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The term ‘Bengali entrepreneur’ was perceived as a contradiction in terms in the not too distant past. Growing up during the heady days of Leftist ideology, one could sense the disdain and apathy towards commerce and trade. Today the expression ‘Bengali entrepreneur’ connotes something of a distorted notion of commerce and enterprise with the recent spate of financial chit funds scams, scandals, proliferation of dubious businesses like financial Ponzi schemes, real estate and arrests of Bengali businesspersons.

Flamboyant wealthy millionaires and billionaires hailing from Bengal create headlines from the precincts of prisons rather than corporate boardrooms. The current climate of Bengal business and entrepreneurship is rift with cynicism and disenchantment. The notion of business and commerce is associated often in the popular psyche of Bengal with guile and acquisitive profiteering; sole driver for business being the easy and quick path to the riches. While the rest of India marches ahead in vibrant sectors of IT, dotcom startups, renewable energies and high-tech engineering, Bengal seems to be falling behind.  Although there would be isolated glorious instances of high-end, high-tech entrepreneurship, but this would be more of an exception.

Sometimes we have to turn the pages of history to seek answers for the future, as evident in the wonderful French saying, ‘reouler pour mieux sauter’ roughly translated as sometimes one has to take a step back for moving forward.  Here I turned to the annals of Bengal’s history to seek glorious instances of entrepreneurship and specifically high-tech entrepreneurship; high-tech entrepreneurship being defined here as businesses engaged in sectors which deploy new technologies and processes for new emergent products. Similarly, in this context, high-end product categories would include those that require higher levels of engineering expertise and skills for manufacturing.

Bengali enterprises arose during the early 20th century as ‘Swadeshi endeavours’ and sought to establish a manufacturing and industrial foothold in colonial India. This was a time when most of the industrial and business infrastructure were in the grips of the imperial economic exploitative machinery who were aided by the objective of the British colonial administration to keep Indian economy under-developed. One can rattle off many distinguished household names of this line of Swadeshi entrepreneurs, like Martin Burn of Sir Biren Mookerjee, Bengal Chemicals of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray being the grandees.

Apart from these twin jewels, there were Calcutta Chemical Company in the domain of chemicals, Bengal Immunity and Dey’s Chemicals in the domain of pharmaceuticals, Bengal Lamps in the domain of electric lightning products, Bengal Waterproof in the domain of rubber and household products like raincoats and schoolbags, Bande Mataram in the domain of matches, Banga Laxmi Cotton Mills in the domain of textiles, Sen Raleigh in bicycles, and Gwalior Potteries in ceramic potteries.  

Intriguingly, the sectors in which these Bengali entrepreneurial companies were foraying were chemicals, bicycles, potteries, textiles, pharmaceuticals, rubber products, electric lamps, construction engineering, personal care products and not financial services, extractive industries like mining or agro-resources based like tea or jute.  

To comprehend the size and impact of some of these enterprises, consider the fact that the Mookerjees were the third largest business group in India till the mid-1960s, and Bengal Chemicals was one of the largest chemical and pharmaceutical companies in India, and was considered the progenitor of the Indian pharmaceutical drug industry.

It is important to acknowledge that the sectors in which most Bengali entrepreneurs were active were high-tech by the standards of the day, i.e. they were innovative, high-risk and emergent—forerunners of today’s start-ups.  Several of these companies were the first in the field to foray into manufacturing the products which till then were being imported, for instance, bicycles, waterproofs, electric lamps and electric fans. The founder of Sen Raleigh was instrumental in popularizing the concept of bicycles as means of personal transport for ordinary Indians and bringing bicycle to the masses, when it was mostly a luxury item. Waterproofs were being imported into India and were prohibitively expensive, making it beyond the reach of most individuals with modest means till Surendra Mohan Bose started his Bengal Waterproof ‘Duckback’ venture which manufactured them indigenously.

The same holds true for electric lamps which were restricted to urban areas introduced by foreign investors and then came Bengal Lamps. In a short while, Bengal Lamps earned accolades for its superior quality and affordable price. In 1930s, Calcutta Fan Works was set up with K. Chuckerbutty as Managing Director for localized manufacture of electric fans.  

Most of these entrepreneurs had to chart undefined, unpredictable territories since there was no available marketplace for these pioneering products which were being manufactured for the first time in India by indigenous entrepreneurs. Hence these Bengali Swadeshi entrepreneurs had to navigate the uncertainties of the marketplace, lack of access to financial capital for high-risk ventures, and the task of translating their technological ideas into tangible products for consumers, from drawing board to the finished part.

However, one oft-ignored dimension of the Swadeshi entrepreneurship is the profile of these Bengali Swadeshi entrepreneurs which should be a source of inspiration for the next generation of aspiring businesspersons of Bengal; for, they were marked by distinguished professional qualifications and a tireless pursuit of research and development.

Many of these Bengali entrepreneurs were highly educated, technically competent professionals who defied the ancient logic of a ‘Bhadralok’ being averse to trade and commerce and wary of plunging into risky ventures. Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray of Bengal Chemicals fame held a distinguished qualification in Chemistry with doctorate from University of Edinburgh and a track record of working in research and development.  Surendra Mohan Bose of Bengal Waterproof was educated at Berkeley and Stanford Universities in the US and Kiran Shankar Roy of Bengal Lamps attended Oxford University.   

Besides, and most significantly, they engaged in tireless pursuit of research and development and made strenuous efforts to develop new products and technologies. In other words, they were profound innovators.. Surendra Mohan Bose formulated a process indigenously sans any foreign collaboration for manufacturing waterproofs known as the ‘Duckback’. Acharya P.C. Ray experimented in his own laboratory, which was the outhouse at his residence at Upper Circular Road with various products prior to initiating his industrial venture with pharmaceutical preparations.  

Bengal Immunity pioneered manufacturing anti-toxins in tropical conditions, which came as a surprise to most Europeans. There were innumerable applicants for patents from Bengal during the early 20th century (1912-1943). According to Professor Dipen Sanyal, treasurer and trustee of IISWBM (a prestigious business school located in Kolkata):

‘Many of these Swadeshi entrepreneurs were driven by the zeal and aspiration to demonstrate that Indians can manufacture and build a home-grown industrial base rather than sheer pursuit of profits or seeking riches. Making profits was not the sole drive for many of these entrepreneurs launching new products and technologies.’

What lessons does it offer for today’s Bengal? The key lesson is to abandon any feelings of victimhood, resentment and grudge and embrace the new opportunities being offered by a globalized, interconnected economic world order. There is a plethora of sectors like pharmaceuticals, renewable energy solutions, information technology, green technologies for ecological solutions like water preservation and public transportation solutions like electric vehicles which can ignite the imagination and zeal of young Bengali entrepreneurs.  

The contemporary technological and global economic landscapes offer far more lucrative and congenial opportunities to plunge into entrepreneurial ventures with technologies, higher content of services through consulting, access to risk-finance like venture capital and access to global markets than was the case for the predecessors of Swadeshi enterprises.

Today an aspiring entrepreneur doesn’t require huge capital investments and resources in terms of land and factory to foray into cutting-edge sectors with an ingenious idea, courtesy the vibrant services and consulting sector. Let not the aspiring Bengali entrepreneurs be mired in dubious financial schemes as a means to affluence and prosperity but look at the broader horizon of new technologies and solutions, and be inspired by the rich legacy of their forefathers, moving forward with inspiration from the past.