Be it Rabindranath Tagore’s financial records or the account opening letter of theosophist Annie Besant, visitors are sure to get overwhelmed by the priceless collection at the State Bank of India’s archive and museum that traces the evolution and history of banking culture in India.
The museum with its rich collection of historical documents as well as numerous relics and memorabilia chronicling the nation’s banking history, opened its doors on May 13, 2007. Situated on the 11th floor of State Bank of India’s registered headquarters Samriddhi Bhavan on Strand Road, the museum not only showcases its evolution from a unit bank of the colonial era to the largest commercial banking network in the country, but also highlights several path breaking decisions and also its legendary customers. The humble beginning as Bank of Calcutta which after three years transformed into Bank of Bengal and then merged with those of Madras and Bombay to form the Imperial Bank, the predecessor for State Bank of India- are all part of the collection.
For example, the museum chronicles the incident when the bank returned a cheque issued by its first Governor-General, William Bentinck, for exceeding the credit limit by just four ‘annas’ and earned his appreciation for maintaining stringent banking practices, not even wavered by the signature of its head.
“This was the bank to do business with, which would not violate its rules in the smallest particular for the Governor-General himself,” an impressed Bentinck observed. The words, immortal in the history of SBI, are inscribed beside Bentinck’s statue at the lower tier of the museum.
The bank was initially set up in 1806 as the Bank of Calcutta by the British East India Company for issuing currency notes. After a brief period of infancy, it was given a charter and renamed as the Bank of Bengal. Meanwhile two more regional banks named as the Bank of Bombay and Bank of Madras started operating in the country in 1840 and 1843 respectively. All the three unit banks soon spread their branches and emerged at the major ports and inland trade centers of the subcontinent.
In 1921 the British government decided to merge the three major financial units and named it as Imperial Bank of India. However, on 1 July 1955, the premier commercial bank of the country was nationalised to create the State Bank of India and got aligned with eight former state associated banks as its subsidiaries, four years later. The archives cover a period of nearly 150 years, from 1806 to 1955 by displaying various documents including minutes of board meetings of the Banks of Bengal, Bombay, Madras and the Imperial Bank of India, balance sheets and statements of affairs, inspection and audit reports, share and dividend registers and so on.
The imposing structure of the building overlooking the Ganges reflects a grandeur that should be associated with a premier bank.
A fibre glass statue of Dwarakanath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather and a noted Bengali businessman of the 19th century, greets the visitors. Prince Dwarakanath was a prominent customer of the then Bank of Bengal as his loan of 60 thousand rupees triggered a massive business growth for the bank.
Looking around, one would come across century-old swords and revolvers used by the bank’s security guards and the original wooden arch of the office dating back to 1825, still preserved with care. The ‘Franking machine’, used to create postage stamps, the 100 year old Remington Rand type writer or the vintage weighing machine would surely give goosebumps to a history lover.
The museum carefully preserves the age old postal stamps and seals used by the three unit banks at that time. While Bank of Bengal only used round seals, Bank of Bombay used three different types: square, round and hexagonal. The glass cabinets around the corner showcases some of the banks invaluable documents including the account opening letters of Maharaja of Kolapur, that of the first Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan, the first president of India Dr Rajendra Prasad and the first health minister of independent India, Amrit Kaur among numerous others.
The upper layer of the museum displays portraits of directors of the bank on one side and eminent customers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Asutosh Mukherjee, Jagadish Chandra Bose on the other. The visitors can also see the various currency notes issued by the banks between 1806 -1862.
On the other side of the balcony, photographs of old bank branches like Rangoon and Dhaka in the east and Karachi and Lahore in the west, prior to India’s Independence and Partition, are on display.
The wall of fame in the museum also celebrates the first Indian Managing Director of the bank SK Handoo and the first Indian Chairman, Dr John Matthai.
“The museum often invites school students for guided tours. It also offers free access to research and reference room to people who are interested in the bank’s history,” senior archivist cum curator Y Ramesh said.
Name: State Bank Archives and Museum
Address: 11th floor, Samriddhi Bhaban, 1, Strand Road, Kolkata 700001
Contact no: 033-22318164, 09674710296
Open: Tuesday – Friday, 2.30 pm -5 pm (except bank holidays)
Photography: Not allowed for general people
Additional info: Option to click digital selfie in the museum