By John B Monteiro
Mangaluru, Oct 30: An hour-long documentary, 'Haji Abdullah (1882-1935)', who lived in Udipi (the present Udupi) and founded Corporation Bank (CorpBank), the first of the nationalised banks to be founded in Tulunadu, will be released at the MGM College campus on October 30, 2017. It will also be uploaded on YouTube.
Produced by ‘Being Social’ team, it is claimed to be the first documentary on Haji Abdullah that focuses on his life and achievements. It is interesting to recall the life of this colourful man, who founded CorpBank on March 12, 1906. Incidentally, Canara Bank, the second nationalised bank of the undivided district, was founded on July 1,1906 by Amembal Subba Rao.
Against this background, it is interesting to go back and highlight the life and role of the Founder – Khan Bahadur Haji Abdullah Haji Kasim Saheb Bahadur (Haji Abdullah).
Beginning of a vision
“The public are hereby informed that at a meeting of the principal residents of Udipi held on 11th and 18th instant it has been decided to start an Association styled ‘The Canara Banking Corporation (Udipi) Ltd.’ (after explaining the objects and advantages, the letter continued). It will thus be seen that the primary object in forming the ‘Corporation’ is not only to cultivate habits of thrift among all classes of people, without distinction of caste or creed, but also habits of co-operation among all classes. This is ‘Swadeshism’ pure and simple, and every lover of the country is expected to come forward and co-operate in achieving the end in view. All possible guarantee is offered by the rules for the safety of the funds and their good management. The business will be started from 16th March…”
This is an excerpt from the first official letter, dated February 19, 1906, written by Haji Abdullah under his signature sent to the public, mainly of Udipi. The bank was projected to start, and did, on March 16, 1906 under the title of 'Canara Banking Corporation (Udipi) Ltd.' – the first such bank in Tulunadu. The only other bank functioning then was the Mangalore Branch of Bank of Madras opened in 1868, the predecessor of today’s State Bank of India. That bank was elitist catering mainly to the whites and leading locals. Udipi was served through the visit of British Agent of the bank’s Mangalore Branch once a fortnight. The local system of raising loans comprising Holy, Kuri and Hundi was marked by high interest rates. It was in this context that Abdulla took the initiative to start a bank in Udipi.
Though a Muslim, Abdullah was highly regarded as a leading merchant and landholder. That is how he could carry with him the 12 first Directors of the bank which had only one other Muslim. He was the only Muslim among the 10 signatories to the Memorandum of Association sent for registration on May 13, 1906. But, he walked tall as Founder President of the bank from 1906 to 1929, with short breaks during his Haj pilgrimage. Abdullah brought to the bank not only his prestige and resources but also the participation of fellow Muslims, rich traders of the time, as shareholders of the bank. In 1908, community-wise, Muslims were the largest shareholders – 251 in number representing an amount of Rs.57,609. The other leading shareholders were Saraswaths, 850 (Rs.33,273); Gowd Saraswaths, 376 (Rs.33,003); Shivali, 299 (Rs.16,704); Catholics, 66 (Rs.6,172); and Protestants, 33 (Rs.1,309). Thus, at its very inception the bank had acquired a cosmopolitan character.
It is significant to note that the first office of the bank was started in a portion of Abdullah’s palatial mansion in Udipi. The founders of banks are so gratefully remembered that some banks, like the Founders Day is annually celebrated by Vijaya Bank with the twin display of the portraits of its founder, Attavar Balakrishna Shetty (1882-1960), Founder-Chairman, and Mulki Sunder Ram Shetty (1915-1981),Architect of Modern Vijaya Bank. As for Abdullah, a street next to his mansion is named after him and to mark the centenary of Corporation Bank, his statue has been unveiled in Udipi. His photo is featured on the Bank’s Annual Reports.
Born with a golden spoon
According to the late M. V. Kamath, who wrote the bank’s history, Corporation Bank – A Corporate Journey, Abdullah was a Deccani Muslim and possibly of Turkish origin whose ancestors had migrated from the Deccan to South Kanara. His father, Haji Kasim Haji Budan Saheb, was a rich landlord. Abdullah had no children. His family owned large tracts of agricultural land in the district. His share of wealth was about 1,000 murrahs of rice annually. He was the sole distributing agent for Wimco matches for the whole of the then Madras Presidency. He traded in dried fish in partnership with the head of the fishing community of Malpe (Madhwaraj). He also traded in dry fruits imported from Arabia. His family lived lavishly. Kamath, quoting (also the late) A. Wahab Doddamane in his book Muslims of South Kanara, refers to how Abdullah’s father celebrated his eldest son’s circumcision ceremony by feeding members of all communities with their own special brand of food. Brahmins were given dakshine (monetary presents) on the occasion. Abdullah’s father had the reputation of distributing one murrah of rice every day to the poor and needy.
Man of varied interests
Abdullah was the first in Udipi to own a car. He was said to be the first one to introduce coffee as the breakfast drink. This fashion started by Abdullah has taken Udipi (a brand name now) far as hoteliers to the nation and beyond. Unlike Muslims of the time, he attended regular secular schools and passed SSLC. He was a well-read man, enjoyed Hindusthani classics and patronised Hindusthani musicians. He lived a disciplined life going out for walks in the morning and playing tennis in the evening. He presided over a meeting addressed by Mahatma Gandhi, during his visit to Mangalore on August 19, 1920, at the Central Maidan. He held public offices from Panchayat level to Madras Legislative Council. He was a member of Central Legislature and visited Delhi often. He was conferred by the government the title of Khan Saheb in 1909 and Khan Bahadur in 1920.
Philanthropist to the core
Abdullah’s generosity knew no bounds. But, at the end, his unbound charity was his undoing. After he relinquished his Presidentship of the bank in 1929, hard times overtook him and he went deeper and deeper into debt. Some said that Abdullah’s generosity exceeded his wisdom. Abdullah, who once lived like a king in a palatial house and bestowed his generosity on others, had gone broke. The turn of events had unnerved him completely.
On the morning of August 12, 1935, he was found lying unconscious in his bed. Doctors tried to revive him in vain. He was 53 years at the time of his death. People from all over the district rushed to Udipi in their thousands to pay their homage. Many had been at one time or another recipients of his largesse or witness to his kindness. Brahmins and untouchables mixed freely on that day. Shopkeepers voluntarily observed a 'hartal' on two successive days. It was a spontaneous tribute to Udipi’s most loved and highly respected citizen.
It is apt that he is remembered on modern media and the producers of the documentary deserve kudos.