The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Banking on history
(From top) An aerial view of the State Bank of India archive; a weighing scale; an artefact on display; a logo in stained glass. Pictures by Aranya Sen

In 1991 the State Bank of India decided to demolish its magnificent head office on Strand Road facing the Hooghly. A humongous and sprawling heap with pretensions to neo-classical architecture came up in its place. The bank decided to turn the 11th and 12th floors of one block into its archives which opened in May.

Ranen Ayan Dutt, the veteran artist whom many will remember for his drawings in the famous ad campaigns he had launched decades ago, was given the responsibility of designing the archives, while much of the art work was done by students of the Government Art College. Many of the artefacts preserved and displayed here had been exhibited about a decade earlier when it was announced that the archives would be built.

But the setting could not have been more different. With its bright lights hanging from the ceiling, coloured glass window, polished central staircase and huge plaster arch above it, the space does look a bit like a posh club in a five-star hotel where the management favours an old world look.

Some of the illustrations on the banners may remind visitors of a certain age of the Sixties — they do look quite outdated. But it is impossible to replicate past grandeur. It ends up looking kitschy.

Those who remember the majesty of the vaulting ceilings of the original building, the grand staircase and the arabesque of mosaic on the floors know that past is beyond recall. And Kumartuli or Krishnagar-type figures and painted recreations of scenes from the distant past remind us too much of Durga puja pandals to make us feel comfortable.

There is no substitute for original photographs, drawings or prints even when these are enlarged and displayed. Digital technology allows these to be replicated to near-perfection.

Think of the rich colouring of the original stained glass disc with the Bank of Bengal insignia within it, the weightiness of the brass motif kept in one corner and that of the huge pair of scales and the bushel once used to weigh coins.

However, an archive is more that its decor. The artefacts and documents on display are really what matter. There, nobody can fault the bank on the richness of its collection. Some of the documents were retrieved from dumps.

Each artefact tells its own story. In a glass case are displayed the old seals of the bank from its various branches. A safe deposit register records how the ashes of Gandhi were kept in a sealed wooden box marked “contents unknown” in the Cuttack branch of the bank. Years later the ashes were scattered in the Hooghly.

According to a complaint’s register, a babu lodged a complaint against a European bank officer for his alleged rudeness. An inquiry followed.

William Bentinck praised the bank for strict adherence to rules, and the volume in which this statement was printed is displayed under a magnifying glass, allowing visitors to read the passage for themselves.

The Imperial Bank, as it was called, had a host of illustrious and well-known clients whose names figure prominently in the annals of India and Pakistan. The accounts of Liaquat Ali Khan, first prime minister of Pakistan, President Mohammad Hidayatullah and that of Rajendra Prasad as president of the Constitution Club are here.

Asutosh Mookherjee, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Dadabhai Naoroji, Rabindranath, Vidyasagar, Kesab Chandra Sen (the Brahmo leader was an employee of the bank), JRD Tata, who was a managing director of the bank, all figure here.

In one showcase are the papers of the Burrabazar branch dating back to 1904, when it lost business worth Rs 60 lakh in six months following the Swadeshi movement and the boycott of foreign goods.

The currency notes too provide a clear picture of India. The Bank of Bengal notes minted in England and in circulation till 1862 were of denominations between Rs 10 and Rs 10,000. Britannica sits with Trade, Commerce and Agriculture in attendance. A rhinoceros symbolises Assam, a river with ships Bengal, and Sher Shah’s tomb at Sasaram stood for Bihar.

In the 1880’s Debendranath Tagore formed a trust account to raise funds for creating Santiniketan. The document was signed by Rabindranth, Dipendranath and Preonath Shastry.

An agreement signed by Charles Canning led to the opening of branches of the bank. There are besides 2,000 correspondence registers.

This is rich material for research scholars and there is an anteroom where they can study these. The public can visit the bank between 3pm and 5pm on Saturdays and between 11am and 3pm on Sundays.

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