The Bells of Sarna

This article is reproduced from The Bell Tower, the official publication of the American Bell Association International, Inc. It is a transcription of an educational program that was presented by Sajjan Singh Sarna at the ABA Convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July 2, 1970.

Members of the American Bell Association, guests, ladies and gentlemen: It goes back over twenty years when the question was asked, “Where is SARNA in India?” It has been asked over and over again. An editorial appeared in Philadelphia several years ago and then another editorial in Toronto, Canada, explaining in detail that SARNA is not a town in India. I was born in Rawalpindi, at present capital of Pakistan, finished Presbyterian High School and two years of college. Ran away from home because my parents wanted me to accept an arranged marriage. Went to college in Japan for a year, then I moved on to America. Finished my B.A. at Corvallis, Oregon, in Dairy manufacturing and went to Ames, Iowa, for my Masters. I am very grateful to my parents who paid for my education in America.

Sarna bells on a rackAt Ames, I used to give a weekly talk on India to a sorority or a fraternity. My compensation was a free meal. One evening I was talking to a group of girls about a wedding in India and I had just received a few handicraft items from my parents to present as gifts to my professors. Among them was a phulkara, embroidered by a mother for her daughter to wear on the wedding night. It takes about six months to embroider such a piece. After my talk, the girls were anxious to see such treasures as papier mache trays, lacquered boxes, turquoise jewelry and chain stitch embroidered bed covers. I opened all these various handicrafts in the living room and explained to them how they are made, who made them, and how long it took to make them. They asked me the prices. I was not prepared for that. I quoted prices at random. They insisted on buying them. That made me quiver and shake my hands.

When they asked me the prices a second time, I did not remember what I had said the first time. It got very late that night. I counted my cash of over $300.00. I went to my room where I was staying and retraced my memorable footsteps of the night. I could not sleep. I had an idea what the cost may be of the goods sold that night, and the margin of profit was big and on top of that, Americans were hungry to buy unusual India items. Everything was available in the market in India and I would not have to have silo, cow barns, dairy equipment for pasteurization of milk, butter, cheese, etc. Why not import handicrafts from India and sell to the Americans and forget about the dairy manufacturing. That was the spring of 1920.

My generous father had sent me money to buy dairy equipment to start manufacturing dairy in India. Instead, in San

Francisco, I purchased two second hand cars and left for India via Japan. In Rawalpindi, no private person had a car at that time. If there were cars, they were owned by the military. My cars were a novelty. One of the larger cars was like a limousine with four doors and was partitioned in the middle and had curtains on the windows. A very rich man heard about my cars. I sold both cars to him at a handsome profit. Curtains on the car windows closed the deal because the women in his family could ride in the back of the car and see out without anyone being able to see them. My father was amazed at the profit that I had made from the sale of the two cars, which were sold within two weeks after my arrival in India. This was the second start of my business adventures.

My father asked me what my plans were for the future. I told him in detail my success story at the sorority sale. He was very pleased and impressed. He asked my brother and my brother’s son, Kartar, to go with me to Kashmir to buy whatever I liked. We bought embroidered panels, curtains, bedspreads, scarves, papier mache, etc. We never turned down a purchase, although I did not know the sizes of American beds or windows. My father asked me if I would need cash to pay duty or other incidentals. I told him that he had done more than I expected and I would manage myself, as he had paid for the merchandise.

We left Bombay in December for New York, the shipment of merchandise already on the way to San Francisco. I had only $25.00 by the time we arrived in San Francisco. This was Christmas Eve 1920. I sent my nephew for breakfast at a restaurant and I kept a fast for myself, trying to hold on to my $25.00 as long as I could. I had no rich friends to borrow money from. I went to a Berkeley banker where I had had money before I left for India and before I bought the cars. I explained to him that I was just starting a new business and the goods were on the docks. I needed money to pay the duty. I needed $1500.00. He looked at my previous bank account. He then checked my invoices and asked me to sign a paper, gave me a check in the amount of $1500.00 and a passbook. This all happened in less than half an hour. I walked out of the bank hugging my check. I turned around to look at the bank and its corner clock. I was amazed. I said to myself, “This is America!”

Within a week we had rented a store. My nephew and I slept in the back of the store, which we heated with kerosene oil stove, and took a weekly bath in public bath houses.

On the opening day we sold one numdah rug for $10.00 and we had a hearty dinner. As we sold goods, we started to pay my father back for the merchandise. Before very long, we moved to downtown San Francisco, gave up the retail business and started doing business on a wholesale basis. Just by luck, I discovered that a matching pair of Kashmir embroidered curtains and they were the right size for the American home. I went to Los Angeles and showed the curtains to a drapery buyer of Barker Brothers. He liked it very much and asked the price. I quoted $35.00 a pair. I told him I could not deliver for six months. He gave me an order for 12 pairs. That was an easy sale. I went to another furniture store and sold the same day 12 pairs for $40 a pair. The day was still young. I took a ride to Pasadena and sold 12 pairs at $45.00 a pair to another store. Here the buyer was an Irishman and he was sympathetic to Indians and their cause for freedom. After placing the order, he showed me English made machine chain stitch curtains, similar to mine and he told me he paid $80.00 a pair. That opened my eyes to the fact that my curtains were hand embroidered and his were machine made. I was selling short. That excited me to no end. I did not stop in Los Angeles. I kept on going via Dallas, Austin, Houston, New Orleans, Miami, New York, and Chicago and returned to San Francisco with orders and orders. I prepared my nephew to return to India to standardize size and quality of curtains, bedspreads and other merchandise. That was the start for India to standardize and have quality control. That was May 1923.

Business continued to grow and I was bound to be a millionaire by 1929. The string snapped by the depression. I could not even give the merchandise away. In 1933, I moved to New York, two weeks before the banks closed. I started new with Japanese merchandise, manufactured dresses, imported jewelry, no success. It was exciting though. No money but happy, healthy fun and adventures.

While in San Francisco, next door to my office was a Dutchman, Mr. Vermas, who was importing antiques from what was then known as Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. He sold me an antique cowbell for $12,00. This bell was on my dresser in my New York apartment. In 1938, one night while I was asleep, I heard my bell ringing, floating in the air and flying out of the window. My exciting dream awoke me. I went to my dressing room and looked for my bell. It was still there. I started to think about my dream. Next morning I went to a friend, borrowed about $2000.00 and was on my way to Indonesia. I stopped off in Bombay and saw elephant bells. I had a few hundred bells shipped to New York. This was my second purchase of bells.

On my arrival at Djakarta, then known as Batavia, I searched for antique dealers. A Dutch lady across from the hotel had a house full of Javanese antiques. I selected some.

The same day, I went to Pasar (Main Street) in a taxi and went to an Indian cloth merchant’s shop, with branches all over the world. One of the partners liked me and asked me to have dinner with him that night. He had invited another guest who was traveling as a deck passenger on the same ship where I was a second class passenger traveling from Singapore to Djkarta. He was a very rich man in spite of the fact that he traveled third class. At the dinner table I told them that I was there to buy Indonesian goods and was looking for an agent. The rich man was more than willing to finance the venture and I was to pay a certain purchasing commission, payment to be made 90 days after the arrival of the merchandise. I bought antique bells wherever I could and placed large orders on new brass cowbells graduated in size.

We flew by plane to Bali where I bought Bali wood cowbells and Bali carvings.

On my return to New York, I displayed my new imports in my showroom to various department store buyers. Every buyer was interested. Franklin Simon bought the elephant bells. They advertised in the Sunday edition of the New York Times and sold all they bought before Monday noon. That was the exciting ringing beginning of Bells of SARNA.

Every buyer wanted to know the story of bells and would buy more if we gave stories. That was the beginning of the story tags. At the trade show in Chicago a buyer said that she would buy several sets of graduated size bells if we would tie them. I told her that was impossible, as we had no help to tie the bells. When I returned from lunch, my saleslady had tied the graduated bells and booked several orders within an hour. That was the start of bell strings.

In India, bells were never known by names, but certain bells were used for certain purposes. That was the beginning of naming the bells with their stories.

In 1949, I was having breakfast with a buyer and I suggested that I would appear in her store with Indian clothes personally if she would buy $2000.00 worth of bells and brassware. She shook hands on that and thus it opened doors for my bell promotions in every leading department store in the United States and I visited and sold bells from coast to coast talking about India and bells.

Promotions were very successful. I brought my nephew, Narindar, to the United States. Some of you met him in 1949. As the demand for promotions grew, it meant more business. I brought my nephew Narindar’s wife, Mohini, and a cousin of mine, who traveled extensively. At that time, I thought it was great to sell a million bells a year.

It was at the 1948 Chautaqua Bell Convention that I became a member of your Association.

In 1950, I became an American citizen.

As our ABA grew, so did my business. I am very fortunate to be in the bell business.

I have been selling incense as a side line since 1929. Three or four years ago, hippies came along wanting bell necklaces and the incense. Seems to me I was waiting for them on the sidewalk. That boosted my bell business and forced me to take over an incense factory in Chicago.

In 1952, Bunny was looking for a job. She advertised in the New York Times and I was looking for her. We were married on February 11, 1954, in Chicago. We re-married on March 31, 1954, in India and went around the Holy Sikh Book Garanth Sahib seven times. We went around the world to tie the wedding knot securely.

Our first daughter, Sita, was born on January 14, 1956. In June 1957, we were blessed with Sareen, our second daughter. We were hoping to have a son, but we were very happy to have our third daughter, Shivan, in November 1964.

My dream was to have a bell museum, a national headquarters for our association, a library, teach bell ringing, bell making and study bell history of the world over. Unfortunately, I had a heart attack in February 1965. After recovering, my physician advised me against the museum, as it was too much for me. I sold 75% of my collection. I was glad that some of you shared in that sale.

I hope that the next Bell Convention in New York you are able to see the balance of the collection. Maybe I still have a chance to renew our bell museum. Sorry our children are not with us.

My wife joins with me to thank all of you who have worked hard to make our ABA a great success.

This is America. There is an opportunity for everyone. We love you all. May God bless America and you.

© American Bell Association International, Inc.