A profile of the Watumulls of Hawaii, a family of Indian origin that moved to Honolulu 100 years ago and is now among the island’s most prominent clans.
When Jhamandas Watumull Ramchandani opened his shop on Fort Street in Hawaii 100 years ago, little would he have imagined that the small shop would one day become the nucleus of one of the largest family businesses in Hawaii. That this was where his descendants would settle and prosper and become leaders of the community and a part of the island’s history.
Jhamandas left his home in Hyderabad, Sind, as a young boy of 14 to earn a living and help his disabled father. His mother sold her jewellery to buy his passage to the Philippines. Ten years later, he opened a small import shop in Manila with his partner Dharamdas. The shop attracted American troops stationed in the Philippines and business was good. In 1913, when the troops were withdrawn from the Philippines and moved to Hawaii, the two partners decided to follow them and explore business opportunities.
A year later, Dharamdas opened a branch of ‘Dharamdas and Watumulls’ on Hotel Street in Honolulu. Unfortunately, during a visit to India two years later, he died of cholera and the store became Jhamandas’ responsibility. Unable to leave the Manila business for long, he decided to send his younger brother Gobindram to take care of the Honolulu store, which was now renamed ‘East India Store’.
During the following years, Jhamandas spent much time travelling looking for merchandise and visiting his family in Sind. Though he returned to Hawaii often, he could not make it his home as his wife Radhibai did not want to live in a foreign country. But Gobindram settled in Hawaii and, in 1922, married Ellen Jensen, an American music teacher.
The initial years in Hawaii were difficult and trying. As the first Indian businessmen in Hawaii, they faced many setbacks, discrimination and daunting immigration laws, including denial of citizenship to Gobindram though he was married to an American. His wife, Ellen, lost her American citizenship because she had married a British East Indian subject.
But the brothers were gifted businessmen and together formed a formidable team. By 1930, they had built a base for themselves and opened more stores selling women’s and children’s clothes, lingerie, silks and curios from China. Their reputation was established and they had won people’s confidence.
In 1935, a watershed year for the Watumulls, Gobindram commissioned Ellen’s sister Elsie Das, who was an artist, to create 15 Hawaiian floral designs. The hand-painted designs were sent to Japan to be printed on raw silk by hand. Das’ designs were an instant success and a tremendous boost to the business. The Watumull name became synonymous with Aloha apparel, which became a part of Hawaiian culture and history. A vintage Watumulls shirt of the 1940s is now a collector’s item fetching as much as $1850.
The next milestone in the company’s history was the Leilani Gift Shop, which opened in 1941 on Fort Street. Here, the Watumulls first introduced their co-ordinated Hawaiian wear for the entire family — men’s and boys’ shirts and women’s and girls’ muumuus in matching authentic island prints that are still a trademark of the Watumulls. The shop also sold Hawaiian gifts and souvenirs and imported goods from the Far East.
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After the Partition of India in 1947, Jhamandas and his family left Sind and moved to Bombay, India. The family celebrated India’s independence in faraway Hawaii by serving refreshments at an extended Open House and offering a 10 per cent discount on all purchases at the Waikiki branch of the East India Store. The proceeds of the day’s business were donated to Indian charities. Later the Watumulls helped install a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Kapiolani Park on Waikiki beach in Honolulu.
However success in business was marred by personal tragedy. Jhamandas’ eldest son Ram — the managing director of the company, had been in Hawaii since 1931 — was killed in a plane crash during a visit to India in 1952. A year later Jhamandas’ third son Gulab, an engineering graduate who had earlier spent three years in Hawaii, came back to Honolulu to help. He was accompanied by his wife Indru Mukhi and Ram’s wife, Sundari, and their infant son. In 1955 Watumull Brothers separated their business interests with Jhamandas retaining retail and manufacturing and Gobindram retaining real estate. As Jhamandas was still in Bombay the division was accomplished through correspondence between the two brothers. Jhamandas finally moved to Hawaii in April 1956 after the death of his wife Radhibai in Bombay. He was 71. He remained on the island till his death at age 101 in 1986.
In 1959, Jhamandas’ brother Gobindram died of a heart condition in Honolulu at the age of 65. Only a few days earlier his name found mention in the Congressional Records for his role in the promotion of East-West understanding. He had also participated in the East-West International Philosophical Conference at the University of Hawaii.
Gobindram’s son, David Watumull, became the Chairman of the Watumull Foundation after his parents’ death. A partner in the Watumull Investment Co., he also served as honorary consul general of India in Hawaii. After David, his sister Lila became the Chairman of the Watumull Foundation. A graduate of the Prince School of Retailing at Simmons College in Boston, she was a buyer for the Watumull stores in Hawaii. She went to India in the mid-1950s, where she opened the first ready-to-wear Indian boutique in New Delhi. After her marriage to Brij Lal Sahney, she retired from the fashion industry. Following in her parents’ footsteps, she participated in a number of philanthropic and community activities in India and Hawaii. Like her mother Ellen, Lila was also an active contributor of Indian art to the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
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When Gulab took over the business in 1954, there were a total of eight Watumull stores with an annual profit of two million. Rejecting a consultant’s advice to change the “tourist-oriented” names of his stores like Leilani Gift Shop and focus on mainland-type goods, Gulab opened more “tourist-oriented’ stores. During the next 20 years, the number of stores increased to 29 and the profits to $12 million. The stores included East India Stores, Aloha Fashions, Malihini Gifts and Leilani Gift Shops. The business was now among the top 250 businesses of Hawaii.
The 1980s brought dramatic changes to Hawaii. Japanese businesses began to move in and real estate prices sky-rocketed. Capitalising on the new trend, Gulab decided to sell the company headquarters building in 1990 and invest the proceeds in real estate — strip malls and warehouses in more affordable places in Hawaii and on the mainland, an astute move that gave a new direction to the company and transformed its profile and profits.
Gulab’s business acumen has earned him a place among the most influential executives in Hawaii. In 1994, he was inducted into the Junior Achievement of Hawaii Business Hall of Fame. The Watumull name also appears in the list of 25 richest people in Hawaii.
Over time, the much-loved Watumull stores have all closed down. Only one remains; the “Hawaiian Gifts and Apparel” at the famed Ala Moana Center. “Does he miss the shops?” I asked his wife Indru during a visit to their 16th floor pent-house flat on Wilder Avenue. “Yes, he does,” she said quietly. No matter how busy Gulab is, he still visits the Ala Moana store three to four times a week even if only briefly.
He also likes to talk about the store. “We are among the first 10 tenants of the Ala Moana Center,” he says with a hint of pride, emphasising that only two of the original tenants (the other is the US Post) now remain.
Today, Gulab manages the family finances and administers the Jhamandas Watumull Fund founded by his father in 1965. His sons Jai Dev and Arjun, daughter Jyoti and grandson Jared head the different divisions of the business in Honolulu. Another daughter Chitra teaches in a school in Portland.
Gulab and Indru are prominent members of the community and are active supporters of a number of non-profits including Pacific and Asian Affairs Council of Hawaii, American Cancer Society, United Way and Smithsonian Indian Heritage Project. They are also patrons of the Indian Classical Music Circle in Hawaii.
Indru’s commitment to volunteering and charity work has earned her acclaim. A greatly sought-after fund raiser, Indru, a cancer survivor, raised a mind-boggling $3.8 million for the American Cancer Society’s Hawaii Pacific Division — half a million over the set goal of $3.3 million. The feat earned her the American Cancer Society’s Hawaii Pacific Division’s volunteer of the year award.
A lover of art, Indru has been a long-term board member of the Honolulu Museum of Art and has brought many Indian artefacts to the Museum. She is also a docent at the museum.
If business success has given the Watumulls a place in the community, their philanthropy has given them a place in people’s hearts.
The Watumull Foundation founded by Gobindram almost 75 years ago was a trailblazer in many ways. The foundation provided funds to American universities and colleges for the purchase of books about India; gave scholarships to Indians to study in the U.S. and supported an exchange of scholars between India and the U.S. In 1946 the foundation sponsored a series of lectures by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, who later became India’s President, in 14 American universities. Ved Mehta, who went on to become a famous writer, was a recipient of a scholarship from the foundation. After Gobindram’s death in 1959, the foundation started annual awards in his memory: five in the sciences and five in the humanities.
In 1965, Jhamandas established the Jhamandas Watumull Fund. Having had very little formal education himself, he was keen to support educational work and gave large endowments to the University of Hawaii and other educational institutions in the U.S. as well as in India. The fund provides active support to the Honolulu Museum of Art and the Bishop Museum. In recognition of its support, the museum’s renovated Planetarium was re-named Jhamandas Watumull Planetarium. Jhamandas also established the Watumull Fund in 1973 to promote Indian culture and advancement of medical research in the US and in India.
In 1986, Sundari Watumull established the Rama Watumull Distinguished Indian Scholars Program, which promotes a visitor’s programme to support teachers, researchers and creative artists from India at the University of Hawaii where Ram had been a student. Earlier Jhamandas had also set up a fund in the memory of his son Ram to support visiting scholars attending the University of Hawaii.
Philanthropy runs in the family in different ways. In 1995 Gulab’s son Vikram, currently the Watumull company vice president, launched Hawaii’s first “Race for the Cure,” a fundraiser run for breast cancer awareness. He served as the race director for eight years. The first Race for the Cure drew in nearly 800 participants. That number has now increased to over 7000. “Every woman deserves the best care in fighting breast cancer,” he says. “We hear of new breakthroughs and advances in the science of fighting breast cancer every year, but we need to keep people thinking about it until a cure is found.”
The Watumulls are also involved in considerable charitable work in India — a hospital and an engineering college in Mumbai, a school in Pune and the funding of a Global Hospital in Mt. Abu. Much of this has been in collaboration with Jhamandas’ second son, Khubchand, who stayed back in Mumbai to look after his youngest brother Arjan who suffered from a debilitating disease. Though he was not part of the Hawaii business, Jhamandas gave him a share of it.
Khubchand, 93, also oversaw till recently the work of two non-profits he founded — ‘The Arjan Watumull Charitable Trust’ and the ‘Watumull Foundation’. Khubchand’s daughter Neetu who lives in Bombay started a scholarship programme to help girls from low-income families go for higher studies. “I do this independently as this is close to my heart,” she says adding, “Next on the cards is a nursing school in Panchgani.”