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A cut above the rest

Meera Iyer, May 14, 2013, DHNS :
Class apart: the mosque in Ismail Sait's name.  (DH FILE Photo)

Hajee Sir Ismail Sait’s first commercial venture was a shop called the English Warehouse. He later diversified into a variety of businesses. By the early 1900s, Ismail Sait was one of the richest merchants, not just in Bangalore, but in all of south India.What distinguished this businessman from others like him was his contribution to the growth of Bangalore.

A large hospital, a mosque and a road in Bangalore bear the name of Hajee Sir Ismail Sait, one of a breed of successful yet large-hearted businessmen who helped build Bangalore with their generous contributions early in the last century.

Hajee Sir Ismail Sait was born on March 7, 1859 in Mysore. In 1870, his family moved to Bangalore. Four years later, when his father passed away, Ismail Sait, all of about 15 at the time, plunged into the business of buying and selling goods.


It was obviously something he had a flair for. His first commercial venture seems to have been an extremely successful shop called the English Warehouse, strategically located on St Mark’s Road, close to where his (mainly English) customers were. The shop sold all manner of goods from milk powder to machinery, everything imported from England. The shop flourished and soon, there were branches of English Warehouse in Chennai and Secunderabad too.

Quick diversification

Very quickly, Ismail Sait built on the success of his shop and diversified into an astonishing variety of businesses. At the age of 22, he became a director in the newly-established Carnatic Mills (which later merged with another mill to become the well-known Binny Mills). He owned and operated mines in Kolar Gold Fields and Shimoga. He supplied various provisions to the British army establishment in Bangalore, including horse gram. He traded in timber. He ran a distillery and a carbonic acid manufacturing unit in Calcutta. He also served as director in the Mysore Sandalwood Oil company, the Mysore Sugar company and the Bhadravathi Iron Works.

One of the interesting firsts to his name was his sale of kerosene in Chennai. Sriram V, who has authored several books on Chennai’s history, chronicles how in the 1880s, Ismail Sait was already importing kerosene from the USA and selling them in cans in Chennai. In ten years, he built up a network of branches and depots so that he was firmly entrenched in the trade. It was he who began the practice of selling kerosene in carts, a system which Sriram says endured till the 1970s.
By the early 1900s, Hajee Ismail Sait was one of the richest merchants not just in Bangalore but in all of south India.

Zaffar Sait, great-grandson of Ismail Sait, says business was in his blood. “We are basically a mercantile community,” he says, speaking of the Cutchi Memons, a clan that traces its roots to Kutch in Gujarat. Sixty-four year-old Sait’s grandmother, Amina Bi, was Ismail Sait’s daughter. Sait has been researching his illustrious ancestor the last few years and has discovered a wealth of connections, anecdotes and long-lost relatives, including some in Mauritius and England. Sait thinks that attention to detail must have been one of the reasons for his great-grandfather’s success. “Look at his will,” he says and chuckles, pointing out, by way of example, how Ismail Sait specified that if his grandson passed the ICS examinations for which he was preparing in London, he would be paid first class passage from London to India. But if he should fail, he would be paid only second class passage! 

But merely being successful in business was not the reason for honours being heaped upon Ismail Sait. Throughout his life, he donated generously to many causes. His most well-known act of charity was to donate Rs 1,50,000 towards the construction of the Gosha hospital in Bangalore, set up so that women who observed purdah could also avail of modern medical care. The hospital opened in 1925. He also donated the land and Rs 50,000 to build the mosque in Fraser Town that still bears his name.

Other lesser-known acts of charity include generous contributions to the Bowring, St Martha’s and Victoria hospitals in Bangalore, the KR Hospital in Mysore and hospitals in Chennai and Shimla; to the Aligarh Muslim University and Mysore University; to orphanages, schools, reading rooms and colleges in various parts of the country; and to several other organisations. Apart from this, he also provided invaluable help in relief works during the many plague and cholera outbreaks that Bangalore suffered in those days.

As an active member of the business community, in 1916, when the Chamber of Commerce was established in Bangalore (a year after Sir M Visvesvaraya had suggested it), Ismail Sait donated the money that allowed for the construction of new buildings for it.

Thrust on education

As Zaffar Sait points out, education seems to have been a subject very close to Ismail Sait’s heart. Apart from contributing to this cause during his lifetime, his estate still provides funds for scholarships for deserving Cutchi Memon students, and also maintains a school that he built.

It was for all his public service that in 1919, the Mysore Maharaja conferred on Hajee Ismail Sait the title Fakhr-ut-Tujjar, the Pride of Merchants, and in 1923, the British government conferred on him the rank of Knight Bachelor. Earlier, in 1911, he was nominated to the Legislative Council of the Government of Madras.

Ismail Sait’s heydays were also when the Independence movement was gaining ground around the country. Zaffar Sait says his grandmother recalled how people often gathered in front of the English Warehouse shop, protesting Ismail Sait’s business of importing and selling English goods.

Though he did not support the non-cooperation movement (among other things, he refused to give up his titles!), at the same time, Ismail Sait helped set up the Khilafat Committee in Bangalore. But personal differences amongst those involved led to him eventually distancing himself from the movement.

A prominent member of Bangalore society, Hajee Ismail Sait was given the honour of formally opening Russell Market in 1927. He was also a popular fixture in Bangalore’s racing circuit, being a race-horse owner and member of the Bangalore Race Club and the Mysore Race Club.

On his death in April 1934, Puttanna Chetty described him as an “estimable citizen” and “a warm friend, free from communal bias”. He added, “India and particularly Mysore are the poorer of his demise.”

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