Samriddhi Bhavan History of Indian Banking

Joydip Sur

Samriddhi Bhavan, the headquarters of State Bank of India is much more than just a building. Housing the archives and a museum it serves to remind us of the rich legacy and the history of banking in India beginning with the Bank of Calcutta set up to meet mercantile purposes of the East India Company to post independence, State Bank of India. In this edition of Calcutta Chronicle, we take you on a tour of the architecturally rich Samriddhi Bhavan.

Calcutta’s banking history begun with the setting up of the Government Bank of Calcutta by the East India Company on June 2, 1806 in a house at the 8, Post Office Street for a monthly rent of 300 rupees.

After a brief interval, the bank was renamed as the Bank of Bengal in 1809 during Lord Minto’s tenure. It was also given a charter, thereby marking the advent of modern banking in India. The Bank of Bombay (1840) and the Bank of Madras (1843) followed soon after.

The bank was removed to the present site on Strand Road facing the River Hooghly during the time of Lord Bentinck. In fact, there is an interesting anecdote involving the Governor General. Once Lord Bentinck had sent a cheque to be encashed but it was found to be “four annas beyond the sum at his credit”; the cheque was immediately returned. When informed Lord Bentinck observed, “This was the bank to do business with, which would not violate its rules in the smallest particular for the Governor General himself.” The banks took to branch banking in 1862. Soon their branches emerged at the major ports and inland trade centres of the subcontinent.

In 1921, the three banks were merged to form the Imperial Bank of India, a pan Indian bank. In 1955, as the premier commercial bank of the country, the Imperial Bank was nationalised to create the State Bank of India. With the passing of the State Bank of India (Subsidiary Banks) Act in 1959, eight former state-associated banks became its subsidiaries.

Located at 1, Strand Road, Samriddhi Bhavan though not a heritage building has an Edwardian façade. It is baroque in style and classically arranged. Parts of the building extend back to 1806 and subsequent additions and alterations were made in the structure in the years 1825, 1879, 1900 and also thereafter.  The former building of the Bank of Bengal was razed due to structural weakness and the present building was constructed on its site. Despite being a new construction its architecture is a mix of Curzonian as well as Edwardian styles. The building has slim ionic columns while the utilitarian motifs such as windows and ornamental motifs have been added aesthetically yet sensibly. Distinctive circular windows with luxurious grilles come in sets of three on each of the three sides of the porte cochere (portico like structure).

The frontage thrusts forward at the centre forming an unexpected, built-in porte cochere. The flanks are a little held back, thereby creating a fore court for the porte cochere.

The State Bank Archives and Museum is situated at the 11th floor of Samriddhi Bhawan. A rich collection of original records and historical objects outlines the odyssey and transition of banking in India. There are also rare books and journals of the 19th and 20th centuries. Memorabilia and artifacts, portraits, busts and statues, dioramas and murals have also been put up for display.

Interesting exhibits include complaint register of the Bank of Bengal (1889), notes of the Banks of Bengal, Bombay and Madras, account opening forms and ledgers of eminent personalities, leaflets and journals, weights and measures, swords and pistols, trophies, seals and insignia and old publications of the Bank.

Relics of the former Bank of Bengal building which was demolished to make way for the Samriddhi Bhavan and illustrations of building have also been preserved. A wooden box in which a part of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes was kept at the Cuttack Branch for more than 46 years is another prized possession.

The Archives is also in possession of many rich documentary heritage of the Bank, between 1806 and 1955. Rare bank documents reveal that Prince Dwarkanath Tagore was among the early Indian borrowers of the Bank of Bengal. Dwarkanath, who promoted several enterprises, availed a loan of 60,000 rupees from the Bank for the first time on July 21, 1817 on deposit of Company’s paper at the rate of nine percent interest per annum. He remained a regular borrower till 1824. Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar was also a borrower of the Bank of Bengal. In 1873 he tendered government securities worth Rs 7100 to secure a loan of Rs 6200 from the Bank.

Again, Maharaja Sookmoy Roy, the grandson of Lakshmikanta Dhar, who was banker to Lord Clive and the Company, was the first Indian director of the Bank of Bengal. The Bank’s clientele in the days of the presidency banks and the Imperial Bank included Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Motilal Nehru, Asutosh Mookerjee, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Annie Besant, Rajendra Prasad and innumerable other luminaries. The first Chairman of the State Bank of India was Dr. John Matthai, a former Finance Minister of India.

The library, situated on the 11th floor of Samriddhi Bhawan boasts of a rich collection of Books on Indian and world economy, biographies and memoirs, reports and commentaries among several other rare books on the banking history of the country.

In the past two centuries the unit bank had blossomed into the largest commercial bank of the country. The State Bank of India, along with its seven associate banks today, constitutes the largest banking network of the country, with over a hundred million customers and their trust.