Communities that shaped India’s financial hub
To put it at the outset, it is not possible to list six religious or caste groups that pioneered Mumbai’s growth and development without risking the possibility of being accused of ignoring the contributions of other communities.
Many of the biggest business pioneers and philanthropists came from a handful of groups like the Parsis, Bhatias and the Baghdadi Jews.
Author and city historian Sharada Dwivedi said that while it well known that groups like Parsis, especially families like the Tatas, Jeejeebhoys and Cawasji Jehangirs set up industries, provided employment, created education and medical services, the contribution of other groups are not well known.
“Look at the Maharashtrians. People like Bhau Daji Lad not only helped their community, but also contributed to the city’s welfare. All communities contributed, but some led the way,” said Dwivedi.
“Few people know that two of the most important schools in the city, JB Petit and Bombay Scottish, were funded by Premchand Roychand, a Gujarati Jain. Roychand donated Rs4 lakh for the university library.”
Groups, like the Khojas, including textile magnate Ebrahim Currimbhoy, are similarly unacknowledged. Dr MD David, former head of history at Mumbai University, said Muslim communities were prominent in the shipping trade establishing the pioneering Bombay Steamship Company and the Bombay Marine School.
Mumbai grew on the trade of cotton and opium. Most trader communities that made it big in the early centuries of the city’s history profited from cotton trade. “Mumbai’s growth was dependent on the cotton trade and later the textile industry. Ancillary industries, engineering, railway workshops grew from the cotton trade,” said Dr David. Banias: They came in the 18th century from Gujarat and were the backbone of the city’s cotton trading business. Professor Agnes De Sa, head of department of history at LS Raheja College, said that after the British took over the island in 1665 AD, they invited traders from the hinterland to the new settlement. The first Bania to heed the call was a textile dealer named Bhimji Parekh, said De Sa who studied the Surat Factory Records at Maharashtra State Archives at Elphinstone College for her thesis. “The British invited him from Surat and even gave him land to build a house,” she said. The Mangaldas Market is built on land given by Sir Mangaldas Nathubai, a Kapol Bania. Bhatias: The Bhatias too were in the cotton trade. The Bhatias had a big role in the city’s metamorphosis to an international port. Professor Mangala Purandare, head of department of history at Bhavans College who is doing a study on the Bhatias, said the community has left its legacy in the city’s old textile markets like the Swadeshi market. “They were originally from the country’s north west. They moved to Rajasthan and from there to Kutch and later came to Mumbai,” said Purandare.
Prominent among them was Gokuldas Tejpal, whose father moved to Mumbai from Kutch in the 19th century. Tejpal prospered in cotton trade. His legacy includes GT Hospital, Gokuldas Tejpal Boarding House and Sanskrit Patshala which housed freedom fighters and was the birthplace of Indian National Congress. Marwaris: They came in the 19th century as money lenders. They became prominent in the city’s business only after the world wars. According to Dr David, there was an informal line of successive domination in business by trade. The Parsis and Jews who dominated the city’s commerce were joined by the Bhatias in the second half of the 19th century. “These three groups ruled industry and trade. Around 1870s, Muslim families like the Rahimtullahs came into prominence. All of them gradually sold out to the Marwaris,” said Dr David.
“The Marwaris were also involved in the opium trade, but were largely cotton traders. They became industrialists in the 1920s when they bought several textile mills from the Rahimtullahs and Sassoons. They are now the main holders of Mumbai’s wealth,” he added.
The Ramlal well near the Bombay high court was built by a Marwari family and supplied water to residents of the Fort area. It is still in use. Parsis: They came to the city from south Gujarat in the 18th century. Though they dominated the opium trade along with the Europeans, they were prominent in the textile and ship-building business. The first Indians to set up banking institutions were Parsis and when the Bombay Chamber of Commerce was set up in 1836, all the 10 Indians among the 25 promoters were Parsis.
Dr Nawaz Modi, joint honorary secretary of the KR Cama Oriental Institute who has authored two books on the community, including a fourvolume study on its legacy said: “They first worked as agents for the British and helped them to deal with other groups to get work done. Later, they branched out to other trades. They were in the ship-building business and this was one of the main reasons why they were asked by the British to come to Mumbai,” said Mody. Pathare Prabhus: According to Dr David, the small community was dominant till the middle of the 19th century. Among the earliest immigrants to the city, they were administrators and clerks during the Maratha rule and later during the earlier days of British occupation.
Though they were not prominent names in business, they were cultural trend-setters in clothing fashions and the performing arts. “Along with other groups like the Palshikar Brahmins and the Panchkalshis, the Pathare Pradbhus were the first migrants to the city, having come to the islands in the 13th century along with king Bhimdev. They gave the city an identity for the first time,” said professor Purandare. Baghdadi Jews: They came to Mumbai from Baghdad around 1830. The Sassoons were the most prominent Baghdadi Jew family. “Of course, the Sassoon family looked after the Baghdadi Jewish community, their synagogues and other institutions. They and the Currimbhoys owned textile mills that provided employment. But their philanthropy was unbelievable,” said Dwivedi.
According to Dr David, Flora Sassoon, a member of the family, was the first prominent woman in business.