His mother was the first woman in India to drive a car and, in , he became the first licensed pilot in India. In , he was awarded the French Legion of Honour and in and , he received two of India's highest civilian awards the Padma Vibhushan and the Bharat Ratna. These honours were bestowed on him for his contributions to Indian industry. His sister's sister-in-law, Rattanbai Petit , was the wife of Muhammad Ali Jinnah , who later became the founder of Pakistan in August Their daughter, Dina Jinnah , was married to Neville Wadia , a notable businessman. As his mother was French, he spent much of his childhood in France and as a result, French was his first language.
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By using our website you agree to our policies. But that was only one of many path-breaking achievements of JRD, who guided the destiny of the Tata group for more than half a century. It is a measure of the man and the life he lived that long before his demise, Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata came to represent an exalted idea of Indianness: progressive, benevolent, ethical and compassionate.
It did not really matter that the country itself failed this utopian test. JRD, as he was known to commoner and king, had by then transcended the frailties of his milieu. As an adolescent, JRD loved France and flying more than anything else.
By the time he stepped into the autumn of his existence, he had devoted some 50 years to heading and defining a unique business conglomerate, and just as long to championing the interests of India and her myriad people.
The evolution, from a thoughtful if self-indulgent young man to a pan-Indian icon revered even by those who knew little about business, contains the essence of the JRD story. Being one of the last of the great patriarchs of Indian industry contributed, no doubt, to the moulding of his legend, but to call JRD an industrialist is akin to saying Mahatma Gandhi was a freedom fighter.
He considered his leadership of the Tata group and his dedication to the cause of India as complementary, and he brought to the two undertakings a rare dignity and sense of purpose. That did not preclude him from forging a special bond with Indians of all ages and backgrounds.
Kalpana Chawla, the Indian-born astronaut who perished in the Columbia space shuttle disaster, cited JRD and his pioneering airmail flights as her inspiration for taking up aeronautics. He touched the lives of countless others, rich and poor, manager and worker, as he became the embodiment of the principles and philosophy of the House of Tata.
JRD, the second of four children, was educated in France, Japan and England before being drafted into the French army for a mandatory one-year period. JRD wanted to extend his stint in the forces to avail of a chance to attend a renowned horse-riding school , but his father would have none of it. Leaving the French army saved JRD his life, because shortly thereafter the regiment he served in was wiped out while on an expedition in Morocco.
He soon found himself on the threshold of a business career in a country he was far from familiar with. This was a young man aware of his obligations to the family he belonged to. In a letter to his father on his 21st birthday in , JRD wrote, "One more year has fallen on my shoulders. I have been looking back and also deep inside myself with the merciless eye of conscience, and have been trying to find out whether during this last year I have gained in experience or wisdom.
I haven't found out much yet! JRD entered the Tatas as an unpaid apprentice in December His mentor in business was John Peterson, a Scotsman who had joined the group after serving in the Indian Civil Service. At 22, soon after his father passed away, JRD was on the board of Tata Sons, the group's flagship company. In , aged 25, he surrendered his French citizenship to embrace the country that would become the central motif of his life.
The first of JRD's big adventures in business was born of his childhood fascination for flying. He had grown up in France watching the famous aviator Louis Bleriot's early flights, and had taken a joyride in an airplane as a year-old. In , JRD became one of the first Indians to be granted a commercial pilot's licence. A year later, a proposal landed at the Tata headquarters to start an airmail service that would connect Bombay, Ahmedabad and Karachi.
JRD needed no prompting, but it would take Peterson to convince Dorabji Tata, then Chairman of the Tatas, to let the young ace have his way.
JRD nourished and nurtured his airline baby through to , when the government of Jawaharlal Nehru nationalised Air India. It was a decision JRD had fought against with all his heart. Nehru and JRD shared an unusual relationship. They had been friends for long and there was plenty of mutual respect, but they differed significantly on the economic policies India needed to follow. JRD was not a political animal and he never could come to terms with the nature of the socialistic beast then ruling the roost he once joked, many years after Nehru's passing, that the Chinese steward the Taj Group of Hotels had brought in from abroad earned more money than him.
JRD was an articulate and persistent votary of economic liberalisation long before it was finally implemented in India. Nehru insisted that he continue to head the national carrier and that's what JRD did, right up to , when another act of government forced him out. Indira Gandhi, when she came back to power, reinstated JRD to the chairmanship, but by then he no longer had the appetite for the responsibility. Air India was never just a job for JRD; it was a labour of love. Tata executives would always be complaining — in private, undoubtedly — that their Chairman spent more time worrying about the airliner than he did running all of the Tata group.
JRD's ardour for and commitment to Air India was what made it, at least while he was at the helm, a world-class carrier. Wrote Anthony Simpson in his book Empires of the Sky: "The smooth working of Air India seemed almost opposite to the Indian tradition on the ground… [JRD] could effectively insulate Air India from the domestic obligation to make jobs and dispense favours.
The qualities that JRD brought to the running of Air India were as much in evidence in his steering of the Tata group. The 'permit raj' era created a difficult, if not hostile, environment for ethical entrepreneurship. The socialist dogma of the time insisted that capitalism was a creature that had to be rigidly controlled, to be tolerated but never trusted.
JRD and the Tata group were certainly stymied by the political tenets and orthodoxy of the period. Over the next odd years of his stewardship the group expanded into chemicals, automobiles, tea and information technology. Breaking with the Indian business practice of having members of one's own family run different operations, JRD pushed to bring in professionals. He turned the Tata group into a business federation where entrepreneurial talent and expertise were encouraged to flower.
In later years, this system began to fray at its edges. Detractors contend that it degenerated, as satraps and fiefdoms emerged to challenge the core structure of the Tatas. If it can be held against JRD that he failed to comprehend the dangers of handing away too much control in the operation of individual Tata companies, it must also be acknowledged that he took the lead in consolidating the group when matters came to a head.
JRD was brave enough to run the gauntlet and he was man enough to face the fusillade that came in its wake. Conducting the affairs of a business empire as panoptic and complicated as that of the Tatas would by itself have been a prodigious task, but JRD had plenty more to offer. He played a critical role in increasing India's scientific, medical and artistic quotient. In India the term 'national interest' means all sorts of things to all kinds of people. To JRD, it meant advancing the country's scientific and economic capacities.
He had strong views on what would help India and what would hinder its gigantic struggle to eradicate poverty. Though he did his share of it, casual charity did not hold any charms for him.
His inclination to put his own money where his beliefs were resulted in the setting up, in , of the multipurpose JRD Tata Trust. A few years later he sold more of his shares and an apartment in Bombay to establish the JRD and Thelma Tata Trust, which works to improve the lot of India's disadvantaged women.
A pet theme with JRD was India's "desperate race between population and production". Here, too, he disagreed with Nehru, who thought "population is our strength". JRD spent a considerable amount of time and resources in figuring out and propagating methods to control the country's population growth. To this end, he helped start what eventually became the International Institute of Population Studies. Despite his very public persona, JRD was a shy and reticent man.
He never hankered after honours but was showered with them, to much bemusement on his part. On being told that the Indian government was thinking about giving him the Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian award, he is reported to have said: "Why me? I don't deserve it. The Bharat Ratna is usually given to people who are dead or it is given to politicians. I am not prepared to oblige the government on the former and I am not the latter.
Self-effacing, modest, wistful and endearing are a few of the adjectives used to describe JRD. It wasn't all peaches and cream, though. JRD could not suffer fools and he was scathing when confronted with pomposity or pretension. There was always about him a dapper and cosmopolitan air, with a dry wit thrown in to lighten the load of legend. When a friend began a letter to JRD with the 'Dear Jay' salutation, he wrote back: "I have looked up the dictionary and find that a Jay is 'a noisy, chattering European bird of brilliant plumage' and, figuratively, 'an impertinent chatterer or simpleton'.
For future reference, please note that my name is spelt 'Jeh', in abbreviation of 'Jehangir'. Any resemblance between me and the bird is purely coincidental. He and his wife, Thelma, whom he married after a Paris romance in , did not have any children, but JRD always appeared most comfortable with kids. With adults, a more problematic lot, he displayed a generosity of spirit which held that, whether in business or in life, it was people who mattered.
When JRD breathed his last, in a Geneva hospital on November 29, , it could be truly said that an epoch had ended. A noble bit of India — and Indianness — was gone forever.
Building institutions Conducting the affairs of a business empire as panoptic and complicated as that of the Tatas would by itself have been a prodigious task, but JRD had plenty more to offer. Keep Reading View Less. Also Read. Prolific letter writer, lover of the arts, avid sportsman—the unseen side of JRD's life and his many talents.
“Live life a little dangerously.” – JRD Tata
This is about an Indian business icon whose aura transcends business. He was educated in France, Japan and England before being drafted into the French army for a mandatory one-year period. In , he took Indian citizenship and received his flying licence in the same year, making him the first licensed pilot in India. It was later nationalised and became Air India in In , he was appointed chairman of the Air India board. He is the progenitor of commercial flights in India.
As a result, French was his first language. He had planned to study engineering at the University of Cambridge but was compelled to return to India to assume his role in the Tata family business in In , when Tata took charge as chairman of the Tata Group, he was, at age 34, the youngest member of the Tata Sons board. Over the next half-century Tata strengthened existing businesses such as steel, power, and hotels and drove the group to diversify its interests to include chemicals, automobiles, pharmaceuticals, financial services, and information technology.