Trade Wizards of The East – III: The Marwaris of Bengal

Read the previous section of this series here

A quaint disquiet and discomfiture has paved the way in time for grudging admiration for each other as communities who have lived side by side in the same city.

The Marwaris of Kolkata have never really found themselves mentioned, acknowledged or eulogized to have contributed vastly to the city’s cosmopolitan heritage and yet they have perhaps been more a part of the city uninterruptedly than many of our Bengali ancestors.

They are Calcutta’s best kept secret. A city that speaks effusively on its more exotic denizens and their predecessors; the dwindling Jews, Armenians, Greeks, even Chinese and the British, now either lying in their cemetery or found as a fraction of a gene pool in Bow Barracks, has been in grand denial about 18% of its population that has contributed immensely to its commerce and continues to provide substantial employment to the state.

There is nothing as ‘Marwaris’ in Rajasthan. The generic name was probably attributed to the exodus of this business community from the erstwhile Marwar kingdom. For the sake of simplification, it has encompassed anyone who alighted wonder eyed at the Howrah station from west with scant belongings and found their way to Burrabazar to try their fortune there.

The petulant Hindus could never forget nor forgive the act of Jagat Seth, conferred with the title ‘bankers to the world’ by the Mughals, financing Lord Clive and ensuring the betrayal of Mir Jaffar to Siraj-ud-daulah which sealed the fate of the Battle of Plassey and India slipping into two centuries of colonial rule.

Ironically, they did not nurse a similar grudge against those who actually enslaved them.

The Marwaris were pro-establishment and it was of little consequence what colour it bore. They came from a land which did not provide any support to Chittod which fought a lone battle against the Mughals, whose army was made up of their own people standing alongside invaders. A life of sand, shrub and khejri leaves where one was often left speculating about rains and chances of their own survival against the vagaries of nature, cannot really be judged on their sense of morality and they had none.


Marwari couple in traditional attire (Source: Wikipedia)



To hear stories of opulence of east where rice was silver and pulses gold, watching the luscious paddy, was a paradise to behold. Knowing how ephemeral life can be and how fortunes sway, a Marwari did not waste his time in perpensions over ethics. To them it was not only something unknown but also luxury they could ill-afford while trying to gain a foothold in a foreign city.





Burrabazar in the earlier part of the century (Source: Pinterest)

They lived in bassas of Burrabazar being ensured of their lodging and cheap meals by the more privileged of their own community. They traded in opium, cloth, jute, tea, speculating on monsoons, conjuring hundis, adulterating food, hoarding grains and making the best of every situation life threw at them.

It is said that Marwaris proceed in a five point business expansion mode. The first venture of theirs in something that needs time to set up, a high volume, low expenses enterprise which when nurtured up to a threshold becomes self-sustaining and doesn’t need much involvement. The profits earned from this are to be invested in real estate so that a steady flow of funds and assets if need arises for liquidation is available. The third endeavour must be something one is passionate about. That which gives one a sense of fulfilment. This enterprise could be a hobby or a talent like authoring a book or baking cakes, even farming, and should have involvement. The fourth is to be undertaken once assured of financial security and requisites philanthropy to maintain and cultivate networks and contacts, be it social or political. It would serve as canvass for the previous businesses. The fifth is to invest in affiliate businesses of friends and family to foster a filial feeling and for giving back to the community.

It is with this basic model that the Marwaris set about building a blustering trade in Bengal. Nudging the Basaks and Seths out of the cloth business of Sutanuti, they oiled the ranks of the British, another trading community which well foresaw the potential of this amoral, ambitious lot. They transformed Sutanuti into Burrabazar.

These trading wizards of compound interests and shrewd money lenders have been always unflatteringly depicted in literature and movies to capture the popular imagination, as an unscrupulous, loathsome lot who preyed upon the misfortunes of people. Little realizing that it was they who financed the movie industry, religious and charitable works and published the books.

How exactly the fortune was amassed however has never been reasonably scrutinized. For the world must blame Shylock for asking for the pound of flesh but never blame Bassanio for being the reason for borrowing on its behalf.

The famine of 1943, when the British to stave off a Japanese invasion used the scorched earth method of east, their penchant for indigo cultivation in west led to loss of paddy farms and the independence of Burma, a major rice cultivator, led to a panic of scarcity of rice, which the Marwaris used and escalated by hoarding and black-marketing foodgrains, resulting in the catastrophic famine and genocide in Bengal which till date, and quite justifiably so, remains unforgiven.

At least three million died in an event with our very own being complicit in a crime against our people in connivance with the Crown, in complete abandonment of conscience, which innumerable acts of philanthropy and benevolence by them could not remit till date in the Nuremberg trials of Bengali minds.

The taint was expiated somewhat when the Marwaris of Burrabazar financed Gopal ‘Patha’ to organise a counteraction against Surhawardy and his murderous rioteers 3 years later during ‘Direct Action Day’ of 1946. They also played a huge role in scuttling the idea of ‘United Bengal’, a bid by the Bengali Prime Minister, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sarat Chandra Bose to found a united and independent nation-state of Bengal, something that Bidhan Chandra Roy regarded with great misgivings. We honour S P Mukherjee for the same foresight that Marwaris shared as they watched these turn of events before independence of India.

Today Kolkata has footprints of Marwaris both in business and benevolence. From hospitals to electricity to educational institutes, hotels, restaurants, and even the iconic now bankrupt cab of ambassador were their venture.

The Seth Sukhlal Karnani Medical (SSKM) hospital has a Marwari contributer and so does the Bangur Institute of Neurosciences in its neighbourhood, and Bangur hospital in Tollygunj. The subsequent State governments who have claimed their share of votes by turning these into public health utilities did little in comparison.

Most of the art and culture in Bengal has them as benefactors or financers but yet they have never sought an indulgent portrayal of themselves and their community through them. Satyajit Ray with his pathbreaking movies found them readily backing them monetarily. Even Prince Dwarkanath Tagore was financed in his indigo ventures by Tarachand Ghansham Das and Sevaram Ramrik Das.

A state which has only botched up chit funds as evidence of its entrepreneurial skills cannot afford to overlook the contributions of those who pay salaries to the service class, irrespective whether Marwari or Bengali business houses.

It is however not without love that a Marwari has made Bengal their home. For as much as we like to believe it was not without respect they came centuries ago and stayed with us. The Birlas, influenced by the Bengali renaissance sought to educate their women, something that was unheard of in their community, founding the Balika Vidyalaya in 1920s that is now Shri Shikshayatan today.

The urge to emulate the Bengali aristocracy as well as compete with it made them shift from squalor of Burrabazar to sprawling mansions of Alipore, Ballygunj and Salt Lake. At times dressed in wafer thin crinkled panjabi and pleated dhoti with equal élan as the bhadralok as they sat trading on their gaddi.

When denied admission into Bengal’s snobbish, elite circles, they founded their own clubs, but there was never any hatred for each other or uprisings against them like in some other states. For being communities of prudence and intellect both knew they could scarcely do without each other.

Read the next section of this series here

Author: Tanuka Banerjee
 (An inadvertent storyteller because tales simply refuse to be kept to self.)

Published: May 27, 2018

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