Industrialist, nationalist, philanthropist

Jamsetji Tata’s vision and business acumen would have been enough to mark him as an extraordinary figure, but what made him truly unique, the quality that places him in the pantheon of modern India’s greatest sons, was his humaneness

Had Mr Jamsetji Tata lived in Europe or America, his name would have been more familiar to the public.”This is what Frank Harris wrote about the Founder of the Tata group in his book, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata: A Chronicle of his Life.

Jamsetji was more than an entrepreneur who helped India claim a place in the league of industrialised nations. He was a patriot and a humanist, a man of his times and beyond, whose ideals and vision shaped an exceptional business conglomerate. These attributes contributed to shaping Jamsetji’s world view as an industrialist, one with a sturdy bent for nationalism and a strong heart for social development.

Born on March 3, 1839, Jamsetji was raised in the sleepy town of Navsari in Gujarat, the first child and only son of Nusserwanji Tata, the scion of a family of Parsi priests. When he was 13, he joined his father in Bombay (now Mumbai) and enrolled at Elphinstone College, from where he passed out in 1858 as a ‘green scholar’, the equivalent of today’s graduate. The liberal education he received would fuel in Jamsetji a lifelong admiration for academics and a love of reading. Those passions would, though, soon take a backseat to what he quickly understood was the true calling of life: business.

The industrialist
An eager learner, Jamsetji gradually grew from apprentice to a skilful practitioner of the business arts under the tutelage of his father, gaining knowledge about commodities and markets, trading and banking. He started his first company — a trading firm — in 1868 at the age of 29, with a capital of Rs21,000.

Jamsetji made his move into textiles in 1869, when he acquired a dilapidated and bankrupt oil mill in Chinchpokli, in the industrial heart of Bombay, renamed the property Alexandra Mill and converted it into a cotton mill. Two years later, he sold the mill for a significant profit to a local cotton merchant.

Jamsetji Tata (extreme left) and the three men who formed the nucleus of the Tata group in its early years: cousin RD Tata (centre) and sons Ratan Tata (standing) and Dorab Tata (right).
In 1874, Jamsetji floated a fresh enterprise, the Central India Spinning, Weaving and Manufacturing Company in Nagpur, with a seed capital of Rs150,000. Three years later, the Empress Mills — the early beginnings of what would grow into the Tata group — came into existence in Nagpur.

The period following the establishment of Empress Mills was the most significant of Jamsetji’s busy life. From about 1880 to his death in 1904, Jamsetji was consumed by his three great ideas for India: setting up an iron and steel company, generating hydroelectric power, and creating a world-class educational institution that would tutor Indians in the sciences.

The nationalist
Jamsetji had set his heart on building a steel plant in India that would compare with the best of its kind in the world. This was a gigantic task. The industrial revolution that had transformed Britain and other countries had, by and large, bypassed India. Officious government policies, the complexities of prospecting in barely accessible areas and sheer bad luck made matters worse.

Against the odds, Tata Iron and Steel was established in 1907 by Jamsetji’s son, Dorab Tata, and the first ingot of steel rolled off the plant’s production line in 1912. Jamsetji had been dead eight years by then, but his vision continued to guide his descendants. Tata Iron and Steel was a showcase for worker welfare schemes: employees benefited from shorter working hours, well-ventilated workplaces, and provident fund and gratuity (long before these practices became statutory in the West). Today Jamsetji’s dream for India stands tall as Tata Steel, a company that ranks among the top 10 steelmakers in the world.

Energy was another critical resource which Jamsetji wanted India to have, because, as he said, “Clean, cheap and abundant power is one of the basic ingredients for the economic progress of a city, state or country.” This was the impetus for the setting up of India’s first power plant, a 72MW hydroelectric station in Khopoli, near Bombay, which was established in 1915 under Dorab Tata’s guidance. Today Tata Power has grown into India’s largest integrated private power company.

A young Jamsetji in traditional Parsi dress.
In all spheres, including philanthropy, Jamsetji’s thinking was far ahead of his peers. At a time when the prevailing practice among the wealthy was to give alms to the poor or sponsor religious activities, his thoughts focused on how to make India a developed nation. “What advances a nation or community,” he said, “is not so much to prop up its weakest and the most helpless, as to lift the best and most gifted, so as to make them of the greatest service to the country.”

He was convinced that national resurgence was only possible through multilevel industrialisation, higher education and scientific research. This was what motivated him to establish an institution of advanced scientific education and research, the like of which even England did not have, at the end of the 19th century.

Jamsetji donated half of his personal wealth (14 buildings and four landed properties in Bombay) towards the creation of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore (now Bengaluru). This institution opened its doors in 1911 and grew into one of India’s premier centres for research and advanced scientific study. Over the years, several of India’s foremost scientists have been closely associated with the institute, including Nobel laureate CV Raman, Homi J Bhabha, Vikram S Sarabhai, and the latest Bharat Ratna awardee, CNR Rao.

In his efforts to bring to life these three visionary ventures, Jamsetji had to endure long years of heartburn, without much tangible recompense in his lifetime. Fortunately, he did live to see at least one of his dreams come to fruition. Jamsetji was keen to set up a luxury hotel in Bombay, one that would match the grandest of its kind anywhere in the world. The foundations of the Taj Mahal Hotel were laid in 1898 and the hotel was built at a cost of more than Rs40 million. It was the first building in Bombay to be lit by electricity, the first to have American fans, German elevators, Turkish baths and English butlers. Preceding the famous Gateway of India by some 20 years, the hotel was the first sight for ships calling at the Bombay port. Today that seed sown by Jamsetji has grown into the Taj Group, a 120-property hospitality chain with a presence across the globe.

Jamsetji Tata was a man ahead of his times. He laid the foundation of an institution that is now spread across seven business sectors, 100 countries and six continents.
The philanthropist
Jamsetji’s philanthropic principles were rooted in the belief that for India to climb out of poverty its finest minds would have to be harnessed. With this belief, in 1892 he set up the JN Tata Endowment, a fund that enabled Indian students, regardless of caste or creed, to pursue higher studies in England. This beginning flowered into the Tata scholarships, which flourished to the extent that by 1924 two out of every five Indians coming into the elite Indian Civil Service were Tata scholars.

Jamsetji’s vision and business acumen would have been enough to mark him as an extraordinary figure. But what made him truly unique, the quality that places him in the pantheon of modern India’s greatest sons, was his humaneness.

The distinctive structure the Tata group came to adopt after Jamsetji’s passing, with a huge part of its assets held by trusts devoted to ploughing money into social development initiatives, is a direct outcome of the empathy embedded in the group Founder’s philosophy of business.

“It is by solid work such as your father did,” wrote a friend to Dorab Tata, “that India will be brought up to a higher standard of comfort and civilisation.” Enshrined in Jamsetji’s vision for business was the spirit of nation-building and a commitment to the community, and that continues to be the guiding light for the Tata group.


“Jamsetji set the mandate for the group to look beyond profits and serve the communities in which Tata companies functioned. More than hundred years later, his vision remains the group’s guiding force.”

– Ratan Tata, former Chairman (1991 - 2012)

“The wealth gathered by Jamsetji Tata is held in trust for the people and used exclusively for their benefit. The cycle is thus complete; what came from the people has gone back to the people many times over.”

– JRD Tata, former Chairman (1938 - 1991)

“To my father the acquisition of wealth was only a secondary object in life; it was always subordinate to the constant desire in his heart to improve the industrial and intellectual condition of the people of his nation.”

– Dorab Tata, former Chairman (1917 - 1932)