Ganesh Press has been in the business of printing for 53 years. But, the future looks bleak, owner P.K. Thangavel Pillai

Tucked away in a little alley near Cheran Book House, past stalls selling hot bajjis and musty second-hand books, is one of the city’s oldest printing presses — Ganesh Press. Disjointed leaves of booklets, stacks of A4 sheets and wedding cards lie strewn all over the floor.

Amidst the pile of papers sits P.K. Thangavel Pillai, 76. He hand-binds a booklet with a needle and thread. At this press, small booklets are always hand-bound. Says T. Senthil Kumar, Thangavel’s son: “We still follow these old methods. Our customers, who have been coming here for generations, like this link with the past.”

Thangavel and Senthil run the press that was started by Thangavel’s uncle, P.K. Chidambaram Pillai, in Palakkad in 1920. It was then called Vidyasanthanam Printers. “Those days, all we had was a hand treadle machine. It was a huge machine and called for much physical labour.” In 1926, the American Chandler and Price Treadle machine (the pedal type) became popular. “For the ink and paper, we came to St. Joseph’s Press near Royal Theatre here. The blades for the cutting machine would also be sharpened there.”

Thangavel recalls an anecdote his father wrote in his diary. In 1932, a theatre company, a regular customer, wanted notices printed for its play. But the press had run out of ink and there was no time to go to Coimbatore. Thangavel’s father, T. Krishnaswamy Pillai, burnt cattle fodder and mixed it with some lamp oil to print the notices.

The press was also called Quit India Press because Chidambaram’s son, P.C. Krishnaswamy Pillai, supported the freedom movement. He apparently used to print ‘Quit India’ notices and throw them under shop shutters at night. “When told the police was searching for them, they threw all the notices down a dung hole. But, they forgot the impression of ‘Quit India’ left on the treadle bed. Krishnaswamy was arrested,” says Thangavel.

Thangavel shifted to Coimbatore with his father soon after. In 1959, they began Ganesh Press in Selvapuram. In 1979, they set up shop in Town Hall. Despite financial trouble, they have managed to adopt the latest technology. But, the shop still retains its old world charm. “All the machines — the perforation machine, the binding machine, and the paper cutting machine — are as old as the press. The labels on the machines are of brass and made in the U.K. and the U.S.,” says Senthil

Remnants of a hoary past

The printing section also has an old mini hand treadle machine. It sits there as a reminder of how printing was once done. “One person had to operate the lever for printing the paper,” says Senthil. Ganesh Press also still has wooden and metal typos used for composing. Now, composing is done on the computer.

With technology, costs have decreased. So have the profits of presses. Thangavel sets aside the semi-bound book, and looks up. “Modern technology does not benefit small printing presses. As technology grows, we lose more.”