As the State Bank of India main branch completes 150 years, a look at its past

At the State Bank of India main branch, with its glistening floors and shiny glass doors, the air smells new and polished. Yet beneath the sheen of the modern is history, old and proud, and 150-years-old. The milestone anniversary celebrations of the bank which has been on for the past year will culminate with a history exhibition scheduled to begin today.

Among the new buildings that spread over the 2.75 acres at Mananchira is a quaint pointer to the past—the bank agent’s home now called the Bank House. At 104, it is the only sign of antiquity at the bank complex. Though unused and in want of care now, the bungalow is still imposing with its high wooden ceilings, verandahs flanked by windows and a few antique furniture. Among the future plans for the bank is a grand one for the old agent’s house too. A proposal to turn it into a heritage museum where the bank’s vintage past can be treasured is firmly on track.

However, in the bank’s past rests a time of prosperity for Kozhikode. The Bank of Madras started operations on October 15, 1863, following the decision of its Board to open the first branch in the Malabar. The bank began on the premises where it stands today out of a rented building and soon became the nerve centre of financial transactions in the region. For the SBI, the branch continues to be the administrative centre for Malabar even now, asserts P. Babu, Chief Manager of the branch.

“Being a presidency bank, the Kozhikode branch could issue currency,” Babu says. “The currency was printed at the Security Press in London and brought here,” he adds. According to Babu, no clear evidence is available on the staff at the bank in the late 19 century. However, he adds that while the agent and accountant were Europeans, couple of cashiers were local men.

Being the hub for trade and commerce in the region, Kozhikode was a natural choice for the bank. Increasing export and import made the bank a necessity to manage transactions. “Kozhikode was a dominant trade centre. Transactions were many especially for coffee in Wayanad, timber from Nilambur and dry fish sent to Sri Lanka,” explains Babu. The bank’s clients were Europeans including companies such as Pierce Leslie and Volkart Brothers. In the bank’s possession are documents from Appu Nedungadi and Malabar Co-operative Bank asking for loan enhancements.

Status quo changed from tenants to owners after the property was acquired using the Land Acquisition Act in 1910 for Rs. 19,450. “Two buildings were constructed, one the branch and another for the agent’s house,” says Babu. While the agent’s house has stayed, the main building was pulled down in 1983 to raise the present one.

Babu points out that the location has been a prized possession for the bank. “They always looked to buy the land and were in negotiations since 1863. The agents insisted on buying as it is in the heart of town. The church was close by, so too the old Collectorate. The building was rented out for Rs. 40 a month initially,” says Babu.

When the presidency banks—the Bank of Madras, Bank of Bombay and Bank of Calcutta—merged in 1921 to be the Imperial Bank, it also strengthened the institution, says Babu. “The management became one and it strengthened the branch as officers came from Kolkata and worked here, while officers from here went there,” he adds.

By 1955 the branch became the State Bank of India. To mark its past, a history exhibition highlighting the evolution of banking in the country with special focus on the Kozhikode branch will be held on the bank premises. A special postal cover will also be released on October 15, the day the anniversary celebrations conclude.