Society

Time’s up? Bengaluru’s vanishing antique clock repairers

Rajendran aka A Raja of Chamundeswari Watch Works

Rajendran aka A Raja of Chamundeswari Watch Works   | Photo Credit: K Murali Kumar

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In an age where replacing is considered more convenient than repairing, mechanics of timepieces are slowly becoming irrelevant

It is tempting to say that Kamaraj Road is untouched by time. For you find here: little stores with hand-painted signboards, over half-a-century-old houses with wooden doors opening out to the streets, stray cattle and street dogs lazily perambulating in its narrow arterial lanes, petty shops selling obscure sweetmeats in plastic and glass jars among other things. But these are mere remnants of the past. Like a fading, half-torn poster of Kamal Haasan from the 1980s on a concrete wall on the road, these too shall, one day, cease to exist.

If you wander through the road, you will find some places housing fascinating objects of history hidden in plain sight — it is necessary to do this by foot as it is near-impossible in this congested, one-way to stop your vehicle and search for these spots. A wooden reclining chair outside Sakthi Antique Clocks & Furniture catches the eye. The shop’s cramped interior has four chairs, a table and about 30 wooden timepieces, predominantly pendulum and cuckoo clocks, occupying the walls. The proprietor, Mahesh and the repairer, Ilyaz Ahmed, occupy two of the four chairs. Like a scientist probing a specimen through his microscope, Ilyaz, at his table, inspects a wristwatch with his loupe. This is his third year at Sakthi and his fifth workplace in 55 years as a timepiece technician.

“This is all I know,” says Ilyaz. At 13, he joined Aero Watch Company in 1964. He was not a watch-repairing prodigy. “In my next job at Everjoy, there was this man called Sampangi, whom I consider my teacher. He would rap my knuckles with forceps if I made a mistake.” Those raps, he says, made him responsible. “I was not educated. So, if not for him, I would have been a rogue.”

Aero Watch Company, Everjoy and Sampangi do not exist today. Analogue clocks are not any more a necessity. It is an age where replacing is considered more convenient than repairing .

When asked if he likes his job, Ilyaz responds, “Yes, there is 100% satisfaction.”

Pieces of novelty

Akshay Pillai, 38, has a fascination for old things. Paintings, cricket memorabilia, fashion designs, typewriters... He collects them all and considers them a novelty because they would be unfamiliar to an observer belonging to this generation.

Akshay’s most cherished collection are the clocks. When he was 19, he had stepped into Chamundeswari Watch Works, a repair-cum-sales shop in Sivan Chetty Garden Street, on Kamaraj Road. Intrigued by its display of clocks — in various sizes and shapes — it was his gateway into the world of antiques. Its owner A Rajendran, known as Raja, showed the curious teenager one clock after another, some of them dating back to the 18th Century. He told him collecting antique clocks is not just for millionaires; he could, too, if he wished. So, Akshay studied antique clocks, catalogued them for auction houses, and, eventually, started collecting them.

Made in France in 1920, the skeleton clock has its workings laid bare

Made in France in 1920, the skeleton clock has its workings laid bare   | Photo Credit: K Murali Kumar

“Before industrialisation, there were only handmade clocks. A clockmaker took care of the mechanism. Then, it would go to the casemaker. If you wanted some metal engravings, it went to a blacksmith. So, it involved at least a couple of people’s work to produce a clock.”

Clocks were rare. Sometimes restricted to royalty. “In India, it was a status symbol. The maharajas of Jodhpur had them.” If you owned them towards the end of the 18th Century in Great Britain, you had to pay taxes.

Clocks were mass-produced following industrialisation. The invention of the battery-powered, auto-oscillating quartz clocks in the 1920s spawned millions of them after a few decades. Until then, clocks needed to be wound, adjusted during warm and cold weather and serviced occasionally. They needed a repairer.

Still winding

Chamundeswari Watch Works (CWW), consisting of centuries-old clocks, appears unassuming from the outside. Its flex name banner has a typo. Chamudeshwari, it reads. An eatery next to it, Sri Krishna Fast Food, sells veg fried rice for ₹40. Despite the bustle outside, Raja, CWW’s proprietor and repairer, works on a watch, listening to ‘Naanamo’ from Aayirathil Oruvan, a 1960s MGR film.

Like many residents of Kamaraj Road, Raja is of Tamil descent. Before the road was renamed in the 1970s to commemorate K Kamaraj, the former Tamil Nadu chief minister, it was known as Cavalry Road. British soldiers from the Cavalry regiment stayed there. Later it became a hub of moneylenders and traders from Tamil Nadu. Raja’s father Anandan worked for the Indian Telephone Industries while moonlighting as a wrist watch repairer. When Anandan started a shop in 1967, Raja would watch his father with fascination as he opened the case of a watch and worked on its tiny spiky wheels and springs.

Raja took over from his father and expanded CWW from a modest wrist watch repair centre to a reasonably big shop that sold and repaired antique timepieces. It has clocks of many sizes and types, spanning centuries, from different parts of the world. The fine creations of pre-industrial clock-makers from all over Europe continue to tick in a narrow lane in Bengaluru.

The shop’s history is rich. But Raja isn’t. His father left him a house and a shop. With these, has managed to make ends meet. But clock repairing is not a lucrative occupation. His wife says he hardly gets customers. “Today we had no one… but he continues to do it because he likes it,” she smiles.

As a collector, it is scary to see these repairers fading away

Quartz has simplified and depreciated timepieces. “In Quartz watches, you just need to replace the machinery or the battery. It is a five-minute job,” Raja says. This work fetches him ₹50 to ₹100. Whereas, he would earn about ₹500, servicing a mechanical watch. “Mechanical watches are complex. They have an elaborate machinery and need to be serviced regularly. But they stay for a long time.”

“The reason why clocks from the UK and other places abroad come to Raja is because it is very expensive to repair them in the UK,” says Akshay. According to recruiter.com, a watch repairer in the United States usually gets an average wage of between $24000 (about 17 lakh) and $36000 (about 25 lakh). That is perhaps more than Raja’s lifetime earnings from repairing clocks.

“There are only a handful of repairers of antique clocks left in Bengaluru,” says Akshay. Raj Kumar Chandrashekar Chettiar, 58, a fourth generation clock repairer from Hubli and Mohan Kumar, who runs Praveen Watch Company, are other names that Mahesh of Sakthi Antique Clocks & Furniture mentions. “As a collector, it is scary to see these repairers fading away.” Ilyaz, however, is optimistic. “There was Dilip Kumar in the beginning. Then came Amitabh Bachchan and now Shah Rukh... God will send someone.”

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 2:46:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/times-up-bengalurus-vanishing-antique-clock-repairers/article29815750.ece

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