Another Charminar, another Golconda

Hyderabad City is known for its monument Charminar built in 1591. Smokers associate Charminar not with the city but with a brand of cigarettes. It is cheap and strong. Foreigners who have stayed in Hyderabad and tasted that brand want only one gift from here – a carton of Charminar cigarettes.

These cigarettes are products of one of the earliest industrial units set up in the feudal state of Hyderabad. It has a very interesting story behind it.

Vazir Sultan

In the early 1920’s, Mohd. Vazir and his elder son, Mohd. Sultan were running a distillery in the Narayanguda locality of the city. They were also auctioneers and traders. Being well off, they became close to the Nizam.

One Mohd. Abdus Sattar who was working in the Tobacco Manufacturers of India (TMI) tried twice to set up a factory of his own in Bangalore. Sattar came to Hyderabad and persuaded Vazir Sultan to do in Hyderabad what he could not do in Bangalore. He urged them to set up a unit for the manufacture of cigarettes in one of their godowns.

According to Nawab Shah Alam Khan who later married the only daughter of Sattar, it was Vazir Sultan who invited him to Hyderabad for helping starting a factory.

Nizam’s image

The Nizam not only gave permission to establish the factory, he also issued a firman giving the factory a monopoly of cigarette manufacturing in the state and exempting it from the customs duty on import of raw materials. The firm was also allowed to use the facsimile of the Nizam on the packets with ‘Shah Oman’ inscribed below it. In an order dated 12th October 1926 the Government cancelled the monopoly but extended the duty exemption by another two years.

In the same order, the firm was asked to substitute the legend of ‘Shah Osman’ with Shah Deccan’, and his picture with a facsimile of Charminar

Meanwhile due to the movement for the boycott of foreign goods started by Mahatma Gandhi in British India, the sale of cigarettes by ITC was affected adversely. The parent company, namely, BAT, explored the possibility of shifting some of the operations to a princely states where the movement was not strong. Their representative came to Hyderabad, contacted the Sultan family, and offered their collaboration to set up a factory in the city.

The Nizam objected to the proposal for the establishment of a factory in the State by a company with head office in British India. He agreed if the factory was directly connected to BAT in England. So a new company, Vazir Sultan was floated with majority share holding of 70 percent held by BAT. Out of the balance, the Sultan family took 20 percent shares and the Nizam’s government 10 percent. The new company was registered on 10th November 1930. At Azamabad, which was the first, Industrial Area established by the Government of Hyderabad. It had seven directors – two each representing the Sultan family, BAT, And The Government and one representing the shareholders making up seven in all. N.B. Chenoy; a trusty of the Nizam represented the shareholders. BAT asked the Chairman and the Finance Director of ITC to represent it. ITC gave the technical expertise. All the officers of VST were British. Diler Shah was the first Indian to become a covenanted officer of the company.

VST

Here again, there is a slight variation in the recollection of Shah Alam Khan. According to him, ITC tried through one Yakub Ali to manufacture cigarettes. He was able to get the Nizam’s permission. That brand was called ‘Arc Boat’. However that venture did not succeed. They then came to Mohd. Vazir and offered to buy his factory. The deal was struck at thirty lakh rupees. In addition, Vazir was given 25 percent of distributorship for 25 years. Sattar was not in favour of deal.

The new Vazir Sultan Company was thus incorporated. Simultaneously, Sattar, out of his share of the deal, set up the Golconda Factory. The composition of tobacco was 60 percent Virginia ‘Indian air-cured’ tobacco and 38 percent ‘pandulu gulla’ from Guntur. It was flavoured like the American tobacco. The formula for both the factories remains the same till today. The Golconda factory commanded at one time 40 percent of the market in Hyderabad. Now its share has gone down. However, it manufactures for VST and ITC.

The Nizam’s Special

The Sultans made special cigarettes for the Nizam. Once a day, a phaeton used to take a carton of ‘Charminar Specials’ for the Nizam. That carton was packed in a gold box, which was put in silver box, inside a metal box and finally in a wooden box.

The initial production was one million pieces a month. It grew to thirty million pieces and then three million pieces. Now it is …. The price per packet of ten was equivalent to three paise.

During the Second World War, VST produced cigarettes for the Army. That way they went to France and Russia.

After Vazir’s death his two sons, Mohd. Sultan and Abdul Hameed became directors. Mohd. Sultan was succeeded by his daughter Wazirunissa Begum. The family also was the sole distributor of the cigarettes. She was in turn succeeded by Abdul Hameed’s son.

The family was very rich. It neglected the education of the children. Diler Shah now a sprightly eighty plus recalls his meetings with Wazirunissa Begum. He used to advise her to educate the children so that they could continue and expand the business. She agreed with him on the need for education but expressed her helplessness before her recalcitrant children. The business was consequently mismanaged and the exclusive dealership of the family was not renewed when it expired.

VST became synonymous with Hyderabad. For a long time it was the leading industrial unit. There was no cultural event, which it did not sponsor fully or in part. Thus the hazard that tobacco posed to health according to the statutory warning in every packet, was more than mitigated by its identification with the cultural life of the city of culture. Lately, that image has been diluted.

The Golconda brand

Nawab Shah Alam Khan is now the owner of the Golconda Factory. Tall, fair, handsome and suave, in his seventies, he personifies the best in the old fading Hyderabadi charm. He is one of the respected figures of Hyderabad. He is associated with some social and educational organizations, and patronizes cultural events particularly related to Urdu. You have to wangle an invitation from him to taste the best Hyderabadi cuisine. He is fond of gardening and has a collection of vintage cars.

Tobacco may not be good for individual health. But for Hyderbad it meant the beginning of industrialization. And its manufacturers have been its good friends.

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