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‘More Bengali than any Bengali’: Marwaris, the ‘outsiders’ who built Kolkata

A special place among non-Bengali voters, who constitute approximately 15 per cent of the vote bank, is reserved for the Marwari community, which practically built Kolkata as we know it today.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | Kolkata |
Updated: February 13, 2021 10:23:54 am
“Marwari families like the Khaitans, Goenkas, Birlas, Shekhsarias and the Neotias run the cultural as well as the commercial and construction landscape of Bengal and definitely that of Kolkata,” explains writer, historian and ethnographer Sudeep Chakravarti.

At the age of four when Pradip Kundalia moved from the dry, arid lands of Rajaldesar village in Rajasthan to the congested lanes of Burrabazar in central Kolkata, the abundance of seasons in Bengal won his heart. “Scorching summers, torrential rainfall, pleasant winters, one could enjoy all kinds of weather here,” recalls the 65-year-old resident of South Kolkata, speaking in the characteristic Kolkata Hindi, speckled with words in Bangla. That apart, he recollects with fondness, the intimate bonding that developed among the Marwari community which had been thriving here since the 18th century, and had firmly established itself in the city by the time of Independence. “There are days when I still miss eating at the basa (common kitchen) with the other Marwaris who had come here to do business,” he says.

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Kundalia’s life history is the quintessential Marwari tale of migration from Rajasthan to Bengal in search of business opportunities, the hardships and discrimination faced, and finally the prosperity earned through sheer hard labour. His ancestors had first moved to what became East Bengal, in 1919-20 to work as middlemen in the jute industry. In 1956, his father came to Calcutta and started a small business in electronics, and four years later he brought his family too. Kundalia remembers the days of penury faced by his family, when they could not even afford a bathroom for themselves. Today, he is a flourishing businessman, having dealt in over a hundred properties across Calcutta. He has two hospitals to his name, a charitable old age home, as well as the small electronics shop that his father first opened in Canning Street. He has also produced five Bengali films, the last one being on the life of Rabindranath Tagore.

In its definition of the ‘insider-outsider’ theme ahead of the Assembly elections in Bengal, the TMC has been particularly wary of alienating the non-Bengali voters of the state who constitute approximately 15 per cent of the vote bank. A special place among them is reserved for the Marwari community, which practically built Kolkata as we know it today. Despite the bitter-sweet relationship that the Marwaris share with the Bengalis, the former has seeped itself in Bengali identity. “I am more Bengali than any Bengali,” says Kundalia, asked where he locates himself in this ‘insider-outsider’ narrative.

“Marwari families like the Khaitans, Goenkas, Birlas, Shekhsarias and the Neotias run the cultural as well as the commercial and construction landscape of Bengal and definitely that of Kolkata,” explains writer, historian and ethnographer Sudeep Chakravarti. “Marwaris run cultural foundations, temples, art galleries, publication houses. They sponsor literature festivals. Several films directed by the iconic Satyajit Ray happen to be produced by a Marwari person. The Lopchu tea estate which produces Bengal’s beloved Darjeeling tea is owned by a Marwari family for three generations,” adds Chakravarti, listing out few among the innumerable contributions made by the community to Bengal. Barring a few Christian missionary schools, almost every other school of repute in Kolkata is owned by a Marwari. From hospitals to restaurants to even the electric supply in the city (Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation) is owned by Marwaris.

Birla Mandir situated at old Bulygaunge Road, Kolkata, West Bengal, India It’s a magnificent temple of Hindus One of the most attractive place of Kolkata . Thousands of tourist visits daily and this was built by Industrialist Birla group. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

From Jagat Seths to leading industrialists

The story of the Marwaris in Bengal goes back to the end of the 17th century when the Saharwale Oswal Jain merchants from Bikaner began migrating to Bengal, along with the trail of Mughal armies. Having gained prominence as the bankers and financiers of the Mughals, the Oswals were popularly called the ‘Rothschilds of India’. They settled in Murshidabad and its suburbs, Azimganj and Jiaganj.

The head of the community of merchants was given the hereditary title ‘Jagat Seth’ (Banker of the World) while serving Mughal nawabs of Bengal up until the end of the rule of Siraj-ud-Daula who was killed in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. By the 18th century, Jagat Seth had taken charge of the Murshidabad mint and controlled a great deal of the money economy of Bengal. Not only was he financing local rulers, but also the foreign trading companies. Historian Thomas A. Timberg, in his celebrated book on the Marwaris, writes “between 1718 and 1730, the East India Company took an average credit of Rs 4 lakh per year from the Jagat Seth firm.” He adds: “As late as 1757 they were lending Rs. 4 lakh per year to the Dutch East India Company and Rs. 15 lakh to the French East India Company.”

The house of Jagat Seth. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Till date, the house of the Jagat Seths carry the disrepute of having supported the British in the Battle of Plassey which resulted in the latter gaining exclusive control over Bengal. Ironically, once the British took over, they began to decline rapidly. The British took over many of the functions through which the Jagat Seth firm had made money. Moreover, with the shift of the capital to Calcutta, the prestige and position of the Murshidabad as a commercial centre took a hit.

But with the British economic expansion and change in land policies introduced by them, several other Marwari traders were drawn to the Bengal countryside as moneylenders.

It is important to note that there was a sudden spike in the number of Marwaris arriving in Calcutta by the mid 19th century, as the newly constructed railways connected the city to upcountry regions. There was also the famine of 1899, popularly called the ‘Chhapanniya ka akal’ (2056 of the Vikram Samvat calendar), which dried up resources, thereby forcing the Marwari traders to look out for opportunities elsewhere. Calcutta being the hub of European trade meant that it became their first choice, and the narrow, bustling lanes of Burrabazar, their first stop for residence.

Once in Calcutta, the contrast with the barren lands of Rajasthan became all too stark. In novelist Alka Saraogi’s historical fiction, ‘KaliKatha: Via Bypass’, the character Ramvilas, on reaching Calcutta, recalls a popular Marwari proverb about the city in his hometown, Bhiwani: “Rice like silver, pulses like gold, could heaven be better?”

Saraogi in her book describes the Burrabazar area to be full of migrants of all ages who were on the lookout for any small job or brokerage. Then there was also the dubious act of speculation, which many aspiring Marwari migrants vigorously engaged in. Saraogi’s character, Ramvilas sees Calcutta as a ‘city of speculation’. “Jute, mustard, cotton, gold, silver and shares apart, people even bet on the rain-water,” she narrates.

Calcutta being the hub of European trade meant that it became their first choice, and the narrow, bustling lanes of Burrabazar, their first stop for residence. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Europeans, particularly the British, at this time were in the look out for local partners or ‘banians’ to bridge them to the Indian market. For a brief while the Bengalis served the purpose, and then the Punjabi Khatris. Timberg refers to an exhaustive list of 1863, which consisted of only one non-Bengali intermediary firm. But over time, the Marwaris took over this role almost exclusively. “There is a saying that the Marwaris came out of the desert from nothing, and built everything. There is some truth to this. Rajasthan is a desert and there were hardly any natural resources there. So they did need to go out and make something for themselves,” says historian Anne Hardgrove who has authored the book, Community and public culture: The Marwaris in Calcutta.

The great Marwari trading firm Tarachand Ghanshyamdas became an intermediary for Shaw Wallace and Burmah Oil. It is known to have employed the grandfathers of industrial giants G D Birla and Lakshmi Mittal. Ramdutt Goenka, whose descendants later built the Ram Prasad Goenka Group (RPG), became a broker to Kettlewell Bullen in 1848. He also became a banian to Ralli brothers, one of the largest cloth importers. Surajmal Jhunjhunwala, who came to Calcutta from Surajgarh in 1867, became a broker to Graham and Co.

By the mid 20th century, the Marwari merchants who had accumulated significant wealth, invested it in new enterprises. Timberg notes that the Birlas, Dalmias and Keshoram Poddar made their money through wartime speculation. Case in point here is that of Ghanshyamdas Birla who laid the foundation of the GD Birla company in 1911, which traded in jute. With the increased demand for gunny bags during the First World War, the worth of the Birlas is known to have increased from Rs 2 million to Rs 8 million. In 1919, he became one of the first Indian entrepreneurs to own a jute mill. Today, the footprints of the Birlas are evident in innumerable institutions across Kolkata including the Birla planetarium, Birla High School, the Modern High School, Ashok Hall Girls’ Higher Secondary School, the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, and the Birla Industrial and Technological Museum.

Birla Industrial & Technological Museum in Kolkata. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The bitter-sweet relationship with Bengalis

“But of all the non-Bengali who live around us and among us; special ill will is reserved for the Marwari,” Chakravarti writes in his book, ‘The Bengalis: A portrait of a community‘. Indeed a particular disdain marks the relationship that Bengalis share with Marwaris, whom the former condescendingly refers to as ‘Meros’ or ‘Mauras’.

The premise for this conflict rested upon the perception of the Marwari being a heartless moneylender, who was thought to not spare his borrowers even during times like famine, drought or war. In fact, the Marwari merchant was looked upon as the character which made maximum profits through wartime speculation and hoarding.

Bengali popular literature would frequently play upon this trope of a shrewd Marwari merchant or banker. Chakravarti in his book refers to a Bangla short story titled, ‘Bostrong Dehi’ written by Nabendu Ghosh. Published in 1946, the story captured the anti-colonial rage of the times. The villain in the story was Chhaganlal Marwari, a cloth trader from ‘faraway Rajasthan’, who is shown to heartlessly exploit the desperate condition of an impoverished farmer named Teenkori. In the famous Bengali detective novel series Feluda too, the villain was a wealthy Marwari businessman named Maganlal Meghraj.

Then there was also the history of the Jagat Seth assisting the British in their bid to win the battle of Plassey, the stigma of which passed down through generations. “But there were also many ‘Bengalis’ who conspired against Siraj-ud-daula, including the raja of Krishnanagar, and several other zamindars. Robert Clive specifically reached out to the raja of Burdwan,” says Chakravarti, explaining why it is specious to accept this claim.

There was also the assumption that Marwari merchants who come to earn a living in Bengal, carry back everything to their ancestral Rajasthan, giving nothing to their land of migration.

Vidya Sagar Gupta, an 88-year-ols whose family has been residing and trading in Bengal for generations, recalls vividly the discrimination faced by the community when he first came to Calcutta in the 1930s. “That time the Bengalis would think of us as petty and miserly. But then at that time the Marwaris here were working day and night to earn some money. They would hardly spend anything on themselves,” he says. He also remembers how difficult it would be for successful Marwaris to get an entry or a membership in the well known clubs of Kolkata like the Calcutta Club.

Eager to shake off this ill-reputation, the Marwari merchants would indulge in various forms of charity, philanthropy and social reform. Gupta explains that it was customary for every family business to set aside a portion of their profits for charitable institutions. Hardgrove in her book writes how, initially, the philanthropic activities would be concentrated upon temple building. Over time, however, schools, hospitals and technological research became important.

For instance, Sitararam Seksaria, the famous independence activist, built the Marwari Balika Vidyalaya in Burrabazar. Later, he also built the women’s college, Shri Shikshayatan, in Lord Sinha Road. The Birlas in particular are well known for their temples, schools, hospitals etc. Their philanthropic spirit soon entered the arena of nationalism. G D Birla’s monetary support to the freedom movement and his closeness with Gandhi is a widely known story.

All animosity and stigma aside, centuries of living beside each other surely must have led to some form of cultural exchange. “I would say that several Marwari businessmen in Bengal have taken on the sophistication and nuance of the old Bengali Zamindar or the cultured bhadralok,” says Chakravarti. “Ramaprasad Goenka was very fond of wearing dhuti-punjabi in the Bengali style, including kurtas with diamond studded buttons strung along a gold chain, ” he adds.

Industrialist Ramaprasad Goenka. (Photo: Express Archives)

Saraogi says there was a sort of ‘cultural regeneration’ among Marwaris in Calcutta. “Of course, today women in Rajasthan are just as educated and modern as Bengali girls. But definitely, Calcutta Marwaris were influenced by the Bengali culture,” she says. Saraogi recalls a moment from her novel in which the protagonist Kishore Babu looks at Bengali girls singing nationalist songs on the stage. “He compares them with his own womankind who cover their heads right up to their noses,” she says.

With an increase in consumerism in recent years, however, the Marwari culture too has become more acceptable to the Bengali. “The brand Marwari is more acceptable to the Bengalis today than it was earlier,” says Saraogi. She explains how in most Bengali weddings today you will see many rituals and ceremonies that are done by the Marwaris.

Saraogi is a fifth generation Marwari in Kolkata. There are many like her, who know Kolkata more intimately than their ancestral Rajasthan. Sanjeev Harlalka, whose family came to Calcutta from Mandawa village in the early 1940s, says he hardly knows or visits his native place. “We are a hundred percent from Bengal. It is only during every election that this topic of whether we are an insider or an outsider comes up.”

Further reading:

The Marwaris from the Jagat Seths to the Birlas by Thomas A. Timberg

KaliKatha: Via Bypass by Alka Saraogi

Community and public culture by Anne Hardgrove

The Bengalis: A portrait of a community by Sudeep Chakravati

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