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Jul 01, 2023

For any millennial or many Gen-Z kids, one of the quintessential stationery items that made up their student life was inevitably Camlin or Camel products. A classic orange and yellow Camlin geometry box usually stayed with them way past its glory days. The tin box became the keeper of school essentials (pencil, pen, eraser, scale, etc) after all the geometry instruments had been misplaced and the box had lost its shape because of being beaten as a drum during recess or ‘free period’ at school.

There was also the famous ‘Camel art competition’, hosted by the sister brand of Camlin, that witnessed huge participation from students across India. The event was competitive and fun, and the winners were celebrated as artists amongst their peers. The winner would be bestowed with Camel stationery and art products – a proud badge they some treasured for a long time.

Parag Gala, a businessman who now resides in the US, had won second place as an 8-year-old in one of the Camel art competitions, hosted in 1993. To date, he treasures his prize — a box consisting of oil pastels, glo ons, wax crayons and plastic crayons.

‘I am still carrying this with me since 1993. I won the second prize in my age group! And I can't believe this to date. I was 8 then and I still recollect having drawn a red train. I had practiced it a lot and had given the train a cuboid form,’ Parag said.

He says the event instilled in him a sense of "competitive creativity" and boosted his confidence.

"I associate one more quality with that box apart from confidence… It helps develop creativity in a very competitive way," he said.

Camlin began its journey in 1931 as Dandekar & Co. when young chemistry graduate Digambar Parashuram Dandekar decided to get into the business of manufacturing writing ink. He made slow progress with the help of his elder brother, Govind Dandekar, an engineer with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

The younger Dandekar started selling ink powder as a brand of ink. The sales started picking up locally and demand started pouring in from other states as well. But the company did not have a smooth sail, it faced challenges as the imported product became cheaper than local ink due to tax adjustments.

Previously, imported ink products were relatively cheaper as they were being produced on an industrial scale and tax cuts were added to them. On the other hand, local ink was being manufactured on a smaller scale, and hence the cost was higher, leading to people opting for the cheaper imported ink.

Dandekar was contemplating suspending manufacturing temporarily but some loyal customers advised him to continue with the delivery as they were ready to bear losses. Thus, Camlin overcame the initial odds.

Chandrashekhar Ojha, who retired as Camlin's deputy general manager in 2018 and now works as a consultant with the company, shared an interesting anecdote about how D.P. Dandekar was at an Irani Cafe in Mumbai when he saw a poster of Camel cigarettes that said – "I’d walk a mile for a Camel." This gave him the idea of using the animal, valued for its high endurance capacity and ability to take on hardship, as a symbol for his own company.

The brand's symbol, which till then was a horse, changed to Camel. However, the company didn't officially change its name to Camlin until late 1908s.

Today, Camlin is well known for its art products, but it was almost three decades after the brand's inception that it started producing art materials. Ojha narrated how the motivation to diversify and expand into art materials came to the founder's son, Subhash Dandekar, in the 1960s.

"When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, Subhash read somewhere that an artist was commissioned to paint a portrait of Gandhi ji. But when the artist asked for art material, he was provided with Winsor Newton colours and canvas. He went on to express that it is unfortunate that imported materials were used to paint such a stalwart of the Swadeshi movement.

"Considering the company's strength in inks, he decided to experiment with coloured drawing inks. They became instantly popular amongst cartoonists and designers. But making colours requires expertise and is also technology-intensive. So, Subhash Dandekar decided to set sail to Glasgow to further his education in colour chemistry. After returning, he set up a laboratory and started work on formulating colours for the Indian market. After a spirited pursuit, he was ready with art material such as artists’ and students’ oil and water colours, poster colours, wax crayons, oil pastels, and water colour cakes which were introduced into the market in 1962," Ojha told ThePrint.

Later in 1988, ‘Camel’ and ‘Ink’ came together and Dandekar & Co. officially becoming ‘Camlin’, but the Dandekar brothers decided to stick with both Camel and Camlin brands under the overarching company name Camlin Ltd., and rolled out several products under the two brands.

For instance, paints, including water colour, oil pastel and wax crayons, drawing materials, painting brushes, canvases were sold under the Camel brand. Products such as pencils and accessories, pens, adhesive, geometry sets and office supplies came under Camlin.

Also read: Bournvita Quiz Contest — from radio to tv & digital space, a show that evolved with the times

Back in the day, art wasn't popular in the school curriculum for students, only premium art institutions used and needed art supplies. According to Camlin website, Camel started organising art competitions on a district level in the late 1960s, and it became a success in a matter of a few years. By the late 70s, Camel was conducting these competitions on a national level and thousands of schools participated.

Ojha credits Camlin with starting ‘a revolution’ which resulted in art becoming an important part of Indian education. He also claims that Camlin was one of its kind in the whole nation during that era.

"Before Camlin, there was no major domestic manufacturing of art materials and stationery products," said Ojha.

In 1974, Camlin rolled out what it claims to be India's first-ever wooden pencils with layers. Christened as Camlin flora pencils, they struck a chord with students with their floral pattern.

Today was new desk + new stationery day. Also day I got to use Camlin Flora Classic pencils after yearssss 🥰Happy March 🌻

— Hummingbird (@solilospree) March 2, 2020

saw this on ig, missing camlin flora sm 😔

— van (@marrgayivan) June 8, 2021

Y'all remember that pencil brand called "Flora" (Camlin's) that had pink and purple pencils with flowers on them? That was ✨elite✨

— Adhikshitha Rose (@araaraadhi) July 2, 2021

A Twitter account pointed out how having a set of Camlin oil pastels was a ‘flex’ back in the day.

Today's kids are taking cigarette, mobile phones to school to show off, we used to take Camlin Oil Pastels colour set for the same 😁

— Humour Central (@humourcentralfb) December 7, 2022

More than 80 years after its inception, the company was acquired by the Japanese company Kokuyo Co. Ltd — a multi-billion dollar brand widely popular among stationery aficionados, also the makers of the famed planner – Jibun Techo.

In May 2012, Kokuyo acquired a 50.74% stake in Camlin for which it paid Rs 366 crore. Despite the acquisition, Shubhash Dandekar's son Dilip continued as chairman and MD while Koji Higashiguchi of Kokuyo group became the senior vice chairman & non-executive director of Kokuyo Camlin. Kokuyo also retained the Camlin and Camel brands.

The deal facilitated the entry of Kokuyo products, mainly paper and office stationery into the Indian market. Meanwhile, Camlin – which by then had more than 2,000 products, mainly pencils, pastels, inks and markers – aimed to increase its exports to other nations.

Kokuyo currently holds 74.44% stake, while the Dandekar family holding has come down to less than 1 per cent.

In 2015-16, the company's turnover crossed Rs 600 crore. Since the acquisition by Kokuyo, Camlin has tried to diversify its reach into office stationery by launching new products such as pinless staplers. It also participates in trade fairs at international forums such as Paperworld in Frankfurt.

The company, till today, remains a dominant force in the school stationery and art supply market in India.

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How did Camlin come to be? Also read: How Camel popularised art in schools The nostalgia of Camlin flora pencils The Japanese acquisition A luminous legacy Also read: