Personality Antony Kaniampuram, for whom ‘time machines'have been his life, tells Priyadershini S. about his early days and his passion, called clocks
T he city of Kochi made a date with time, long ago, through the services of Antony Kaniampuram. Listen to his story. In keeping with the times, a young boy once chose to follow his heart. Obsessed by the mechanics of watch repair and manufacture he left school to pursue his interests. His mother supported her son's independent streak. Except that she told him of his father's dying wish: To abstain from any bad habit. “Till today I don't drink, even tea or coffee,” says the 88-year-old today, a pointer to his disciplined ways that brought him commendable entrepreneurial success.
Learning watch repair
A dropout, he went on to manufacture watches and clocks from his unit at Mulavakadu, watches that became famous all over India. He even exported them to America in 1978!
Antony learnt the art of watch repair from a Jew of Indian descent, Aaron Eliyas in 1945-46. When Aaron Eliyas left for Bombay, Antony began a watch repair outlet on Banerjee Road in a small way. He also started teaching the art to a few others.
Antony followed his master to Bombay and further enhanced his skills. He was curious and sharp and quickly understood the market. He moved on to Kolkata for a short while, where he keenly searched for machines and found a ‘Dividing Head' at a scrap dealer's. He was thrilled as this could be used for fine adjustments. Back in Kochi Antony opened his shop, Kaniampuram Bros in Broadway in 1952. In Bombay he had ordered for 200 ‘clock movements' which he found lying unused for lack of know-how. Here he made dials, pendulums, hands and gongs and assembled them to produce his first clock in 1953 as a 23-year-old. He named his brand Walstar.
By the end of that decade he started manufacturing clock movements. In the early 60s he imported a consignment of springs from Japan, which was found rusted on arrival. The Japanese came down and replaced the entire order after seeing the dexterity of his work. “They asked me if I was an engineer or had learnt the art from them!” In fact the Japanese suggested the name Hotta, for his clocks, which then came into production.
By then Antony had established himself as a clock manufacturer and repairer of repute. He had buyers from across Kerala, Bombay, Japan and even America. He worked along with skilled blacksmiths and carpenters who fondly called him, ‘asan'.
An officer once refused to allot him an import license, unable to believe that a man without any engineering background was manufacturing such clocks. He changed his mind later when he found an old Hotta clock in his house in perfect working condition.
Antony had dabbled in engineering works even before clocks became a passion. He used to package bolts under his brand name and sell it. The Cochin Harbour was then under construction.
He was sounded out for the requirement of bolts, as his bolt packets had caught the first engineer's eye. The sample supplied by Antony even took Sir Robert Bristow by surprise. He found them better than the ones imported earlier!
Broadway was the centre of business then. There was a temporary shed where dramas were staged, he remembers, where later Chakolas textile shop came up. The manager of Indo Mercantile Bank, near Sealord, started Pai and Company on Broadway, says Antony. But he remembers distinctly of Shanmugham Chetty, the Diwan of Cochin predicting that Broadway would not be able to contain the increase in number of cars in the future. . “At that time his predictions seemed unwarranted as there were only six to seven cars in Cochin.”
But times were changing. The clocks were ticking. The entry of quartz cut into the clock making business and a fire in Broadway charred the vestiges of the past. Antony Kaniampuram's store changed with the times. Run by his son Henri, it is the only Citizen International watch service centre in the city. Antony himself remains the original timekeeper of Kochi.