With the shift to online learning in 2020, most students in India may have started the new academic year without one of their most popular rituals — a trip to the book binder.
Meant to protect textbooks not just from the elements but also from rough handling by its users, hardcover binding has been a staple of school life. But in a trade taken over by mechanisation, book binders have had to adapt to new market requirements by updating their method of working. “The new academic year in schools and colleges is perhaps the only really profitable time for book binders these days,” says Subhash Chandran, whose Sree Meenakshi Printers in Kelambakkam, Chennai, offers modern and cheaper options like spiral and perfect binding along with the traditional hardcover variety, mostly to school and college students.
Manual binding of administrative records was the norm in sectors such as banking, insurance, automobiles, judiciary and so on before digital archiving led to large-scale ‘paperless’ office systems from the late 1990s.
“In the early 2000s, I used to bind 30-40 books per office, especially in banks, where accounts would be maintained for up to seven years for auditing. Car companies would bind automobile manuals for workers in large numbers. One could easily earn ₹4,000 in a day,” says M Kumaravel, a Chennai-based book binder.
Things have changed now, because nobody takes printouts and waits for them to be bound into volumes. “Everything has gone online, or on CDs. The cost of a readymade box file is equal to book binding charges now, so our business has shrunk drastically,” he adds.
A long history
Book binding is thought to have been first documented in 100 BC in India, when religious verses were inscribed on seasoned palm leaves, numbered and tied together with twine in an accordion style. Covers made of wood or metal protected the fragile leaf inscriptions inside.
The Mughals introduced artistic leather binding to India by employing master binders from Persia, who excelled in creating ornate book covers with special sewing techniques. Binders were an important part of library staff during the Mughal era.
Tooled leather binding with gold foil lettering was widespread in India until cardboard, chart paper and synthetic options brought down the prices further in the 1970s and ’80s. The heritage art is the mainstay of businesses like the Antique Leather Craft store in Delhi’s Daryaganj area for over three decades.
“Our customers typically want to preserve their books within leather covers, both for their beauty and durability,” says proprietor Aslam Agha, who heads the family-run business.
“Leather binding is a laborious process. Depending on the size of the book and the workmanship involved, it can take us from a week to several months to complete one order,” says Agha, who also restores old books.
Rule of the machines
With handwriting itself becoming a rare skill these days, stationery binding has understandably lost ground to electronic means of communication. However the automated mass production of books has thrived, with indigenously produced binding equipment also emerging as an important revenue earner for the country.
India exported book-binding and -sewing machinery worth $13 million in 2019 to African and European countries, according to United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database (UN Comtrade).
Nowhere is the boom more obvious than in Sivakasi, a small town in Tamil Nadu’s Virudhunagar district. Though it is often in the news for its fireworks and safety matches industry, Sivakasi is also considered a hub of mass publishing.
With a market reportedly worth ₹1,000 crores, Sivakasi has over 600 printing and ancillary industries that employ over 20,000 people. Big print orders led to mechanisation of manual processes like binding since the 1980s here.
“While documents generated by institutions like schools, colleges, banks and Government offices still require manual binding, automation of this process has changed commercial printing in a big way,” says V Ganesh Kumar, president of Sivakasi Master Printers Association and director, SFA Print.
As binding machines in the vintage of 1980s up to 2018 are being used in Sivakasi, learning how to use them has largely been a hands-on experience, says Kumar. “We train diploma and technical institute students to use all the different machines that are used in our bindery, so that they can be comfortable with any level of technology in other units as well. We want them to be skilled so that they can survive as freelance operators on their own,” he says.
SFA Print recently launched a high-speed binding machine that can produce up to 40,000 copies per day. “Compared to this, one can bind only around 2,000 copies by hand, and that too, of uneven quality,” he says.
Whether bound by hand or machines, the printed book has its own appeal, says Kumar. “We continue to print copies of The Bible, Bhagvad Gita and Koran in large numbers, because readers still want to buy them. The unique experience of holding and reading a book cannot be replicated by electronic devices,” he says.