From Delhi to Lucknow to Delhi to Manesar

MK Bhargava, a doyen of the Indian printing industry and the founder of Kumar Printers passed away on 28 July 2023. PrintWeek pays homage to the stalwart with this interview with Bhargava originally published in 10 June 2016 issue

28 Jul 2023 | By Ramu Ramanathan

A childhood in Delhi One of my first recollections, from my school days almost 70-72 years ago, is of the path I had to take from my home to my school. Across the railway station, it passed through Fatehpuri, Chandni Chowk and Town Hall, finally reaching my school, almost two kilometres away. This area was also witness to many traumatic sights during the Partition, which is difficult to forget even today.

First encounter with print
Just after Independence, in 1949, to be precise, I was in Lucknow to spend my summer vacation with my cousin, the son of my father’s sister. His father (my phoophaji) had migrated to Lucknow from Harpalpur estate, where he was a city magistrate and diwan of the maharaja. My cousin’s grandfather, AP Bhargava, had bought a printing press from an Englishman at a throwaway price during World War II, as the owner was keen to get out of the country. This press he sent to his son (my phoophaji) at DELHI Lucknow and thus, Suraj Printing Press was born. Even though he was a lawyer, he preferred to run the printing business than to practice law. The press had a very important role in my life, as I was to discover later. There were altogether four letterpress printing machines in Suraj Press. Offset machines were rare at that time. Among the machines, one was an automatic Heidelberg platen, and three were handfed machines – one cylinder and two treadle machines.

Manual typeset matter was used on these machines for printing magazines, books or any other job work. This meant that all the alphabets were arranged manually, type by type, to form the text, which was a very tedious and slow process, which involved many rounds of proof readings and corrections! At that time, there were not many presses, which had the facility of an automatic composing machine from Monotype or Linotype. During my stay, on many occasions, my cousin and I would operate the Heidelberg platen press for hours (which was just like a toy for us). We would print handbills and would charge Rs 50 for the day’s work from my uncle. At that time, for me, operating the press was like playing with a toy and it never felt like work. This started my relationship with metal, ink and paper, which has lasted a lifetime. Those days, the Rs 50 reward was enough to purchase goodies like ice creams, sweets and lassi – and savour them for a whole week.

Starting in Lucknow
After a few years, in 1951, I shifted to Lucknow with my family. This time too I started working in Suraj Printing Press, but now as a helper in the composing department. Here, I learnt the art of printing on the Heidelberg Platen and other machines. However, I had to leave this employment soon to pursue my studies as a private candidate, while doing odd jobs to make ends meet. This is how I educated myself through high school, intermediate, and finally graduation. After graduating in 1956, with the recommendation of a senior politician, I was offered a job as an assistant in the Secretariat office for "a handsome amount" of Rs 200 per month. However, I attended the office only for a day as I found the general atmosphere, listless and unprofessional. I decided to join Suraj Printing press again at half the salary of the Secretariat job. Printing interested me more than a boring Secretarial job and was, and is, the vocation, which I love even today.

Return to Delhi
After working at my uncle’s press for a year, my cousin passed some comment, though in jest, which I did not like. And so, I quit Suraj Printing Press and came back to Delhi in 1957. At that time, there were mainly three commercial printing establishments, Asia Press, Caxton Press and Delhi Press. I was able to secure employment at one of the bigger presses, which was well known at that time. It had the latest offset machines, along with letterpress machines, and it was also known for its quality of work. As the press was well known, the owners did not have to spend much time to get business. The foremen of different departments (printing, composing, binding, etc) were virtual owners of the department and the management did not issue instructions directly to the workmen. This placed them in a very powerful position and they used to manage their departments independently. The business at that time was production-centric, with not much competition, and free of most of the current business nuances. Most of the work was for promotional literature, diaries and calendars.

Here, due to my diligence and hard work (I would work for 12-14 hours every day) I learnt very fast and was appointed as the works manager in a very short span of six months. During the calendar and diary season, from July-August to JanuaryFebruary, the press used to run 24 hours in all three shifts and I myself used to work at least 15 days in a month for 32 hours continuously. However, this round-the-clock work and lack of rest took its toll and I fell ill while I was on a short holiday in Lucknow and I had to overstay my leave by two days. When the salary was given for the month, I found that these two days pay had been deducted from my salary. Being a hotheaded person, I went to meet the partner and said to him, “I have been working beyond human endurance for the last 10 months – even as much as 32 hours at a stretch. Even if you had paid me overtime, it would be much more than the two-day’s salary that you have deducted. Is this the reward for working so hard without any consideration for my personal well-being?” The partner replied that the law is the same for everyone and the salary would be paid according to the law.

Sunday breakfast with the Bhargavas in Chandni Chowk: Sandeep, MK 'Taoji' and Anuj with Ramu Ramanathan

I replied that the law is for working only eight hours a day and I started following the “law”. As I was shouldering the responsibility of more than two persons, the press suddenly found itself short-handed with many shifts not having any works manager or supervisor to manage the production. The partners pressed themselves into service to overcome this shortage but could not manage it due to their habit of drinking in the evening, and in frustration asked me if I wanted to continue working there. Meanwhile, I had secured a job with Delhi Press – but more of that later. On my declining to continue working there, I was told to collect my dues by the end of the month, but later the partner refused to settle my account on the due date. Even though my salary at that time was only Rs 150, I did not change my job for money but for my principles.

Working the shopfloor
During the last days of my previous employment, I noticed a newspaper advertisement regarding a vacancy in Delhi Press for a printing supervisor. I applied and was lucky enough to get the job. There, I was working from 9 am to 5.30 pm, which was a big relief from my previous engagement. However, I had a different problem here. Soon after I joined, the press manager had left for a better job and so I did not have any immediate superior. The staff and foreman in Delhi Press had been working there for a long time and did not like a young boy of 24 years to be their boss. So they started pulling me down and this made me very nervous.

They had the top management’s ear as they had been working there for a long time. Finally, I had a nervous breakdown and could work only after taking Coramine every few hours. Somehow, the managing director came to know about this harassment I was facing, and it stopped slowly. I had the zeal to work hard and eight hours of work did not give me much satisfaction. After gaining confidence, I started picking up commercial jobs in a big way, which brought in extra revenue and profit to the press. Realising the increase in business, the management immediately installed an automatic Mercedes machine and ordered a brand new Heidelberg cylinder machine. Until this time, Delhi Press did not have an automatic printing machine. To manage this growth, I also started having weekly production meetings with the concerned foremen and workers to give feedback and suggestions for betterment, which brought in further improvement in productivity and quality. This was a new idea for its time and no press had this kind of feedback mechanism, especially for the workers.

Similarly, I had structured monthly review meetings with the managing director and other heads of the departments, like editorial, etc to improve the interdepartmental communication and coordination for better working. As a result of these endeavours I was made production manager of Delhi Press with a handsome raise in salary in a short period of two years. Within the next two years, I was elevated to the designation of press manager, who was called business manager at that time. Right from the first day of joining, I concentrated on improving print quality, as a result of which Delhi Press won the prestigious national award for excellence in printing one year after my joining the press. This continued for the next four years. Since I was looking after the production, the management of the press, the then managing director, Vishwa Nathji, asked me to receive the award on behalf of Delhi Press.

He said, “The person who has done the job should go and receive the award.” Indeed, he was a great man and it was great thinking for those times! Within four years, my salary grew three-fold. Here, I learnt various aspects of running the business – from purchase to sales, from man-management to managing technology, and developed lot of contacts with print buyers and various suppliers. Later, I was also nominated to the Printing Experts Committee to formulate a national apprenticeship programme for the printing industry by the Labour Ministry, Government of India. I worked in Delhi Press for five years and left due to some misunderstanding with the managing director. Here too, I did not leave the job for money but in order to uphold my principles.

Mastering the trade
After resigning from Delhi Press, I joined Zodiac Press, which belonged to a big group and was running losses at that time.

It was equipped with the latest machines but needed proper management. With my hard work and management skill, it started making profit within six months. This was much appreciated by the managing director. However, this did not go well with the general manager of the press, who was working with them for a long time and this improvement showed him in poor light. Also, he had his own vested interests, which were being compromised after my joining. This used to pinch him a lot and he constantly looked out for opportunities to pull me down. He got a chance soon enough when one day after leaving the press at 4am in the morning, I reported for work at 10am instead of 9am. Both the managing director and the general manager took me to task about this, without bothering to check the reason. Upon my explaining, both had nothing to say in the matter. I had by then decided to leave the job.

Going solo
Upon hearing of my departure, the managing director immediately realised his own precarious situation and wanted me to be associated with the press somehow. I worked out a plan wherein I would get jobs booked in my name and have the same executed at Zodiac Press, while paying them for job work. This scheme met the approval of the managing director too, as it was a win-win situation since he did not have enough contacts and reputation to get enough business. This is how Kumar Printers was born in 1964.

Kumar Printers factory with ISO 9001, 14001 and 18001 certifications

A Rs 10,000 press
After working as a freelancer for four years, I managed to save enough money to buy a press for Rs 10,000 and an Ambassador car. The car was a lavish expense given the financial constraints at that time, but it was a necessary expenditure due to my health, as the doctor had advised me not to drive a two-wheeler any more. The press was installed at Karol Bagh and we started operating from a small premises. Due to my good relations with both suppliers and customers, I did not have any financial difficulties and some of these relations have been maintained until today. I always had knack for doing something unusual and with high quality, which was not easy for any printer, especially a small one like us. Kumar Printers at Karol Bagh started doing the job of catalogue cards for US Library of Congress in a number of foreign and Indian languages, such as French, German, Spanish, Tamil, Telugu, Oriya, etc.

This was not easy due to technical reasons, as all the type-setting was done manually and proofreading itself was a difficult task as there were different alien languages. In spite of the odds, Kumar Printers printed these cards successfully for a number of years. We also did promotional and publicity literature for a number of top advertising agencies and companies, which gave us good profitability. The company made rapid progress with the help of my brothers, NC Bhargava and SK Bhargava, who contributed with their individual special technical skills and hard work. Without their association, the business would not have had grown this fast. In 1976, Kumar Printers was converted into a private limited company and by 1979, we had to move to a rented place in Okhla industrial area on account of capacity expansion.

Into packaging
Somewhere down the line, we were asked to make packaging for Ranbaxy, as there was a lack of good packaging manufacturers in North India. Our clients assumed that since we are good printers we would be able to make good packages as well. Gradually, we started concentrating on packaging, as this was a regular business compared to commercial jobs. Slowly, this segment grew and by 1992, we became exclusive packaging printers supplying to several big pharma and FMCG companies. Kumar Printers soon outgrew this new location and shifted to its own factory in Okhla in 1986. Here again, it saw a steady growth and soon had to rent two more locations to cater to the expanding business.

10,000 sq/mt at Manesar
In 2003, Kumar Printers shifted to its existing location at Manesar with 10,000 sq/mt of covered area and a brand new Heidelberg six-colour with coater, which was an uncommon investment at that time for a small printer like us. With time, Kumar Printers became well equipped with modern presses and post – press equipment like gravure printing and foil stamping, making cartons, blister cards, litho laminated cartons and pharma literature. We have various quality certifications like ISO 9001, 14001 and 18001. We are proud to say that we are a zero trade-discharge company. We treat all our trade discharge and use it in horticulture or back in the process. This is our contribution to securing the future.


The octogenarian MK Bharagava is known as Taoji by the Bhargava family and close family and friends. His mantras which are based on 65 years of print experience.

1. There are no shortcuts in printing: Printing is not for the weak; and quality printing is not for the faint-hearted. At a time when margins are so tight, quality and efficiency are the key to achieving success.
2. Standard should be a standard: Developing our production process is one of the most important actions we have undertaken. There is a minimum tolerance level. This is drilled in the blood of all our team members.
3. No compromise on ink: There should be no compromise at the factory. For example, consider the printing ink. It is the most dangerous cog in the production wheel. A firm can lose 100% on a job just to save 2% of ink cost.
4. Paper should be best: Today, paper and paperboard have extended their range of products to target the new age consumer. All the more reason, that one should select an A-grade substrate.
5. There are potatoes and there are sweet potatoes: Similarly, there are good customers and bad customers. We always help any customer who is patronising us.
6. The people system: My basic principle is surround yourself with great people. The difference between good organisations and average organisations are the people you employ.
7. Equality and dignity: I was a worker at other printing firms. I know the pain of a worker. We treat all workers with respect and dignity. There is no zamindar at Kumar Printers. No one raises the voice, or abuses the workers. All 450 workers at Kumar are equal.
8. Home stay: We are located outside of Delhi city. Most of the workers are migrants from UP and Bihar. Therefore, we arranged reasonable accommodation and stay in a nearby village in Manesar.
9. Reward your team: There are rewards like OT if anyone works more than eight hours. We adhere to the Labour Laws very diligently. Likewise a worker who spots a shade variation on a job is rewarded.
10. Healthy nourishment: There are rewards like good healthy home-made food. That's why a majority of our workers have worked with us for at least 20 years. The top management is caring; and the factory is neat and clean.
11. Training: We offer regular training for supervisors and team leaders and shopfloor team in a bid to invest in quality among our people. This is a must in a mature industry. And one way to do it is, to enforce a structured approach for the development of company.
12. Sculpt youngsters: Keep raising the talent in your company. With so many bright and capable young people coming into our industry, it’s vital that we invest in them and equip them to take on these key positions in future. We strongly encourage anyone who has aspirations to leadership, or employers who have identified young employees with real potential, and so, someone who is paper handling today, can migrate to a senior post, tomorrow.

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