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"What advances a nation or a community is not so much to prop up its weakest and most helpless members, but to lift up the best and the most gifted, so as to make them of the greatest service to the country.”
Jamsetji’s idea of philanthropy was far removed from conventional and contemporary notions of charity. It was with this idea that he set up in 1892, the JN Tata Endowment, the first Tata benefaction in the field of education, and possibly the first of its kind in the world.
Over 125 years ago, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the Founder of the Tata group, made an investment in India’s youth — and a colonised nation’s future — when he set up the JN Tata Endowment for the Higher Education of Indians. The first of the Tata family’s philanthropic initiatives, the Endowment enabled Indian students, regardless of caste or creed, to pursue higher studies outside the country. To say that the investment has paid off would be an understatement: since it was set up in 1892, the JN Tata Endowment has supported generation after generation of promising minds in the country.
The first beneficiaries of the endowment were two women doctors – Freany K Cama and Krishnabai Kelavkar – whom Jamsetji personally selected knowing the high rate of childbirth-related deaths, the dearth of female doctors and the reluctance of Indian women to go to male doctors.
Since then, beneficiaries of the path-breaking loan scholarship have included former Indian president KR Narayanan, scientists Raja Ramanna and Jayant Narlikar, and Mehli Mehta, the famous violinist (and the father of Zubin Mehta). This is an investment that has come good in spades for India and Indians.
A Point of Prestige
“You don’t realise how prestigious the JN Tata Endowment loan scholarship is till you hear it from students themselves,” says TJ Ravishankar, director of the JN Tata Endowment. “We have had instances of students who have received full funding asking for a nominal amount because what they really want is to be known as a JN Tata scholar. Clearly, the selection process has to be rigorous — and it is.”
JN Tata scholars, for their part, are intensely aware that the scholarship opens up a world of opportunities that goes beyond immediate academic support. Importantly, it gives them access to a distinguished alumni network comprising leaders and influential figures from various walks of life. “It is a matter of immense pride to belong to a cohort that has gone through a stringent selection process,” says Dr Ramaswami Balasubramaniam, a JN Tata scholar who went to Harvard in 2009 to study leadership, organisational development and public policy. “My work in policy and advocacy requires a lot of discussion and exchange of ideas; being a JN Tata alumnus gives me a ready network of high calibre people I can speak to and interact with.”
In recent times, the Endowment has seen an increase in the number of students wanting to pursue newer fields of study, among them machine learning, artificial intelligence, data science, environment engineering and biomedical devices design. Then there are others who opt for less conventional spheres of study, such as river-basin management, creative writing, even ‘dance as therapy’. Mr Ravishankar has a lament, though. “A large number of students aren’t taking well-informed decisions. They are getting carried away by a lot of noise in the media and opting for subjects that are really not the best for them. We intend doing something about it. We don’t know what form this will take, but we certainly plan to do something about this.” Be that as it may, there is no diluting the impact the Endowment has had. After all, there’s a century and a quarter of evidence to showcase its credentials and its worth.