Anyone fond of collecting old newsprint as memorabilia would remember the advertisement that had a beaming mother-daughter pair sitting across a sewing machine. Bold letters on the ad read, “Train her to be an ideal housewife – buy her an USHA sewing machine.” If machines are empowering tools, then the USHA sewing machine was considered an ultimate enabler for women of the 1950s and one of the most popular parts of wedding trousseau.
The story of the USHA Sewing machine began in 1935 with Bishan Das Basil, who must be considered a pioneer in the history of the Indian engineering industry. Gangaram, Basil’s father, owned a confectionery shop in Ludhiana and all his children joined the business except Basil. He studied beyond matriculation, got a scholarship, and joined the Roorkee College of Engineering in 1901, where he got another scholarship for specialised training in the UK. On his return to India in 1906, Basil joined the Post and Telegraph Department in Calcutta.
Due to his ‘exceptional’ talent, he soon became superintendent of a workshop attached to the central telegraph office. Research and experimental cell so consumed him that he would sit devising various instruments and equipment to be used in telegraph and telephone systems. These endeavours made him realise how India was acutely dependent on foreign countries for the most elementary tools. And he wanted to correct this glaring disparity. Towards this end, he helped his friend B.K. Rohatgi acquire a patent for manufacturing electric fans, which were not made in India at the time. Thus, the foundation of India Electric Works was laid in 1923 and electric fans were manufactured in India for the first time.
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First USHA machine prototype
As his retirement came close, Basil decided to jump into entrepreneurship. Import statistics told him that 60,000 pieces of sewing machines were imported in 1934 and this figure would surely increase. He turned a room in his staff quarters at 25 Lansdowne Road, Calcutta into a workshop and began to study the German Pfaff sewing machine as a prototype to create an indigenous sewing machine. Such was the state of India’s manufacturing industry at the time that to even copy and recreate a prototype there were no tools for milling, drilling, lathe, press or capstan. There were no workshops where products like pumps, jacks, hinges, handles, knobs, fasteners, bolts, hook racks, saddles, weighing machines, etc could be bought or rented.
The growth of structural engineering in India started with the introduction and spread of railways, which led to the erection of bridges and steel structures. Hence tools and trained workers had just started to trickle into other spawning industries like jute, cotton, coal, and the manufacture of small machines.
For all these reasons, it took Basil one full year to recreate an Indian sewing machine mockup. For the next two years, Basil continued to sink his time and savings into fine-tuning this prototype. It was crude, shabby and unattractive but this machine could stitch if handled carefully. After that, Basil spent a large sum of Rs 25,000 on 75 employees, who were fitters, assemblers, turners, millers and foundry workers, to make 25 cast parts such as screws, pins, washers and springs. Even then, high-precision parts like shuttles, bobbins, feed dogs, needles, etc were purchased from Pfaff shops. 25 sewing machines were completed by the end of 1936 and Basil named the brand after his youngest daughter, Usha.
USHA’s sales team carried a machine from door to door for demonstrations. It made a strong appeal of ‘patriotism and the swadeshi movement’. But his machines were not selling: its paint was uneven, the sewing pace was slow, the base and stand did not fit and the alignment of the machine wheel and stand was not accurate, which caused frequent jams.
By this time, Basil had a loan of Rs 92,000. There were just not enough good tools, production apparatus and resources to make improvements or redo systems. The project was faced with a dead end.
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DCM Mills meets Jay Engineering Works
At this point, one of Basil’s suppliers introduced him to Lala Shri Ram of DCM mills, who was forever drawn to engineers and innovators and was impressed by Basil’s courage and tenacity. A sewing machine is a precision item involving the manufacture of 220 components – some of them so small and intricate that it needed 30 operations or processes to make them. All in all, it took 1,800 operations to make a sewing machine for which various tools, jigs, fixtures and some special raw materials are required, which were not produced in India at the time. Basil’s company, Jay Engineering Works (JEW), was way ahead of its time. But precisely for this reason, the challenge and the dare were both daunting and thrilling to an entrepreneur like Lala Shri Ram.
On 2 March 1938, JEW’s board was dissolved and a fresh board of a new public limited company was formed, comprising Lala Shri Ram, his trusted managers Hans Raj Gupta and M.G Bhagat, along with three more eminent industrialists – Padampat Singhania, KL Poddar and Karamchand Thapar. The fact that such renowned industrialists agreed to be a part of this ‘mission’ speaks of their commitment towards creating a ‘swadeshi’ industry.
A 31-bigha land was purchased at Prince Anwar Shah Road in Kolkata. The company secured new loans and a fresh infusion of share capital. Messrs Karam Ali and RP Lahiri Engineers and Contractors were assigned to construct the factory building to house the machines and tools, which were ordered from Europe.
Lala Shri Ram began to make monthly visits to Calcutta to crack the production bottlenecks and to sort sales teams, commission agents, showrooms, demo units, marketing plans, customer complaints units, and advertising budgets and teams.
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War demand, bumper profit
Despite this all-out effort to streamline the production and sale of an efficient ‘indigenous’ sewing machine, the company closed its books in 1939 with a loss of Rs 38,000. The spectre of World War II raised its head with the Japanese declaration of hostilities. With the implicit threat of air raids and bombings on Calcutta, general panic ensued and a large number of factory workers left for their villages. Lala Shri Ram wrote to Jay’s managers, “In case danger becomes more serious, I don’t want anyone to risk his life for money. If we will save our people then we will again be able to work.”
In these circumstances, there was a near abandonment of the USHA sewing machine project. The machine factory instead began to produce for war demand — goods like railway signalling apparatus, water meters, iron pickets, chassis for Jeep cars, dial indicators, hot water boilers, hurricane lanterns and USHA fans.
The items were varied in terms of precision and value. But with Basil’s technical inputs – the factory in its own muddled way – produced these items on a mass scale.
As per company’s data, the year 1942 closed for Jay Engineering Works with a bumper profit of Rs 6,83,677. Lala Shri Ram then addressed a letter to all his industrialist friends, “For all these years, I felt I had entangled all my friends in an unsuccessful venture, which they joined for my sake. But the position of the company is now sound so if anyone wishes they can dispose of their share at a reasonable price and liquidate their interest in the company.” But no one chose to avail of his offer.
Lala Shri Ram remained un-enamoured by war profits and continued to remind everyone that the abnormal circumstances of war will soon be over and the company will again have to submit to market forces hence they ought to focus on innovation, engineering and product excellence. He used wartime to place extremely competent managers on the factory floor and in administration, finance, sale, and purchase departments.
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Fans, sewing machine, permanent work
Bishan Das Basil was a brilliant engineering brain and a zealous innovator but his skills as a factory manager were limited. Finally, in December 1943, Basil resigned and the company paid him a royalty for initial product design, plus an additional amount for war profits as well as a sum of Rs 25,000 to start new ventures.
In a note to the new management, Lala Shri Ram wrote, “We must not run after moonshine. We must concentrate our energies on solid and permanent work – peacetime jobs i.e., making civil requirements like USHA Sewing machines, electric fans, pressure cookers so that we can fight imported articles.”
From 1946 onwards, despite all types of challenges, Jay Engineering Works went through intensive activity and in 1947 it managed to reach the production target of 1,000 sewing machines per month.
In the aftermath of repeated riots in Calcutta, Lala Shri Ram created a system of erecting clusters of workshops at workers’ homes so that no one goes without a salary and the supply chain remains unbroken. When the company’s two senior management personnel died, his sons Charat Ram and Bharat Ram were pressed into service. Whenever workers’ strikes happened, Lala Shri Ram was known to walk to the workers’ meetings to open dialogue and resume work.
In the decade 1951 to 1961, Jay Engineering Works – the mother company of Usha sewing machine and Usha fans – expanded sales ninefold and gross fixed assets by five times. By March 1962, Jay’s share capital crossed the Rs 2 crore-mark.
More than anything, a truly innovative engineering unit was created using homegrown talent and systems. USHA silai machine was a loved sticky brand that went on to dominate the market for the next eight decades.
This article is a part of a series called BusinessHistories exploring iconic businesses in India that have endured tough times and changing markets. Read all articles here.