Visionaries - A FourPlus Media Project
Kataria Family What do you do when you come by a name that has changed the very course of written history - where the ripples of respect that tether this story together are soaked in the sanctified teardrops of struggle and heart-warming joy? The Kataria family is no ordinary family for they have achieved, inspired and reiterated greatness from the very beginning. No feat was considered impossible and it is upon this pulsating seed of thought that they went on build the rock-solid foundations upon which the Optical industry has risen to such unprecedented heights. Takandas H. Kataria, a one-man-army in those days pioneered the way for progress and never once held back from pushing the limits and taking the optical fraternity forward as a single dynamic unit. His clear-cut vision, passion and ability to ascertain risks in order to triumph over the odds has spread through the Kataria manifold; a force of nature inspiring the coming generations with his sons, Sunderdas and Arjandas and grandsons, Madan, Jawahar and Subash tapping into the same palette of calibre and raw courage that their bloodline carries with it.
Lights...camera…action! That seems to be right phrase to begin this larger than life story that travels through a space filled with the fine elements of drama and explosive action; the first chapter setting sail on none other than the high seas itself! Takandasji was a man who was born to stretch not only his limits but the very theories and misconceptions that kept an entire society from truly progressing.
It all began, long long ago in 1932, when Takandasji decided that it was time for India to have an optical factory that would manufacture frames instead of relying solely on a cost-increasing import system. He took the initiative to purchase the raw materials and manufacturing equipment required for this ambitious step in self-reliance. He knew that the best way to train his Indian counterparts in the art of manufacturing spectacle frames would be a first-hand, one-on-one session with trained professionals.
He rounded up a few of these professionals from Japan so that they could travel back with him to India for training purposes.
However, just as all tales meshed in the inconspicuous spices of drama and danger entail, there came the existence of those who were eager to prevent Takandasji from having his way. In this case, the nemeses were the numerous optical associations of Japan who believed that their exports would be gravely affected by Takandasji’s bold step. Armed with their own radical tactics, they threatened the Japanese men who were to leave with Takandasji and coerced them to go underground. What started as a small blip on the radar had now become a full-fledged agitation, the intensity of which resulted in flyers being issued in Kobe and Osaka. Even the local government was asked to take a cold stance resulting in the denial of visas to Indians wishing to travel to Japan.
In such situations, the outcome of one’s actions can at times become bigger than the purpose that triggered such a result in the first place but Takandasji’s will to persevere trumped all else. He was an example to all those who believed that giving up was a better option than letting the resulting damage do any harm. He not once thought of defeat and began to plan out other ways whereby he could achieve the same goal. He searched far and wide for trained professionals who would come back with him to train his fellow countrymen and began to apply for passports in Tokyo. When the agitators got to know about this, they were unrelenting in their mission to keep the passports from being issued. They again proved to be quite the destructive force and schemed to prevent the men from leaving to India with Takandasji. The hunt was on!
Takandasji knew he had to remain one step ahead and along and his trusted friends Mr. Kewalaram and Mr. Bulchand, he arranged for the men to stay in different hotels at Yokohoma to keep them from being caught by the persecutors. Considering that the hostility of the situation was escalating, Takandasji decided to leave the conflicted scenario prevailing in Japan and go to Hong Kong on a ship that halted at Kobe. The situation was heavily laced with uncertainty as the ship leaving to India was not expected to arrive for a few days and with the detractors scrounging the area for ways to stop them, their pulses were racing high! The information that Takandasji and his troupe were expected to arrive at the Kobe wharf leaked out and sure enough, Takandasji saw a crowd of people waiting for them when they reached Kobe.
Consideration for the world around him made Takandasji the perfect crusader for the liberalisation of new thought and progressive movement in his field. He gave the Japanese men a choice despite the agreement they had made - they could either leave with him to India or stay back In Japan considering the volatility of the situation. Fortunately, they all wanted to continue on the journey with him to India but things were not about to end just yet! When they tried to enter the ship, two of them were dragged out by the angry mob and the remaining four were shoved around. If that wasn’t enough, the agitators called the police and made a false allegation that Takandasji was forcing the men to leave the country without the consent of their own parents. The police asked Takandasji and the men to accompany them to the police station for further questioning. Being a sensible man who was quick to figure out the solutions for even the trickiest of situations, Takandasji agreed to go but only on the condition that the agitators be exempted from attending the meeting and that they be ordered to bring back the two men they had so mercilessly dragged away.
Luck smiled upon Takandasji as the police officer in charge was an impartial man who was able to see reason. He was quick to deduce after questioning the men that they had consented to go to India on their own free will and were able minded adults who could make their own decisions.
Takandasji and the Japanese men were finally able to board the ship and in the true spirit of victory, they organised a Banzai party for the families of the men before their departure. The air was filled with the triumph of overcoming a setback and the next day Takandasji, his friends and his Japanese employees left for Hong Kong on the ship. Hong Kong had yet another surprise waiting for them - no ship would be leaving to India for the next 12 days! Accepting that the adventure truly did have more than its fair share of unexpected thrills, they waited patiently for the ship’s arrival and on January 1st, 1933, they finally reached the shores of Karachi, India.
It was an auspicious start to the new year for Takandasji and waiting to embrace them with open arms was Kewalram Kataria, Takandasji’s brother and business partner. Kewalram ensured that the premises upon which the factory would see a first of its kind installation was secured at Mereweather Tower on Bunder Road. February 5th, 1933 was a celebrated day, remembered for the lavish attendance of people who had gathered there to see what was soon to become the start of an entirely new production technique that was sure to help the nation grow by leaps and bounds. The inauguration was done by none other than T. Vijayaraghavacharya and the ceremony was made unforgettable by the presence of leading citizens of Karachi including the late Shri Jamshed Nusserwani Mehta, President of the Karachi Municipal Corporation. On that day, a prophecy was made by Shri Dastur, a Parsi journalist. He believed that the factory would prosper abundantly because there were seven letters in each of the words that formed the name ‘Kataria Optical Factory’. According to him, it was an auspicious sign that spelt good fortune.
The prophecy did come true and the factory was able to overcome the many obstacles that tried to drag it down into the pit of misfortune. Running a factory was no easy task and soon a few difficulties began to crop up. There began to rise a feeling of unrest among the Japanese men and after a few misunderstandings with the management, they began to leave the country one by one. By the end of 1934, all that remained was the expertise of one trained Japanese man in the factory. He worked long and hard in this foreign land, his loyalty to the Kataria factory a constant reminder of how some bonds that exist between people never cease to amaze. In 1936 he went back to Japan, eager to take some time off. Even though his plan was to return to India after a few weeks, the Japanese authorities refused to renew his passport as the agitation against the Kataria factory had yet to die down even after the years had passed and times had changed. Since then all the workmen of the factory have been of Indian decent.
Takandasji and his men worked hard to stay up-to-the-mark and persist in their goal to produce quality frames that could keep up with the strong competition overseas. 1936 also saw the separation of the Kataria brothers who were eager to explore the world on their own terms. Takandasji now had sole ownership rights over the factory and he took a decision to shift its location from Bunder Road to Elphinstone Street. This turned out to be a wise and highly profitable move made by the crusader.
There always comes a point when a huge wave of change sweeps through the course of one’s life and leaves an inexplicable mark that turns the world they live in upside-down. For the Kataria family, it came during the time of the Second World War. In 1939, the factory had exhausted all its raw materials making sunglasses for the Army and could not obtain the celluloid sheets required for further production from any country due to the perils of war. The factory was not able to manufacture art shell frames and at the same time, the import of spectacle frames was also limited. What ensued thereafter was an acute shortage of spectacle frames in India!
It was at this moment in time that Takandasji decided to salvage the situation with whatever resources were available! He decided to make metal frames from the materials available in India. It was this innovative idea that the nation embraced wholeheartedly to solve the problem at hand! Competition never stops, constantly worming itself into the limelight, creating an almost vicious tug of war for success and failure. Other factories that manufactured metal frames started to crop up all around the country given the extensive demand but when the war ended and imports were no longer a hassle to come by, they closed down.
Takandasji’s son Sunderdas Kataria joined the business at this point, eager to stand by his father during these trying and erratic times.
In a world as vast as this one, there is bound to be some magic in the discovery of friendships with like-minded people. How else can the wonderful bond that grew between Takandasji and Jayantilal Kothari be explained at a time when the nation was ravaged by war and an uncertain future. It was as if their meeting had been staged by a greater more divine power. Much can be understood from the pages of Motabhai’s diary where he talks of the great help that Takandasji was to him during some of the more difficult times of his life.
“War was prevailing all around. Kataria was so busy with customers during the day that he had to slot his meetings with wholesalers for the night! I would complete all my work by evening and then go meet Kataria at his factory. A factory that was under the guidance of such an able leader could only mean that it would have a 24-hour work schedule!” They would entertain themselves by going for a movie followed by dinner and then end their day with an engaging discussion on business. In his diary, one can see the immense gratitude that Motabhai has for his friend. He says that it was because of Takandasji’s goods that Ganko was able to rise through and overcome the initial difficulties they faced. “I cannot put my gratitude into writing and those who read my words will never be able to fully understand the level of adoration I have for ‘the King of the Optical line’. He loved me as I did him and he helped me establish my business.” Takandasji was not only a great support system for Motabhai, he was also a mentor whose advice, Motabhai kept close to his heart even to his last day -‘Today when we work for a paisa, we end up with a rupee so we should save it wisely and not splurge it away on things that are useless. If we work hard and earn a substantial amount, we should save it for those days that are rainy and filled with uncertainty.”
A tram gliding by with the words ‘Takandas H. Kataria’ was a sight for sore eyes in those days and seen often in Karachi. After all, the optical kingpin’s brand name was a hit in the advertising regime as well.
As India marched towards claiming a new lease of life, free from the entrapments that war brought with it, Takandasji realised that it was time for him to embrace a fresh perspective on the way he was handling the business and invest in new machinery. In 1946 with the intention of travelling the world for the sake of progressiveness in his field, Takandasji left for Europe and the United States. He made plans to enlarge the factory premises and install American machinery in the factory. However, before any of Takandasji’s ambitious plans could take flight, the Great Indian Partition turned everything topsy-turvy with the restructuring of an entire nation into a divided pot of chaos. Karachi, India had now become Karachi, Pakistan and the situation prevailing in the country went from bad to worse. Workers fled the area, leaving Karachi and the factory behind so without the manpower to drive the production process forward, things came to a standstill.
It was at that critical time that Takandasji took a decision to move out of harm’s way and shift the factory to Bombay (now known as Mumbai). That decision also brought with it some startling news! Only a part of the machinery would be allowed into India and a hefty fee would have to be paid for the same but that didn’t stop Takandasji from following through with his plan. The new factory equipped with both the American machinery as well as the machinery purchased locally started functioning formally on April 1st, 1948. Takandasji took forward the wholesale business on a parallel route, shifting focus to both areas ensuring that they both grew simultaneously. Despite all the ripples that came to pass on the journey to establishing the factory in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), the Kataria Optical Factory shined on as the only factory to manufacture optical frames in the country. As if lost souls had finally found their back to what they truly desired to do, some of the old trained hands returned to work in the factory.
Takandasji's son Arjandas Kataria joined the business soon after that and the restored unit was now stronger and ready to leave a greater impact on the industry.
Losses come and go, some more distinct in their ability to affect the lives of those they touch than others. In 1952, the Kataria family saw one such loss. A fire in the factory resulted in substantial damage that made critics foresee the end of Takandasji's reign in the industry as he would be unable to produce anything without the factory. Sheer resilience fuelled Takandasji's spirit to work hard towards rebuilding what had been lost and needless to say that unshakable will saw the factory start up again in a mere few weeks.
Takandasji believed that the younger generation could bring a fresh and energised outlook on things with the energised capacity to do better, learning from the mistakes made by those before them. One of his sons, Sunderdas took over the responsibility of the showroom in Fort while the other son Arjandas took on the responsibility of sales but that wasn’t enough to appease their desire to improve things from an overall perspective.
Within them came a common desire to improve their brand’s products and manufacturing methods and so through the passing seasons of 1955, Sunderdas set sail for Europe to study the latest manufacturing methods as well as purchase some tools and machinery from Germany. Marwitz & Hauser, a leading frame manufacturing company in Germany helped him profusely during his stay there. By 1956, Kataria Optical Company had gone completely global with their usage of technology, tapping into the latest machinery and tools from Germany, Japan and America.
As the quality of their products was in an arena of unmatched quality, the step to export frames to advanced countries followed suit. Their brand name reverberated through the Gulf and countries like Sri Lanka - quality reflected in every product sold.
The birth of something new is always looked upon as a cherished process, close to those who partake in its formation. The 1950s saw the birth of a brand that quickly reached a high stature in the market soon after its launch. ASTA - a name that was both fluid on the tongue and represented the four valves of the family business that pumped life into its core. The name was short for Ashok-Sunderdas-Takandas-Arjandas (Ashok being Sunderdas’ son). For many people, the brand became the very first frames they sold! There was a sudden boom in the manufacturing sector and with those four letters came the rise of a multitude of factories that spread all across the nation. Demand had finally matched supply with a vast quantity of optical frames made in India to cater to the growing need.
Other companies began to contribute to the rise of the optical industry with names such as F. A. Chasmawala, Elite Opticals and Montex becoming familiar with those who worked in the field.
25 years of establishment of the Kataria Optical Factory had to be celebrated for obvious reasons with the panache that was only fitting for such a special occasion. S. K. Patil, Minister for Power & Irrigation, Government of India blessed the event with his presence in 1958.
November 1966 brought forth within its coarse reality, the true meaning of what it was like to feel the pain of irreplaceable loss. Takandasji passed away leaving behind his unforgettable imprint in the optical industry and the larger-than-life memory of a man who had yet to be defeated.
In 1969, he was bestowed with the honour of having a road named after him called the Takandas Kataria Marg in Mahim. He was not only a great pioneer for the optical world but he was also an active social worker and Congress leader who was responsible for the establishment of a residential colony near Cadell Road, Bombay (now known as Mumbai) called the Kataria colony.
There was amazing scope to manufacture frames within the country due to the unfriendly tax laws that were applicable to imports but in 1974, all that changed. The business was restructured when Sunderdas passed away with the manufacturing and wholesale segment now managed exclusively by Arjanbhai and his sons, Madan, Jawahar and Subash.
The loss of not having Sunderdas around was a tough one to bear and the changes to the business were foreign in their initiation but the family marched on together, determined not to let the hard work of their loved ones go to waste.
Worker unrest on account of unionism spread throughout the country like wildfire in the 1980s stalling production activities and paving the way for the entry of cheap frames from China and other South East Asian countries. This proved to be quite the blow for frame manufacturing factories throughout the nation including the Kataria Optical Factory and soon they had to shut down. This time was also particularly tough for the business with the passing away of Ashok Kataria and the retirement of Anup Kataria.
The latest entrant to carry on the family heritage is Madan Kataria's daughter - Dr. Rhea Nasta. A physical therapist by profession, she has now endeavoured to continue with the tradition of Kataria Opticians, oiginally started in 1933, in the form of "Vision Nexgen".
Takandasji is sure to be watching over them with a knowing smile for the years he spent moulding the industry has truly paid off. After all, the same inspiring flame of innovation and discovery that coursed through his heart is seen in the entire Kataria clan as they continue to make history.
Takandas Kataria decides
to manufacture frames independently
Takandas Kataria and trained men
reach Karachi from Japan
Takandas Kataria and Kewalram Kataria
separate in business
Takandas Kataria leaves
for Europe and the USA
Kataria Optical Company
goes completely global
Birth of ASTA brand
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