The life of JRD (1904-93) spanned almost the whole of the twentieth century. He was born in Paris and he died in Geneva. In between, he spent over seventy years of his working life in India. During that period, he brought to India the gift of civil aviation in 1932 and later, in 1948, helped the country spread her wings abroad by launching Air-India International. Thirty years later, when he was removed as Chairman of Air-India, the Daily Telegraph (27 February 1978) of London, among others, credited him with making Air-India one of the world's most successful airlines. Had he achieved nothing else his place in India's hall of fame would still have been secure; but he did far more.
For fifty-two years he was Chairman of the largest industrial group in India – Tata – which produced everything from steel and electric power to chemicals and automobiles. Apart from Air-India (which was nationalised), Tata Chemicals and TELCO, both started under his Chairmanship, became two of India's top ten companies in both sales and assets.
On the social scene, he was the first national voice to call for family planning. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru disagreed with him and said that the country's strength was its people. Undeterred, for forty years he pursued a campaign to promote family planning, especially through the agency he founded – the Family Planning Association of India. Belated recognition came to him for this effort: the last of the many international awards he received was the U.N. Population Award. Two national institutions – the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the National Centre for the Performing Arts (N.C.PA.) – were started because of his support and vision. A third, the National Institute of Advanced Studies, was inaugurated by him two years before he died.
For thirty years, JRD raised his voice against the misguided policies of a controlled economy that stunted the country's industrial growth and destroyed his own dreams for India's industrial future. Once, when I entered his office, even before I could sit down, he said, 'You know, Russi, my life has been a struggle – never once has any Prime Minister asked me what I thought of the economic policy of the country.' Sadly, he added, 'In no other country would this have happened.'
Nevertheless, undaunted, he articulated his convictions whenever it was appropriate. He said: 'I felt that if my small voice in the national economic debate could arouse public opinion, it was my duty to use it to oppose the outdated and sterile form of socialism which successive governments insisted on inflicting on the country year after year despite all the contrary evidence and experience in India and elsewhere in the world.' It was only after three decades that he could perceive a chink in the government's rusted armour of socialism and controls. Speaking at the age of eighty-two at the launch of the first edition of Keynote in Delhi in 1986, he said: 'My one sorrow and regret is that the Government had, from Jawaharlal Nehru onwards, and at least upto a couple of years ago, not allowed many of us imbued with enthusiasm and hope to do enough. Today things have changed and now the last sorrow of mine is that I have reached an age where I am not likely to be able to participate purposefully in the better things that are happening, the better progress and the quicker progress that I visualise.' He concluded: 'I only wish that I'll be spared long enough to see that we are on the march.'
He was spared long enough to hear, five years later, the budget speech of July 1991 by the Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, which liberated India's economy from the shackles of the past. Soon after the budget speech, I remarked that it must have been gratifying to see what he had battled for at last being accepted by the Government. He took no credit; he felt that the bankruptcy of the Government's policies had made them take a U-turn and that his unflagging battle had had little to do with the new thinking and policy.
Though often distressed at the way the country was going, his spirit remained buoyant until almost the last hundred days of his life because he found fulfilment in creative achievement, and he continued to achieve where others might have faltered.
He once told me, 'I've made sure that I don't have much money.' In 1944, when he was only forty years old, he gave part of his wealth to the JRD Tata Trust, which had disbursed well over ten million rupees to charity in his lifetime. Every penny of the Trust came from him. Money was never the driving force of his life. What propelled him was the joy of achievement. Let me illustrate this. He undertook two flights to commemorate the thirtieth and fiftieth anniversary of his launching of civil aviation in India. Few people would have attempted the first flight, but to do the second was nothing short of extraordinary. For, in 1982, when he 're-enacted' the fiftieth anniversary flight from Karachi to Bombay in a single-engine Leopard Moth, he was seventy-eight years old. On landing he told the crowd that had assembled to greet him, This flight of mine today was intended to inspire a little hope and enthusiasm in the younger people of our country...When they are seventy-eight – and I hope they all will live at least to seventy-eight – they will feel like I do, that despite all the difficulties, all the frustrations, there is a joy in having done something as well as you could and better than others thought you could.'
Unusually, his joy lay not only in what he personally achieved, but also in the achievement of the other individuals whom he had groomed and who worked for him. When he stepped down after fifty-two years as Chairman of Tata Sons, the press noted that he was the only eminent industrialist in the country who had nurtured, within his own organisation, people who had grown into corporate giants in their own right.
As we've seen earlier, JRD's joy of achievement extended beyond the ambit of business to the institutions he helped create. Significant among them was the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (T.I.F.R.), where he stood beside Dr. Homi Bhabha as Bhabha shaped 'the cradle of India's atomic energy programme'. His belief that without art and music man is incomplete, resulted in his support to Homi's brother Jamshed Bhabha for the creation of the N.C.P.A. In addition to these two was the part he played in the foundation of the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore.
He had the vision to perceive the power of atomic energy before Hiroshima.
He wrote: Although nuclear physics is today still in the realm of pure science, physicists already believe that within a relatively short period of time, this branch of physics will make available to man a new, immense and inexhaustible source of motive power. [Then he conceived it for generation of electric power.] She has men of world renown like Homi Bhabha, Chandrashekhar and others, and given proper facilities she is more than capable of holding her own.'
Laying the foundation stone for the Tata Theatre at the N.C.P.A. in Bombay JRD explained, 'We turned to the field of arts, already having covered medical relief, science and education, because we felt that there was a special need for it in this country where the great classical heritage in drama, music and dancing, what you call the performing arts, is gradually in the process of disappearing.' Whereas in other countries of the world these arts are recorded either in writing – or these days on tape or record – and of course the plastic arts, the non-performing arts, are all recorded in stone, paintings, etc., Indian art and music, dancing and drama were not recorded and were passed on from guru to shishya, master to pupil. With the gradual erosion of the classical tradition, the work of the masters that was still alive was gradually dying out. The first task of the National Centre was to preserve and record the heritage, such of it as is available today, and the second task, of course, was to promote, as far as possible, a renaissance of Indian dramatic arts, the performing arts as we call them.
JRD was also the first leading industrialist to recognise the responsibilities of business towards rural uplift. Speaking at a meeting at Madras in 1969 he said: 'Let industry established in the countryside "adopt" the villages in its neighbourhood; let some of the time of its managers, its engineers, doctors and skilled specialists be spared to help and advise the people of the villages and to supervise new developments undertaken by co-operative effort between them and the company. Assistance in family planning in the villages would be a particularly valuable form of service. None or little of this need be considered as charity. The benefits of such a joint venture will no doubt initially flow chiefly to the village, but it is also clearly in the interests of industry that surrounding areas should be healthy, prosperous and peaceful.'
To put JRD's ideas into action, the Articles of Association of leading Tata Companies were amended and social obligations beyond the welfare of their own employees were accepted as part of the objectives of the companies in question.
Clearly, JRD was interested in other people rather than in his own self. For those he didn't know, he had a smile. 'The trouble is,' he would say, 'we don't smile enough. When I am driving in the car, and a person appears to recognise me, I look at that person and smile. This makes him happy and does not cost me anything.' He snatched joy from the little moments of life we often let pass in our preoccupation with ourselves. And the fact that his joy was selfless, in that he wanted others to feel joyful as well, is amply illustrated by the following example.
Hearing that an American economist had noted that India could be an 'economic super power' in the next century, JRD told an audience simply, 'I don't want India to be an economic super power. I want India to be a happy country.'
Whatever he touched, he adorned. His mother tongue was French; he loved the language and was good at it. When he settled in India in his early twenties, he decided that he would master the English language, and this he did. And he never relaxed in this endeavour. Until the very end, he took endless trouble to select the exact words he needed to express his thoughts. When he took to flying, he read almost all the books he could get hold of on aviation in the 1920s. When he began to play golf, he read books on golf. When he decided to learn tennis and bridge, he studied material on the two games. JRD never did things by halves, but always wanted to excel. In 1942 JRD was tempted to participate actively in the freedom struggle. But he held himself back. His role was to forge the economic independence of India.
He recalls that at Independence, when he was forty-three, he was much enthused. 'I had tremendous dreams and expectations of cooperation between the private sector and the Government.' But his dreams did not come true, except with Air-India International in 1948.
JRD Tata was a product of two continents. His father, R. D. (Ratanji Dadabhoy) Tata, was a cousin and colleague of Jamsetji Tata, the man who brought the industrial revolution to India, giving it steel, hydro-electric power and high-level technological education. His mother, who he was devoted to, was French.
Born in Paris in 1904, JRD schooled in Paris, Bombay and Yokohama. He also attended an English Crammer school briefly, in order to improve his English. It was not until he was twenty-one that he settled down in India. It is just as well that R.D. Tata refused JRD an extension in the army. Soon after JRD left for India, the regiment was transferred to Morocco and in a battle they were killed to the last man. Till the end of his life the fact that he was not sent to Cambridge (where a seat was reserved for him) and recalled by his father to India rattled JRD. He said it gave him 'an inferiority complex'.
Upon returning to India, JRD was inducted into the House of Tatas for training in 1925. About nine months later, in 1926, his father died and he became a director of the largest industrial house of India, whose interests ranged from steel and electric power to soap and textiles.
'Because of a lack of technical knowledge, my main contribution in management was to encourage others,' he said in an interview He elaborated on how he dealt with each man in his own way and brought out the best in people. 'At times it involved suppressing yourself. It is painful but necessary.' He added, 'To lead men, you have to lead them with affection.'
When JRD was thirty-four, the then Chairman of Tatas died suddenly. Three of the senior directors met and elected young JRD to be Chairman of the parent company, Tata Sons. When I asked him why they elected him at such a young age, he replied modestly, 'It was a case of mental aberration.' It was usual for the Tata Chairman to head all the Tata companies. JRD discontinued that practice and kept in his charge only those companies where he felt his presence was essential.
Bleriot, the first man to fly across the English Channel, had a house on the coast of France near R.D. Tata's house. Bleriot's pilot, who used to land a small plane on the beach nearby, once gave JRD a joy ride. It was then that the fifteen-year-old boy decided that one day he too would fly. He had to wait ten years for it to happen.
In 1929, JRD passed out of flying school with No. 1 on his licence. He was the first Indian pilot. A year later he competed for the Aga Khan Trophy. It was offered for the first Indian to fly solo from India to England or vice versa. When he landed at Aboukir Bay in Egypt, he found that Aspy Engineer, the other contender, who was flying from London to Karachi, was stranded for want of a spark plug. JRD sportingly parted with his spare one and they continued their journey in opposite directions. Aspy beat him by a couple of hours. 'I am glad he won,' said JRD, 'because it helped him get into the Indian Air force.' Later, Aspy was to be the second Indian to be Chief of the Indian Air Force.
JRD was to have a few other adventures. In the early 1930s, a daring Englishman called Nevill Vintcent came to India and travelled the country offering joy rides in a small plane. He suggested to JRD that they start an airline. That was JRD's dream, too. Sir Dorab was persuaded to agree and Tata Airlines was launched as a division of Tata Sons.
'One October morning as the sun rose on the eastern horizon, a single-engined Pussmoth plane took off from Karachi with a load of mail for Bombay. As the plane hummed and rose the pilot said a word of prayer,' recalled JRD, who was at the controls that day. And so India's first airline was inaugurated.
The airline he pioneered later blossomed into Air-India International and in 1948, in a joint venture with the Indian Government, JRD launched Air-India's first overseas route to London. In the beginning Air-India's office was housed in a caravan at the airport in London. Over the next thirty years, under JRD's constant care, it grew into one of the world's finest airlines.
When asked: 'What has been the most satisfying experience of your life?' JRD replied, 'The flying experience has dominated and no other can equal the excitement of the first solo flight. Next is Air-India, where I had the freedom to do what I wanted. In a way it was the really big thing that I started.' He was being modest. It was he who started TELCO, which reached staggering heights and now commands seventy per cent of the heavy vehicle market in India. Other Tata companies that he was especially close to were Tata Sons and Tata Steel where he began his career.
JRD sought satisfaction in many other ways. All his life he was keen on physical fitness and he took the trouble to exercise until 1987. His motivation was to keep fit for skiing till he fell off a ski cable car –'a stupid accident' he called it – and suffered a hairline fracture. He played tennis and especially golf till his mid-seventies. He was proud he took up skiing at forty, an age when people normally retire from the sport, and continued to ski until he was eighty-four years old. As a young man he loved fast cars and drove round Bombay in his Bugatti which was a racking model without mudguards. If aviation had not claimed him, it is likely he might have contemplated competing in Grand Prix events.
Despite his ability to keep himself engaged, nothing dulled JRD's sensitivity to human suffering and to the subhuman conditions in which many of his fellow citizens existed. Once, when he saw a poor man crossing a road in Bombay, he said to me, 'Look at that poor man carrying probably all his belongings on his head.'
He yearned to be a fountain of living water to those less fortunate than himself and this was reflected in the scale and extent of his philanthropic activities. Among other concerns, he felt deeply about the condition of women in India and a couple of years before he died he established a Trust of his own called the J.R.D. and Thelma J. Tata Trust to ameliorate the condition of women.
Rewards, decorations and other forms of recognition were not something he craved for, yet his work in every field he involved himself in was so exemplary that the honours poured in. He was the recipient of the Daniel Guggenheim Award and some of the highest awards in aviation. The Bharat Ratna, his country's highest civilian decoration, was bestowed upon him in 1992.
When the BBC announced his death in Geneva on 29th November 1993, it called JRD 'the legendary Indian industrialist'. Yet, for all his worldly power and glory, to those who knew him he was a warm-hearted, caring human being. 'I want to be remembered,' he had said, 'as an honest man who did his duty.'
An excerpt from The Joy of Achievement: Conversations with
JRD Tata by R.M. Lala (Penguin, 1995)