Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata was born in 1839, and in his lifetime India remained firmly under British rule. Yet the projects he envisioned laid the foundation for the nation's development once it became independent. More extraordinary still, these institutions continue to set the pace for others in their respective areas.
Among his many achievements was laying the seeds of the Indian Institute of Science, which has groomed some of India's best scientists, and setting the course for the establishment of the Tata Steel plant in Jamshedpur, which marked the country's transition from trading to manufacturing, as well as India's first hydro-electric project. Additionally, it was his drive and enterprise that saw the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, one of the finest in the world, come into existence.
The shaping of Jamsetji Tata
His first thirteen years were spent amidst the priestly circle of the Navsari Parsis. He went through the Navar ceremony (usually between ages 7 and 9) which entitled him to say Zoroastrian prayers at weddings, funerals and the sacred thread ceremony—the navjot.
In later years he showed little interest in rituals. When a painting of his holding a prayer book in hand was shown to his sister she is reported to have laughed. She had never seen her brother in that position. 'A letter in his hand, yes. A prayer book, no.'
The teachings of Zarathustra were deeply imbibed by him, however. He adopted the essence of that faith, Humata, Hukta, Huvarsta—Good thoughts, good words, good deeds—in his work. The form was not important. The substance was. There is a record of his inaugurating the Tata Agiary (fire-temple) at Bandra in 1884 built by his father in memory of his mother, Jivanbai. It seems that his father (who died a year later) was indisposed for the occasion. Jamsetji read out the Anjuman Patra authorizing the fire-temple.
The booksellers Taraporevala & Co had a standing order from him to send every book published on the Zoroastrian faith whatever the language be. He had a collection of 300 such books which, his estate agent, Jamshedji Saklatvala, records, he wanted to bequeath to the K.R. Cama Institute.
Saklatvala, who was his estate agent from 1899 to 1904, records in a footnote in his unpublished 'Some Sidelights and Reminiscences of Mr J.N. Tata' that in Sanjan, South Gujarat, where the Parsis first landed 1400 years earlier, Jamsetji believed 'some buried treasure or some remarkable relics of our Zorastrian religion will one day come to be unearthed'.
Jamsetji was proved right a century later. In 2002-03, the Archaeological Survey of India made two separate excavations and found artefacts such as shards of pottery, ceramics, silver coins and glassware. The pottery and the silverware are distinctly of Sassanian dynasty that ruled Iran 2000 years ago. The find established the link between Sanjan and Iran corroborating the theory that the arrival of the Parsis there was not accidental but a result of the earlier links with India.
Jamsetji's contemporaries like Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, himself an alumnus of Elphinstone, which in his time was headed by an outstanding educationist, Sir Alexander Grant, believed that his education had much to do with Jamsetji's later success. Sir Pherozeshah felt the character and principles he acquired at the Elphinstone 'were the character and the principles which he carried into practice throughout the whole of his long and distinguished life'.
The teachers at the Elphinstone Institute not only informed but aroused curiosity and awakened young minds to make their own studies and discoveries through life. For example, Jamsetji, though he was taught liberal arts, came to learn botany and horticulture. Just preceding him was K.R. Cama who also was an expert on the subject of botany and horticulture apart from Avesta studies.
The next significant influence on him was the four years he spent in Britain.
As noted earlier the second half of the nineteenth century was called by Winston Churchill 'an age of British splendour and unchallenged leadership'. It was in this setting that Jamsetji spent his impressionable years.
At twenty-five, at the start of his career, like all young men Jamsetji wanted to prove himself but he was in no tearing hurry. It is hard to imagine a young man of today taking almost four years off in a foreign land—even if it be the most powerful nation of that time—neither going to college nor having a regular job but educating himself, observing and absorbing for his future career. Jamsetji did just that in England from 1864 to 1868. He let the winds of Western thought, ideas and literature influence him at the same time keeping in touch with his countrymen who were either settled or studying there, like Dadabhai Naoroji and Pherozeshah Mehta.
He was influenced by the current of liberal thought then flourishing in England through great figures like Cobden and Bright who also influenced the thinking of William Gladstone, later four times Prime Minister of England. Gladstone was to become Jamsetji's hero. He had the privilege of meeting him once on a railway journey.
In Lancashire he also studied about the working of the textile industry. Liberal thought both shaped him as well as reflected his own deep conviction. It is shown in his respect for the British sense of justice and his sharp reaction whenever he found this absent, as in the case of cotton duties.
There was a powerful movement for temperance in England and Europe. At that time in Sweden workers were not paid in money but in drink. He had no doubt witnessed in Lancashire many among the working classes ruined by drink and throughout his life he had a strong aversion to alcohol. Only once when he nearly fainted at Empress Mills in the 1880s did he sip brandy.
In a speech delivered on the birth centenary of Jamsetji, 3 March 1939, one of his nephews gave intimate glimpses of his uncle: 'J.N. Tata had eight nephews, and I, as one of the three surviving nephews have many personal recollections, which I treasure, of this Grand Old Man. To me the most striking quality in his character was his simplicity.
'He was utterly unassuming. For all his great wealth, J.N. Tata was among the most unostentatious of men. He dressed simply, and his only indulgence was his perfectly appointed brougham; in his fine horses and their equipment he took genuine pride. An occasional game of "Chowpat" at his club was his sole recreation.'
He was a clubable man who gave and absorbed from other people. Even when he went on brief visits to Panchgani, in the evenings he would meet his friends in a shop opposite to the present state bus terminus. Burjor Billimoria, former principal of Billimoria High School there, recalls his father telling him that Jamsetji was 'a very hearty fellow cracking jokes'. Sir Dinshaw Wacha also records about his sense of humour. Jamsetji never went about as a man who was too wise or too good, though his family appears to have held him in awe and respect. Chief Justice Sir Lawrence Jenkins said, 'In his private life he was the sincerest of friends, while his wide experiences made him the most delightful of companions.'
He was far from being the sybarite which his great wealth might have tempted him to become. For luxury, he had no use.
Another relative wrote of him:
Wealth to him was always a means to an end and not an end in itself. This attitude liberated him from avariciousness allowing his creativity to flow on all fronts-especially in nation-building activities. His wealth enabled him to execute some of his plans for India.
Having established himself financially, by the age of fifty he was thinking of what he could give to the country. The motivation of his great schemes, J.R.D. Tata noted, is at least as important as the schemes themselves.
And what were the other advantages Jamsetji had which enabled him to accomplish all he did in one lifetime?
His knowledge-base and memory: he could study the art of silk making in Japan with the same ease and thoroughness as he could the science of steel making and its ramifications in the USA. CM Weld spoke of how Jamsetji 'was always interested, patient and persistent'. The impact on him of his foreign travels is not to be underestimated. Those were times of leisure on steamships where you met and interacted with people from all over the world. It is said he was probably the most widely travelled man of his time. As stated earlier an American researcher calculated that in forty-five years of his working life he spent fifteen years abroad!
His disciplined habit of reading and contemplation at set times of the day. This he did late morning and after dinner, when his own family would be hesitant to disturb him in his library. There, comfortably seated in an armchair, he envisaged his plans for India's future. He took the time to think and made space for it in his daily routine.
He never mistook activity for 'achievement' which many tend to do. Where necessary-as in 1902-he could command great speed. There was deliberation behind his actions and a bigger purpose. F.R. Harris notes that he kept his hand lightly on the pulse of business so that when the occasion came for a new venture he could move in with great energy.
As noted earlier, Norman Redford, who went on drives in Jamsetji's carriage, said: 'Never did I see him impatient, intolerant or critical of another's shortcomings.' So much of the creative energy of most people goes in judging and blaming others. Jamsetji was more interested in what he had to do than in what others did. He could reach out and understand why others behaved as they did but did not dwell on it. For example, when the delegation was crestfallen after the first meeting with Lord Curzon, Jamsetji said: 'His Excellency made a very cautious reply and many of our friends thought he was throwing cold water on the scheme. But I do not think there is reason to be discouraged. Lord Curzon was quite new to the country and naturally before paying close attention to the question he did not like to commit himself.'
Redford says he 'was always ready to see the better side of the person. Many have been the occasions when I heard him say, "well, well, surely there must be some good in him somewhere."
He thought things out for himself and did not flow with the tide. For example, his philanthropy was widespread but more important he had a target of 'constructive philanthropy' as well that would be massively supported to change the course of things.
Also its management. His colleague Padshah wrote: 'He was of the opinion that service to the needy could no more be made without brains, without investigation, without the selection of right men, without concentration on particular aspects, than the production of any species of goods.' Sir Pherozeshah Mehta related that Jamsetji often said that the adage Charity begins at home was most imperfect-'Charity may begin at home but it does not end there' He lived his industrial life at a time of the worst possible exploitation of labour. He gave undreamt of facilities to his workers and staff as the Empress adventure demonstrates. For him man was not meant as a tool of industry. Industry was meant for the good of man.
He could not only envisage and execute grand schemes: he always thought of individuals and cared for them. The will of Jamsetji Tata reproduced in Appendix I gives such an insight into the man. After preliminary legacies to relatives, he thinks of 'my earliest childhood playmate' for a legacy. Next he thinks of his Mehtajee or Gujarati teacher.
About half the Will is devoted to his most important benefaction, the 'indigenous University'-the university of research-to which he leaves the largest single sum and again in clause 13 from 'the rest, residue and remainder of my property' one equal third to his two sons and an equal third for the university scheme, virtually putting the university alongside his two dear sons.
But though he thinks on a broad national scale preceding it in clause 8 he does not forget those who have served him in various capacities:
Noteworthy too that he had not forgotten two former domestic servants transferred by him to his quarries and gave them the same privilege as they would have had were they in his domestic service.
He did not just live and think and plan for India in the abstract. He thought of India in terms of people. Individuals mattered to him, not just his grand schemes. His was a rounded personality. Meherbai, his daughter-in-law, was being shown round his palatial house. They moved from one stately room to another-each room with an attendant. In one room the attendant wished Jamsetji but did not rise from his chair. As they left the room Meherbai commented on the servant's lack of respect. Jamsetji replied: 'He has served me well. Now he is old. I have instructed him not to rise when I enter the room.'
And, finally, that rare quality of passion for a cause. The consciousness of his own wealth in the surrounding sea of poverty abided with him and with it came not just a desire but what the Times of India called 'an abiding passion' to elevate his land and his people to a higher standard of life. In the last ten years it became a mission with him.
A religious missionary in south India, Amy Wilson Carmichael, wrote verses which-with appropriate changes-could well apply to Jamsetji of later years:
Jamsetji's passion was for the physical well-being of his countrymen. As noted, his eyes welled with tears when he spoke of the poverty of his people. He realized that agriculture was not adequate to relieve the poverty and hence industry and technical education were needed. His pity and concern manifested itself when he refused to start a subsidiary for crushing cotton seeds lest the cattle of the poor be starved, or when he resisted the campaign that cotton duties be also charged to handloom as to mill cloth, because he did not want the load on the poor worker.
On his astounding visit to the West (in the chapter that follows) of 1902 he literally burnt himself out. Next year, the doctors were to write that at sixty-four his hair had greyed all over. He died at sixty-five much before his time. But he did leave behind him a legacy of what one man could do for the land that gave him birth.
For the Love of India was released on July 23, 2004 by APJ Abdul Kalam, the President of India.