside the driving licence authority in West Delhi.
A leading manufacturer of typewriters in America, Remington and Sons had assumed that the machine it has made is for transcribing dictation and would be used by women.
With this presumption, the company launched some early models that had flowers printed on their cases. The idea worked as it attracted many women into the ‘typing profession’ as it was known back in the day. According to the census of 1910 in the United States, 81 per cent of the country’s typists were female.
Much like the typewriter later did in India at the height of its utility, the machine drew more American women into the workforce. However, this also led to the trope ‘typewriter girl’ that became a part of early twentieth-century pornography.
‘Tijuana bibles’—dirty comic books produced in Mexico for the American market, starting in the 1930s—often featured women typists.
However, in Indian society, the typewriter became a status symbol of professional achievement. It was among the few products that a service-class youngster aspired to buy someday, besides a motorbike and a gas connection.
In yesteryear actor and director Guru Dutt’s romantic comedy Mr and Mrs ’55, the typewriter played an important role in budding the romance. In 1970, when the typewriter became an everyday feature in modern India, the Shashi Kapoor film Bombay Talkie attested to the machine’s prominence with the song ‘Typewriter Tip Tip’.
It also became a sign of women’s growing independence as they slowly entered the workforce. “Godrej presents The all-Indian Typewriter,” says the tagline of a 1950s advertisement of Godrej typewriters.
Another says, “Today’s typewriter with the touch of tomorrow.”
Entry of computers in India
In the early 2000s, across offices, computers began replacing electronic typewriters—which had replaced the traditional variants.
The trend hit manufacturers hard, who in turn stopped the production of typewriters. It was only Godrej that continued its production. With its last typewriter selling at the MRP of Rs 12,000, the company ultimately shut down its production plant in Mumbai in 2011, with 500 machines still in stock.
The Godrej typewriter finally bit the dust as its production plant at Pune was converted into a refrigerator manufacturing unit.
Interestingly, Godrej was the world’s largest manufacturer of typewriters and also the last in the world to produce the office variants.
The end of the typewriter era made writers nostalgic as they recalled how their journey began with the machine.
To archive its legacy, Godrej, in 2015, converted a batch of Arabic typewriters into sculptures.
California-based sculptor Jeremy Mayer, who works exclusively with typewriters as his medium, used parts sourced from 60 of company’s classic Godrej Prima typewriters, the last batch of manual typewriters manufactured in the world. Mayer has created a 13-foot-tall installation with those parts.
According to Godrej’s website, “Mayer welded a few parts together for his kinetic lotus sculpture because it was mechanical. The installation unfurls its petals at the beginning of the work day (9 AM) and closes at the end of the day (6 PM).”
For those like Siva Subramaniam, president of age-old Stenographers’ Guild in Chennai, the machine is an indelible part of identity.
“We cannot bring those days back but I am confident that youngsters are also allured by this machine. While the number of students who wanted to learn typing are no more same but still, we enroll on an average 700 students every year on a fee of Rs 1,600 for three months. On an average, almost 1,500 government job openings are doled out every year in Tamil Nadu which require candidates to pass typewriting test.”
The guild was started by his father Subramaniam Aiyar 30 years ago.
The machine will always remind a generation of Indians of the time their young country manufactured a means to write its history.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.