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An imperfect but arresting history of the State Bank of India shows how the institution has kept pace with its nation.
The State Bank of India is in many ways a unique institution. Over 200 years in existence, it is older than the modern Indian state which can be said to have been born with the commencement of direct rule by the British crown in 1857. Like a river that comes into its own when tributaries merge with it, the bank was born with the merger of the three presidency banks of Bengal, Madras and Bombay to form the Imperial Bank of India.
Then it was not just the leading commercial bank but also the banker to the government, a role it gave up with the setting up of the Reserve Bank of India in 1935. The bank again played a part in the nation’s history when it became the forward scout of bank nationalisation.
It was taken over and rechristened the State Bank of India in 1955. This enabled it to play a key role in laying the foundations on which has been built the superstructure of what is now the second-fastest-growing economy in the world.
Perhaps most interesting is the position and status of the bank today. In the post-liberalisation economy it has retained the character of a national company — solid, large and powerful — while being present in every important branch of modern financial services as a determinedly profitable blue chip. It is an incumbent that has retained market share even as new foreign and domestic players have emerged.
The history of such an institution contains the modern economic and commercial history of the nation in a microcosm. Such a history is perforce written in words and figures, but can also be rendered in a way that gives readers a sense of the look, touch and feel of the entity. This is what the book under review does as a remarkable pictorial history accompanied by a succinct narrative by Abhik Ray, who was a key member of the team, under Amiya Kumar Bagchi, that has written the multi-volume history of the bank.
One of the fascinating early illustrations in the book is the seal of the Bank of Bengal (established just over 200 years ago in 1809) with the name written in three Indian languages — Bengali, Urdu and Hindi — other than English. The pan-Indian identity of the organisation was established right from the start. There are also the minutes of the board meeting on the day of commencement of business (January 2, 1809), written in an immaculate flowing hand.
There are period pictures of the most powerful and enduring symbols of the bank — its grand premises, some of which are still in use. There is the imposing Rangoon branch which opened in 1861, the formidable home of the Bank of Bengal on Calcutta’s Strand Road which went on to become the early head office of the Imperial Bank, the classical high ceiling of the banking hall of the Karachi branch, and the imposing structure of the Chandni Chowk branch in Delhi (before there was a New Delhi). At the other end is the picture of the haveli-type Jodhpur branch being inaugurated by the maharaja and the utterly picturesque hill station bungalow of the Simla branch.
As impressive as the old offices of the bank are the residences of the heads of the bank at important centres. They range from the opulent to the almost purposelessly ornate. Purposelessly when you recall that, post-nationalisation, the bank carried the can for priority sector lending. Such is the richness of the past that it has been captured and preserved in good measure in the State Bank Archives and Museum in Kolkata, which opened in 2007.
The text has its own nuggets. Among them is a complaint lodged in 1889 by Potit Pabun Mitra against a junior European officer, T W L Bruce, for “rudeness”. It was hotly denied by the latter who was still asked to “say the injury was unintentional and express his regrets for it”. As for sticking to rules, a cheque sent by William Bentinck, Governor General during 1828-35, was returned because it was “four annas beyond the sum at his credit”. Bentinck’s response was that “this was the bank to do business with which would not violate its rules in the smallest particular for the Governor General himself”.
A sense of the industrial and commercial history of India in the last century is captured in three pictures on a single page — a Bombay cotton mill of the early 20th century, the pioneering coal company Bengal Coal, and one of women tea garden workers picking tea leaves against a backdrop of hills — all financed by the Imperial Bank. Another early picture that captures the flavour of the times is of a local board meeting in Bombay in 1934 with members seated on high-back chairs, the Indians wearing different types of headgear, the British in stiff cotton gabardine suit-and-tie, an ornate clock on the wall, and a ceiling fan above.
Coming to current history, the best image of the attempt by the bank to recapture some of its pre-eminence is a distinctive advertisement campaign — “The bankers to this Indian” and “The banker to every Indian” — that emphasised that the SBI has been banker to the high and the mighty as well as to ordinary mortals. The list of eminent Indians pictured is formidable: Rabindranath Tagore, Rajendra Prasad, J C Bose, Maulana Azad, Motilal Nehru, M Visvesvaraya, Pherozeshah Mehta and Dadabhai Naoroji.
Also reproduced are the text and signatures of an agreement between management and union leaders to endeavour to take the bank forward, which was perhaps the most significant recent management initiative to enable the bank to recapture some of the ground it had lost.
The parts depicting the bank’s earlier years are by far the more interesting. From the 1970s onwards the pictures become pedestrian and the architecture characterless or distinctly PWD. The only exception is that of the Central Office (1970), for which credit goes to the then chairman R K Talwar, the first bank officer to be made bank chairman — earlier it was always an ICS officer — and the one considered by far the most distinctive as chairman.
My only grouse with the book is that, towards the end, it becomes a bit like a house magazine with too many flat group photos. Of pictures depicting the last chairman, O P Bhatt, there are an incredible 22, not counting group shots.
BANKING BEYOND BOUNDARIES
Author: Abhik Ray
Price: Rs 1,999