These days, I’m in the Chettiar Belt of Tamil Nadu which has for centuries been a hub of vibrant industry in the south. It is primarily known as a textile hub, with several export firms having based their businesses here. History has it that at one point of time the Chettiars were a vibrant business community of the south that once controlled business activity comparable to the scale of the more well known Marwaris who originated from Rajasthan. However, most of the Chettiars’ capital was locked up in Burma and the Japanese invasion of the country during the 2nd World War resulted in colossal losses and the community’s eventual marginalization.
While the Marwaris are the most well-known, the fabric of traditional business groups in India is more myriad. Although most of the traditional communities come within the Vaishya caste of the Varna (the Hindu caste system), there are non- Vaishyagroups as well. Subsequently, they’re often referred to as the Vaishya-plus communities. These communities (referred to as the Vaishya-plus communities) comprised of particular ethnic communities or castes and were distinguished from the rest on account of particular defining features.
The Gujarati Banias and Jains, the Marwaris of Rajasthan as well as the Banias and Jains from Punjab, Haryana and the greater Hindi heartland could be classified as the Bania cluster which most closely fits the Vaishya or mercantile community in the Hindu chaturvarna (four-order) system. The traditional communities also consisted of the Lohanas and Bhatias, hailing from Sindh and Gujarat (mainly Kutch and Kathiawar), the Nattukottai Chettiars, from the Sivaganga and Pudukottai districts of Tamil Nadu, the Parsis as well as the Memons, Khojas and Bohras – three Muslim commercial communities of Sindh-Gujarat. The lineages of these Muslim communities can be traced to the Lohanas and other Hindu trading castes, but by virtue of the religion, fall outside the chaturvarna hierarchy. The Lohanas, Bhatias and Chettiars do not categorically fall within the Vaishya class on account of the absence of a well-defined Kshatriya (warrior) class in either Sindh and Kutch-Kathiawar or the South of India. These Vaishya-plus communities not only enjoyed a differentiating scale of operations spread over large areas, but also followed distinct orthodox and conservative norms such as vegetarianism, rigid rules of marriage, so on and so forth. They dominated business until Independence in 1947.
There have been many structural changes in the societal fabric post Independence. Entrepreneurship, it appears, is increasingly breaking free of the boundaries of the traditional merchant communities to reflect individual entrepreneurial behavior. The diminishing presence of the once powerful Parsi business community (of which the Tatats, Wadias belong) is another such change.
An excellent reference for those interested in India’s modern business history is Harish Damodaran’s “India New Capitalists”. The book is the product of what appears to be an expansive and thorough research effort into India’s business history. He seeks to address three lacunae in Indian business history: the lack of adequate works on the current period, an absence of research on non-traditional mercantile classes and the contemporary literature’s negligence of businesses in the South. He brings in his journalistic style that breathes simplicity and lucidity into the documentation. The book has a brilliant reportage of facts, insightful analyses and intriguing anecdotes that enliven what could have otherwise been a tedious work of social history. It gives a penetrative sense of the nation’s history and can be recommended as an easy read even for one who is unfamiliar with the ethos of the Indian sub-continent.
I’d rate ‘India’s new capitalists’ as a seminal contribution to the field of Indian business in general, and business history in particular.