Did you know that the Haji Sobiruddin Road in the Paltan Bazar area of Guwahati is named after one of the founders of the iconic Shaikh Brothers? Did you also know that Shaikh Brothers was the first bakery to open in Guwahati, way back in 1885? A big part of Guwahati’s heritage, it is difficult to escape the aroma of baked goodies from Shaikh Brothers whenever you pass through the HB Road of Panbazar.
130 years ago, an enterprising youth named Shaikh Golam Ibrahim came from the Hoogly district of West Bengal to start a construction business, when the Guwahati-Shillong (GS) Road was being rebuilt by Maula Baux, a noted contractor of that time. Several Britishers were settled in Assam during that time, both officers and planters alike. When Golam Ibrahim reached Guwahati, he realized the potential for a bakery business in the town.
At that point, the Ibrahim family already had a well-established bakery business in Calcutta. In fact, some of the best bakers of the colonial rule had come from the Hoogly district of Bengal. But in the early 1880s, a plague epidemic killed thousands in Calcutta and affected the business. It was then that Golam Ibrahim decided to diversify his business beyond Calcutta so he came and settled in Guwahati with his family. His first venture here was a soda-water making plant in Panbazar. Encouraged by its success, he wanted to expand it to a bakery business as the family already had the expertise.
Together with his elder brother Shaikh Sobiruddin, he established Shaikh Brothers in 1885. A bakery business was a relatively new concept in Assam then, but the challenge of introducing something new to the region, along with additional factors such as the number of British settlers and the emergence of the middle class, convinced the brothers to take the risky step.
Though their vision bore fruit eventually, it took a considerable amount of time for the then orthodox society of Guwahati to accept western style delicacies like bread loaves, biscuits, cakes, pastries and the like. Some religious taboos also stood in the way. But planters from Upper and Lower Assam ensured a steady clientele, and they were also the ones to deliver the first bakery products to the chief commissioner’s house in Shillong (present Raj Bhavan).
A lot of the ingredients that went into making the delicacies were exported. Wheat and cheese were imported from Australia. Hoves (a type of yeast for fermentation) came from Belgium. Cashew nuts came from Goa, dry dates and raisins from North India and Peshawar etc.
From 1905, special boxes were daily dispatched in horse-drawn carriages to the Governor’s House. All the successive governors were the bakery’s early patrons and regular clients. The Assam Gazette published a notification announcing Shaikh Brothers as the official suppliers to the Assam Government around the same time. Personal letters of appreciation from the governors used to adorn the walls of the bakery till the 1960s. Elite visitors like Tarun Ram Phukan, Rohini Choudhury, Dr Bhubaneshwar Barua, Jnandabhiram Barua and many others used to regularly visit the shop.
The next generation of Shaikhs namely Shaikh Khuda Hafez, Shaikh Ali Hussain and Shaikh Sultan Hussain decided to diversify the business. The octogenarians of the city still remember the brothers for their excellent disposition. Khuda Hafez and Ali Hussain gave their heart and soul to give the old bakery its present shape. They re-modelled the Assam-type structure into what it is today. The store also dealt with textiles, hardware, shoes, medicines and general provisions. They also had export-import licenses for Westend wristwatches. But the bakery goodies were never compromised.
In the previous Assam-type structure, the shop was divided into a showroom and a workshop by a curtain. The workshop had huge ovens, which emitted a thick column of smoke, channelled through a big chimney. This thick column of smoke served as a directional beacon for boatmen on the Brahmaputra River as it could be seen from a long distance.
All the employees from the shop have been working there for a long time. One of the old workers Gulu Mistri was from Burma and had a special knack for making Cheese Straws. Cheese Straws are a savoury delicacy and still remains one of their most popular items. Another crowd-favourite is the fruit cake. Apart from that, they also offer newer items like patties, pizza, burgers etc. Some of the current employees like Shaikh Sultan Ali and Asgar Ali have been working here for around 40 years or longer. Although some of the old employees like Gulu Mistri, Abul Hussain are no more, their legacy remains.
The present managing partners – Shaikh Khoda Nawaz, Shaikh Sakhawat Hussain, Shaikh Khaleque Nawaz, Shaikh Malique Nawaz, Shaikh Ajijul Hussain, Shaikh Ajmal Hussain, and Shaikh Arfan Hussain (members of the extended family) are determined to keep the goodwill that their predecessors had built up. One of the secrets of their success is honesty. Offering quality service to the customers is their unofficial motto, they have continued to provide their century-old home delivery service to a selective clientele of Central Guwahati even today.
In the words of the present proprietor, Shaikh Altaf Hossain, ‘This historical bakery is an important part of Guwahati’s heritage. It has seen the small town of Guwahati transform into a thriving metropolis and has also contributed in its growth.’
Words- Payel Bhattacharjee