Over the course of 2018 we'll be highlighting pencil history from a new country each month. As we endeavor this year to get the best currently available pencils from every country that's still making them we thought we'd share some of the stories that make them special.
I was gifted a few Nataraj pencils when I was in college and, naturally, researched where they came from. I was first struck by the wood they were made of, which was noticeably different in appearances than the cedar I was used. When I decided to open a pencil shop they were among the first pencils I attempted to chase down. Many follow-up emails later, I finally convinced their manufacturer, Hindustan Pencils, to ship them across the world to me. The minimum order quantity was massive, especially for a shop that wasn't even online yet. I came home from Christmas that year (2014) to find 5 very large boxes stacked in my dining room--the super of my apartment building kindly put them in there while I was away because they were too big to fit in the package room. It was tens of thousands of pencils that I was afraid I wouldn't sell (when I opened the shop I had to get a storage service to store them for me because it was that many), but many orders later I can confirm that my relationship with Hindustan is an important one, not just because we've been able to make their unique pencils available easily in the US but because our customers love them. They're the best evidence that a great pencil doesn't have to be expensive (have you tried an Apsara Absolute?!).
Anyway--Hindustan is the largest manufacturer of pencils in India, making 8 million pencils a day. Their newly re-vamped website even has a ticker that counts how many pencils have been made on any given day. They're not the only one though, another brand great called DOMS makes pencils in India these days too and many others have existed in the past and there are likely more still in operation than I know about. It's a fairly large industry but it's also a young one. Pencil manufacture has only really been a thing in India since the 1930s (Hindustan was founded in 1958), which is rare considering that most other well-known pencil brands have been around for at least 100 years. Many of the early pencil manufacturers in India were selling pencils in competition with imported ones from well-established brands in Europe. After gaining independence from Britain in 1947 the Indian pencil industry began to grow with a little help from the government and has expanded exponentially since.
One thing that I love about Hindustan's business practice is that they are committed to keeping things local and sustainable. Every product they make is made entirely in India across many factories in 5 different cities. The wood that they pencils are made of is harvested locally from private land and farms. The pencils are made from vatta or poplar that is indigenous to India. Though Hindustan's brands (Apsara, Nataraj and SiVO) are mostly found in Southeast Asia and Africa they are very much a global brand, exporting their uniquely Indian pencils all around the world and making private label pencils for other brands.
I have no idea why it still works in India when it's failed elsewhere but Hindustan still runs proper advertisements in India for their products, something that is a serious rarity in any other part of the world these days. Their commercials are really wonderful, check out this one:
And this one:
I personally love this brand and these pencils because they're modern and earnest in their approach when it comes to manufacture and marketing. People tend to believe that older brands are more worthy of trust (especially when it comes to "old-school" or analog things) but I think that Hindustan has proved that theory wrong by creating products that in only 60 years have become a respected part of the cultural fabric of India.
Photo: A screenshot from the most classic Nataraj commerical--where a Ruby 621 races other pencils. The rest of the pencils break and the 621 wins the race.