The patriarch of Bahrain’s Kewalram clan, Baboo Kewalram, talks to Behnaz Sanjana about his family’s history and achievements over more than a century.
When we came here, there were no schools, and houses had very limited electricity.”
It was 1888 when Damordardas Kewalram stepped onto Bahrain’s shores to dabble in pearling. “He was later joined by his son, and my father, Haridas,” says Baboo Kewalram, chairman of Kewalram & Sons Co WLL. “They would finance divers to source pearls for trading in those days.”
Circumstance led Damodardas to return to Thatta, a city near Karachi, in the then undivided India. With the reins in his hands, Haridas ventured into foodstuffs and thereafter into textiles, establishing Kewalram & Sons, the first of many outlets, that still stands in Manama’s souq.
A freshly graduated twenty-year-old, Baboo boarded a ship to Bahrain in 1955. He says: “By this time, our family had left Thatta and moved to Bombay [now Mumbai]. My brother, Sunder, had already joined our father here. The journey had five stopovers over 10 days.” He recalls that the area that is now Bab Al Bahrain was a jetty in the sea, where small boats would dock. Large vessels would anchor away from the shore, and dhows would bring passengers to land.
“My job was at the textile retail shop. Early in the morning, I would go to clear our goods from customs. That way I learnt what we were importing, and at what prices, so I knew our stock well. By 9am, I would be at the shop, meeting customers. I used to know everybody around me then as the souq was a much smaller market than now. Over the weekends, customers from Saudi Aramco were our regular clientele.”
He reminisces: “When we came here, there were no schools, and houses had very limited electricity. No refrigeration or air-conditioning, of course. In the summers, we would splash water on the terrace at night, to go and sleep there. Donkeys used to carry sweet water to households from a source in Salmaniya.”
The enterprise soon diversified into jewellery, home electronics and appliances, security systems and, most recently, real estate, with 10 outlets spanning the Kingdom. It associates with world-famous brands such as Titan, Casio, VIP and Carlton luggage, Commax, Brother, Black & Decker and all the top textile names in Japan and India. The Kewalrams are also managing partners of Bahrain’s Quality Education School and have textile operations even in the UAE.
While tending to a flourishing business, the family has significantly contributed to the community, both local and expatriate. “My father was involved in founding the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI),” remembers the octogenarian.
Following in the late Haridas’s footsteps, Baboo has held a top post in the Asian wing of the BCCI. He was instrumental in founding the Indian Community Relief Fund, a body formed under the aegis of Bahrain’s Indian Embassy for the benefit of blue-collared Indians, and has been its vice chairman. For 35 years he has held the post of chairman of the committee in charge of the 200-year-old Shri Krishna Hindu temple in Manama.
Speaking of their relations with Bahrain’s Royal Family, Baboo says: “If Sunder and I would be absent from the Amir of Bahrain, Shaikh Isa’s majlis every Sunday, he’d ask about us. In 1975, when my father was ill, Shaikh Mohammed, the Amir’s younger brother, happened to be visiting someone in the same hospital in India. He would come to see my father every day, and, when he [the father] passed on, he came all the way to our family home to give us his condolences. Which royal does that? When we lost Sunder to a plane crash in 1988, Shaikh Isa called us in Bombay to express his condolences. My nephew, Kishore, and I were asked to see him on our return. He told Kishore to consider him a father figure, and to reach out to him whenever in need. We were most touched by his gesture. Bahrain and its people have made us immensely happy.”
We cherish our close ties with the benevolent rulers of the country. The Crown Prince of Bahrain ensures he visits our home on the festive occasion of Diwali. The Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa has popped into the office when in the vicinity only to see my uncle. That is the beauty of the nation’s leaders. Nowhere else will we find such acceptance as we do here.
- Kishore Kewalram (nephew) managing director
The foundation laid by the pioneering generation gives us the platform to innovate, expand and grow the business to an enterprise we could never have imagined 40 years ago. We aspire to be one of the best organisations in Bahrain, providing premium products, services and value to people here, with the aim of representing Bahrain globally. We have a very strong emotional connection to this land and we believe our strength comes from investing in people and the bonds that we have developed. The lasting goodwill that we have earned is what we value the most.
- Raj Kewalram (grandson), director