During the nineteenth century, South Asian businessmen began to engage in modern forms of philanthropy. Focusing on the western Indian city of Surat, this essay explores the emergence of philanthropic activity within the larger “portfolios” of gift giving held by indigenous merchants from roughly 1600 to 1924. Throughout this period, Hindu and Jain commercial magnates employed gifts as means both of building up their reputations (ābrū) within high-caste society and of fostering stable ties with political overlords. Local merchants continuously adjusted their charitable choices to changes in the ideology of these overlords as they sought to obtain influence with and honors from the ruling power. Involvement in philanthropy reflected a “negotiated” accommodation to Victorian values through which elite merchants maintained a relatively secure commercial and political environment in the context of late nineteenth-century British rule. When government policies seriously threatened their ābrū during World War I, however, local traders began to view donations to the Indian National Congress as an alternative method of conserving status and credit.

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