remembering history

Kapur and Kapoor: Two friends survived Partition and changed the way Indians drank tea and coffee

Hitkari Pottery was once found in every middle class china cabinet and bridal trousseau in the country.

Exactly one month after the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, Dina Nath Kapur, born in 1894, left his hometown of Jhelum in Punjab and set out for the capital city of Delhi across the newly made border. Earlier that week, a letter had arrived, both accidentally and serendipitously, at the Lakshmi Commercial Bank of Jhelum that said something like “...first we will pick up Ramesha’s girls, and then move onto the Kapur family. After all, their son has just been newly married, the house must be full of treasure.”

In the days after Independence, the abduction of young women had become a common phenomenon, and given the rising communal riots, Kapur feared for his family, especially the newly married couple, Pran and Swaran. The family left their hometown in haste, packed into a train compartment organised by a relative from Rawalpindi, RRM Tandon, who served in the Railways. They were sternly warned not to bring any belongings, for fear of being looted along the way, but Kapur held in his pocket a receipt proclaiming that a final shipment for his business was still due to arrive from London to Karachi. A single piece of paper that would, in due time, allow him to set up a business empire that would change the domestic lives of many families in the subcontinent.

Years before the Partition, Dina Nath Kapur had undertaken another life-changing journey. He had set out from his village in Jhelum into the main city, with an air pump and toolbox, working on fixing bicycles. Slowly, he and a friend, Seva Ram Kapoor, accumulated enough wealth to set up a small shop, where they first fixed bicycle parts and, eventually, began importing bicycles from England. They named their business Hitkari Brothers – a name conferred upon them by a Dehradun guru whom they had revered for years. Hitkari is someone who works for the greater welfare of society. In keeping with their close friendship, the men added to it the word brothers.

In 1947, the partners found themselves in Delhi but their final shipment of cycles remained in Karachi. With great difficulty, they managed to have it brought to Bombay and then to Delhi, where they had to think about how to commence their business in a new land. The Kapur family rented a small house near Liberty Cinema in Karol Bagh. Pran joined his father’s business. The Kapoor family, with its sons, Ved and Krishan, rented the house just behind them.

Wheels of time

Swaran Kapur, 88, the oldest surviving member of the Hitkari family, holds out an old envelope for me. It is crumpled and torn in places, but the words on it are clear as ever: “The Hitkari Brothers of Delhi (Cycles)”.

Sitting under the balmy sun, she recalled the family’s first few months in the city.

Hitkari Cycles. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
Hitkari Cycles. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra

“When the shipment of cycles finally came to Dilli, we had no place to sell them,” she said. “My father-in-law approached a man named Janaki Das, requesting him to stock the cycles at his shop, and to distribute them across the country. Cycles were not made locally then, but always imported – since the deal would save Das some money, he agreed to help us. It grew into a very successfully business and we set up a factory in Shahdara, when we switched from importing foreign parts to local production.”

Zenith Cycles was the chosen brand name. “Our cycles were very affordable, available in almost any store across the country,” she recalled. “But gradually, as India became modernised, the industry grew, as did our competition. By 1960, we were no longer the sole cycle brand but just another name among many others in the market. So while the company continued to produce under the leadership of my husband, my father-in-law began looking around for other opportunities to invest in.”

Infused with the entrepreneurial drive that became synonymous with many of the refugees from across the border, Dina Nath Kapur strove to find a sector where once again, Hitkari could contribute. His pursuit brought him to ceramics. At the time, Bengal Pottery was the only local company in the subcontinent, but its products were too expensive for the common man.

The evolution of fine china. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
The evolution of fine china. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra

The Hitkaris’ idea to create beautiful and affordable ceramics began to take concrete shape when Krishan Kapoor, son of Seva Ram Kapoor, returned home after having completed his training in pottery in Japan. With an initial investment of Rs 1.5 lakh contributed by friends and family, a factory was set up in Faridabad, and Hitkari Pottery was born.

A row of cups, saucers and teapots line the table in front of us. “The first few designs were utilitarian and heavy, and one could tell that they were handmade and hastily glazed,” said Swaran Kapur, picking up a basic cup, blockishly mug-like in shape and an unattractive beige in colour. “But it was important because they changed the way Indians drank chai or coffee. It took years of aggressive marketing, but the material was finally accepted by the masses, who up until then largely used only stoneware. A cup like this would have cost about 4-6 annas.”

The word HITKARI is embossed right into the bottom of the cup. At the beginning, the family had not yet invested in any printing technology.

The original Hikari emboss. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
The original Hikari emboss. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra

As time passed, the cups became lighter, sleeker and more shapely. The designs more attractive and delicate, decorated with bright florals and metallic bands. With no designers to work with initially, the business grew organically at home. Swaran Kapur remembers drawing on the first few cups herself. The company gradually became less known for their basic designs and glorified for their fine China, expanding into all forms of tableware.

With the demise of Dina Nath Kapur and Seva Ram Kapoor, their businesses passed on to their sons – Pran, Ved and Krishan. By the 1980s, Zenith Cycles had diminished, and the factory was transformed into one which manufactured timepieces under the brand Windsor, selling almost exclusively to the Army Canteen. These were generally manual wind-up tabletop clocks, made in a metallic body and encrusted with decorative jewels.

Meanwhile, Hitkari Pottery became a force, exporting to places like Australia, Canada, US and Holland. The pottery was classified as Hitkari Bone China, Vitreous and Ratica, depending on the quality of the item. Hitkari’s fine china was comparable to names like the English Royal Doulton and the Japanese Noritake, and best of all, it was made using local raw materials. Found in nearly every china cabinet in India, Hitkari Pottery began to appear in the trousseau of young brides – the delicate pink and white flowers on pristine teacups and saucers reserved for grand occasions only. A complete fine china dinner set for six cost approximately Rs 6,000.

A fine china cup. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
A fine china cup. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra

Back then, everything depended on the season and time of day. It was not just what you ate, but also how you presented your food, which became the hallmark of elegance, status and refinement. There was a different cup for morning tea – light, floral; a different set for entertaining guests (perhaps an elegant white set with blue and green vines); separate dinner sets for formal and informal occasions; for summer (cool pastels) and for winter (designs reminiscent of the warmth of the east).

The local fine china market took off, ruled by Hitkari at the time, as Bengal Potteries shut down due to labour unrest.

This staggered even Ved Kapoor, who was the chairman of Hitkari Brothers. A 1988 edition of India Today quotes him as being “surprised that people are buying so much bone china despite its being so expensive. Sales have been going up and up in the last five years”. He mentioned that Hitkari had begun to export to shops in Oxford Street, England, a place that bone china once was imported from.

But as Hitkari Pottery began to leapfrog into the international market, new players entered the local market. Crown China, Bharat Potteries and Jaipur Ceramics became Hitkari’s competition at home. The families faced an all-too-familiar predicament.

Simultaneously, the energy and kinship with which the original proprietors had begun the company diluted, and the early 1990s saw a shift in the Hitkari businesses. Those managing the pottery arm feuded bitterly, first starting smaller ventures of their own and then abandoning pottery altogether. The company was further divided and sold off, with many laying claim to it. Meanwhile, Pran Nath Kapur, at age 65 with no heir, decided to shut down Windsor Timepieces and retire altogether.

Swaran Kapur in her Karol Bagh home. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
Swaran Kapur in her Karol Bagh home. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra

“He was a content man,” said his wife Swaran Kapur. “It didn’t sadden him to shut down the factory, despite the history it had been through. Then one day in 2015, he just passed away suddenly.”

How does she see the legacy of the company today? “Arre, now no one even remembers the name,” she said and laughed sadly, “Maybe some people from the old days, maybe those who have our crockery in their homes. But nobody in the new generation even knows that there was once a company called Hitkari, which changed the lives of people in independent India.”

“The most unfortunate thing was the fallout between the Kapurs and the Kapoors, the dissolution of a longstanding partnership,” she added. “Perhaps that’s what was the beginning of the end. But such things happen every day, many companies die just as as they are born. All things fall from grace at some point or the other.”

With that, Swarna Kapur leaned back onto the daybed, her fingers gently caressing a baby blue teapot – one that her husband made himself, one that until today, she is served tea in every morning – a souvenir from a glorious past.

Windsor Timepieces. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
Windsor Timepieces. Photo credit: Aanchal Malhotra
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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