In early sixties, a trader from Surat Gulam Rasool Chakkiwale would often come to Ujjain in search of western MP’s lavishly decorated havelis of old merchants and palaces of erstwhile princely rulers who wanted to sell off their belongings.
He would purchase old chandeliers, glass lampshades and other antique items from them to sell in Mumbai for a premium.
During one of his visits in 1962, Gulam Rasool hired a tonga (horse carriage) belonging to Abdul Gafur Tangewale to go a merchant’s haveli where he purchased glass lampshades.
Enamoured by the business, Tangewale accompanied Gulam Rasool to Mumbai in his next business trip.
“This is how my father was drawn into the antiques’ business. Since then, 25 members of our family, including my brothers, cousins, nephews have been in the business. My grandson Quiwaish Shah, 19, a class 10 student, is the fourth-generation trader,” said Abdul Hamid Shah, the 65-year old family patriarch who has been in the antiques trading business for half a century.
Today, this Tangewale family is leading the antiques trade in western MP.
Initially, the Shahs thrived due to the wealthy Boharas of Dahod — a town along the MP-Gujarat border — rich Marwari merchants and former royals from whom they purchased furniture, chandeliers, glass lampshades, books, traditional dresses, paintings, horse-carriages, coins to sell in Mumbai.
Gradually, their business spread across the country through a network of sellers, buyers, brokers and scrap dealers.
Though the business has suffered losses in last one half years, the family does not want to give up, in hope that it will bounce back soon.
“We sell small hosiery items to support our family but we have not shut shop,” said Abdul Hamid who joined his father’s business when he was 15.
Interestingly, Abdul Hamid’s training began with a scrap dealer with whom he would collect antiques disposed off as junk. He would then sell them off. “This was my father’s way of training me,” he said.
“But the business never made us rich. Our profit margin is below 10%, we obtain relevant papers to keep records clean,” said Hanif, Abdul Hamid’s brother.
“All the business is in cash and we don’t maintain account books. But we have nothing to hide because our business is not at a huge scale as you would find in Jodhpur, Delhi or Mumbai,” said Hanif’s middle school-pass nephew, Mohamed Shakir, 32. “Moreover, we contact sellers directly,” he added.
Though the Shahs live in modest houses in the city’s low-scale localities, they are well-connected as they know most former royals in the state and senior government officials, who are their customers.
Historian Ram Chandra Thakur, who has purchased ancient coins from Shah’s family, said that antique traders and scrap dealers have saved Indian heritage from destruction. “Without them, historians would not get enough research material,” he remarked.
These days, with business looking bleak, the family takes up contracts for removing old hand-carved wooden door frames, pillars and brackets from old havelis which are to be dismantled to make way for modern buildings.
“These are bought by the neo rich to decorate their houses,” Mohammed Shakir said, while pointing out that Indian antiques scattered across the country are in abundance, for which there will always be sellers and buyers.
“This is why we don’t want to close down our business,” said his uncle, Hanif Shah.