In the crowded and cluttered Evening Bazaar Road is a shop that began on the pavement in 19th-Century, hurricane-lamp-lit Madras. It was run by a man whose name, over the years, has undergone several changes — the result of a Chinese Whisper. Karim Bhai’s business, now run by the fifth generation of his family, houses about 10,000 square feet of twinkling, clanking crockery in George Town alone, but is known by a name that has become a part of the city’s history — Currimbhoys.
Nazimali Currimbhoy now heads the store in George Town, while his son Navaz takes care of the Adyar outlet. Navaz, who has been in the business for 30 years now, says, “In the 1880s, there was apparently a famine in Gujarat and a lot of families shifted South to earn their living. Our family was one of those. Karim Bhai set up a small pavement shop opposite a mosque in Evening Bazaar. In those days, Evening Bazaar was a place where people shopped in the evening.”
Karim’s shop sold lamps and chimneys, a necessity back then. Since most of his customers happened to be British, his name was pronounced differently. That’s how Karim Bhai became Currimbhoy. Having acquired a reputation for his wares he moved to the other side of the road and started a shop. “The shop sold kerosene and paraffin lamps even until 20 years ago. They were products that were synonymous to our business. We slowly diversified into enamelware which became a huge hit with the soldiers during the wars. They used enamel bottles and mugs to carry their rations,” he says.
This slowly gave way to cutlery and tableware. “In the old days, we imported crockery from England and even brought in stoves and paraffin lamps from Europe. But now, we don’t import much. Most of our crockery and glassware comes from Delhi, Ankleshwar and other places around the country,” Navaz explains.
Times changed and Currimbhoys grew into a shop for table and glassware. “People would buy crockery for their showcases or to be used only when they had celebrations or guests. But now, everyone uses it. So, there is considerable demand for our products,” he says.
Navaz attributes the success of his family’s business to accessibility. “We set up business right next to the bus stop in George Town and since public transport was the main means of getting around for the common man, a majority of our clientele comprised a floating population. People would drop in after work, make purchases and travel home by bus. But now, people prefer shops with parking space, which is why we made sure our Adyar and Puducherry outlets have ample parking facility.”
Bang in the centre of Mount Road, opposite Spencer & Co., the grand old mall of Madras, is Poppat Jamal & Sons, another crockery firm that has been around since the early 20th Century. Started in 1901 by Poppat Jamal, they have not just kept the crockery and glassware business booming but have diversified into distribution as well.
Mahmud N Jamal, who has been taking care of the store since 1972, talks of his grandfather Poppat Jamal, who moved to Madras from Seesang in Gujarat. “He began working at Ebrahim Currim and Sons and later at Ebrahim Peer Mohammed and Co. When the owner of that company decided to move back to Pune, he asked my grandfather whether he would buy the business, which was worth around Rs.50,000 even back then,” says Mahmud. Poppat Jamal didn’t have that much money but the owner still gave him the business, asking him to repay when he could.
Poppat Jamal and Brothers opened shop in 1901. Till 1935, it remained a wholesale dealer of glassware, crockery and enamelware. “My grandfather called his brother from the village and they ran the business together. When their children joined, the name became Poppat Jamal and Sons,” he adds.
The company established one of the earliest glass factories in the country and the first in South India, Jamal Glass Works in Tondiarpet. This was used to make glass chimneys, which became so popular at one point that they were more expensive than the imported ones. “Most of our other products were imported. But now, things have changed and we also procure locally manufactured goods. People’s tastes are changing and as they grow more cosmopolitan, there is increased use of crockery and glassware in homes,” Mahmud says.
In the 1950s, when there was a clamp on imports, the owners (now Jamal and his brother’s sons) began to find Indian alternatives such as Bengal pottery. They opened offices in Vijayawada, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Cochin and Calicut. Now, only the Vijayawada and Chennai outlets (Adyar, Anna Nagar, Broadway and Mount Road) remain. They also got into distribution and worked with companies like Britannia. Gas distribution began in 1962, and continues till today. “When we started off, we had to give away free stoves to encourage people to buy gas,” laughs Mahmud, “and look at the situation now.”
Even if times have changed, some things stay the same, he feels. “We have very loyal customers who’ve been coming here for generations. There is this one lady in Yercaud who sends her son down here every time she needs something.”