Binders of Khairani: Masters of the lost art

“Our skill is comparable to the millions of hand-weavers in India who went out of favour when power-looms came into existence.” Words: Rushikesh Aravkar. Photo Gallery: Disha Gandhi

07 Mar 2013 | By Rushikesh Aravkar

Once upon a time, Khairani Road in Mumbai was at the very heart of the book revolution. Sanjeev Govekar, printing industry veteran and production manager, Haymarket Media India, says, “It started around 1990, after Printwell decided to shut print operations, most of the magazine work shifted to Western India Art Litho Works established by Prakash Bafna near Saki Naka. Most of the binders around Mumbai moved to Khairani Road, Saki Naka in Andheri, Mumbai. Initially, there were three binders but as the buying rate of galas was much lower in this area as compared to Andheri West, a few more mushroomed.”

Khairani Road, which drove the book binding industry in Maharashtra, in service of the Maharashtra Textbook Bureau, along with Gandhi Nagar in Worli boasted of the high densities of book binders. Brand Khairani Road was recognised for the quality and timely delivery of “well-bound textbooks”.
 When the PrintWeek India team of Rushikesh Aravkar and Disha Gandhi visited Khairani Road, the state of book production process belongs to the today. But in many respects, to the past, as far as the Indian book industry is concerned. The process is manual, the scale is not large, and most of the workforces are self-taught and possess “a bagful of tricks that they have mastered”. New-age book print and publishing firms may find these units out of date and out of place if they compare them to the book binding techniques from Europe. But as Ketan Chawada of Welbound says, “The solutions in these firms are ideal for those seeking a book that is cheap, and for those publishers for whom money is the key.”
 When we visit Khairani Road, we see a bit of a revival of trade, after the book crisis of the past few years, when manual binding went out of favour. And the five book binding firms we visited have seen a bit of a reform (perfect binders installed, better consumables, innovative print applications) which has ensured some elbow-room.
 The Imtiyaz Book Binding Works was established in 1989 by Ehsan Ali Choudhary and is now taken care by his son Imtiyaz, who has completed a diploma in printing technology. The facility of the binding house includes a Welbound single-clamp perfect binding machine; a Sadana cutting machine; a FoldWel semi-automatic folding machine; a pinning machine; a stitcher and a gluing machine and employs up to 15 workers. All the binding houses at Khairani Road have more or less the same set-up.
 As Uday Singh of Sahil Print Arts says, “The markets are developing their capacity at an increasing rate for absorbing manufactured books. Our skill is comparable to the millions of hand-weavers in India who went out of favour when power-looms came into existence.”
 Khairani Road, located at Saki Naka comprises 12 binding firms. As Anand Limaye of India Printing Works, says, “The modus operandi was simple: a majority of the print firms in Mumbai did not possess suitable in-house post-press kit. And so, the book binders of Khairani created books out of the printed forms that were supplied to them through the skill of their manual labour. They returned to the customer, manufactured books with value-additions in record turn-around time.” Limaye adds, “No wonder Khairani’s progress was unparalleled, even though its present status appears to us as comparatively primitive and insignificant.”
 This is true. The streets even today are unpaved, rough, filled with rubbish, without sewers or gutters, but with foul, stagnant pools of rainwater. Ventilation is impeded by the ad hoc confused method of building of the whole quarter, and most of the work is conducted in a small, crowded space. Imtiyaz Choudhary of Imtiyaz Binding Works, says, “This is the new Mumbai where poverty dwells in hidden alleys in close proximity to the palaces of the rich. The same holds true for the print industry.”
 All through the nineties, when the Maharashtra Textbook Bureau embarked on an aggressive textbook drive, there was a proportional increase among the book binders of Khairani Road. But as Govekar says, “Khairani Road was a bustling street full of small binders located in its crowded alleys. A few years ago, the textbook bureau stopped giving work directly to binders; a few of them shut shop. Now all of them are hand to mouth but quite optimistic. Some of them have machines on extended credits and the consumables as well. But the increasing cost may not sustain them. And they don’t know to do anything else.”
Is Khairani Road going the way of Mumbai’s textile mills?
Haroon Ahmad (Raju) of R K Binding House has been binding books for over 20 years. He recalls the days when the bureau allotted work to the registered binders and the business was at its peak. He says, “The bureau was the fixed source of income we relied on and had plenty of work to employ up to 35 workers. It was going good.”
 As they say times change, the bureau adopted a nationwide tender system and allotted work to the firms having in-house printing and binding facility in contrast to the earlier policy of registering printers and binders separately. This was the drastic change of phase for the small binders who lost their premium business in one go.
 Adapting to the change of bureau policy, some binders invested in printing facilities to bag the bureau work. According to Raju, 50% of binders invested in a mono-colour or two-colour printing presses. But, as the tender was open for printers from all over India, the volumes reduced. Ashok Bhosale of Shri Rajesh Art Printers, the binder turned printer says, “In a season of seven months we used to bind around 18lakh textbooks every year which was reduced to as low as five lakh textbooks.”
 The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, which published Bhagwad Gita and books related to Lord Krishna, was the other major source of business for the binders atKhairani Road, which switched to printers capable of delivering large volumes at a time. Also, the publishers like Oxford University Press moved out of Mumbai.
 Sahil Print Arts, which is recognised for the timely delivery of very high volumes, binds some of the magazines titles of Times of India and Hindustan Times. The annual Diwali magazines (Diwali Ank) were the forte of Sahil until recently. But year on year the readership of these magazines have reduced adversely. According to Singh, there has been a steep tenfold decrease in volumes of Diwali Ank, from 50,000 to a mere 5,000 copies.
 The profit margins remain same as ten years back; the volumes have drastically depleted; competition is at its peak; prices are rising and the labour oriented craft of binding is struggling to survive at Khairani Road.
 In a sense, the book binding clout that Khairani Road had was a pivot to the book production system in India. Even while the monopoly lasted, these 12 firms could not keep pace with the increasing productivity of the bigger players; and the present crisis is the consequence. 
Today, the markets are getting scarce every day, so much so that the book firms are now to be forced into specialised book publications and new print applications. How will it be—when the predominating share, will be controlled by the top players, and the numbers being sourced to Khairani Road will become reduced from year to year? The answer to this question will provide a clue to the future of the print industry in Mumbai.
As Singh says, “But what is to be the consequence? Book production cannot stop. It must go on increasing and expanding. It must not die. Even now, a majority of the people in this country do not have access to a printed book.” Plus lack of work, unemployed work people, and a complete stop for the book binders of Khairani Road.
The future is precarious.