Kolkata: The tradition of announcing State Bank of India’s (SBI) annual results here dates back to 1806—the year its first ancestor Bank of Calcutta was founded. Though the bank has evolved over two centuries—changing names and even moving its key functions out of Kolkata—it continues to keep its date with the city once every year, seemingly because its registered and central accounts offices continue to sport Kolkata addresses.
It’s a tradition that no one wants to break, remembering perhaps the central position that Kolkata—previously Calcutta—has held in the bank’s operations through the best part of 200 years, says a historian attached to SBI, who did not wish to be named.
“We don’t want to disturb legacy. Legacy and tradition are very important,” says the bank’s managing director S.K. Bhattacharya, who will be catching up with friends in Kolkata over the weekend.
Every year, all key SBI executives travel to the city to attend a board meeting that finalizes the bank’s annual accounts. For many, it’s a homecoming of sorts.
Says deputy managing director C. Narasimhan: “I was posted here from 1998 to 2002, and before that in Paris. I found a lot similarities between Paris and areas (of Kolkata) like Park Street. For me, it’s (coming to Kolkata) very enjoyable.”
A sprawling archive at SBI’s Kolkata head office at 1 Strand Road—also its registered office—showcases its rich history. In 1809, Bank of Calcutta was renamed Bank of Bengal by a royal charter of the British government. Its business slowly spread from Rangoon, now Yangon, in the east to Nagpur in the west, to Lahore in the north.
The bank counted among its clients people such as Governor-General of India William Bentinck and Nobel literature laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The bank received great admiration for returning a cheque of Bentinck, who ruled British India from 1828 to 1835, “which proved to be four annas (25 paise today) beyond the sum at his credit”, the bank’s archive records.
In 1840 and 1843, two more banks—Bank of Bombay and Bank of Madras—were started to cover the two other presidencies of British India. But Bank of Bengal remained the leader among the three, says the SBI historian, until they merged in 1921 to form the Imperial Bank of India.
It was around this time that it felt the need for a central accounts office, and Kolkata was the natural choice because the Bengal circle was at that time the biggest in physical spread and business volume.
Imperial Bank’s central accounts office was set up in 1927, and housed in its sprawling 1-4 Strand Road office. Headed by a superintendent, it was the largest department of the bank.
It not only compiled the annual accounts but also inspected all head offices and branches. In 1945, its staff comprised one staff assistant, four sub-accountants, 61 clerk-typists and 22 orderlies, according to SBI’s records.
Over the years, the central accounts office moved around—from 1 Strand Road to Tata Centre to another building on Middleton Street and finally to its present address at 2/1 Russell Street. But it never left Kolkata, even as other functions were moved to India’s commercial capital at Mumbai.