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JRD Tata

Letter to A Schoolteacher

JRD Tata wrote many letters, but perhaps none so profound as the one to a schoolteacher in 1965. Harish Bhat, brand custodian, Tata Sons, tells us what makes this letter so powerful.

July 2020 | Harish Bhat     |     896 words     |     2-minute read

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In the year 1965, JRD Tata received a letter from a school teacher in Kolkata, named KC Bhansali. His response to Mr Bhansali is not just memorable, but one that each of us can learn from, and cherish. Here is the story of this letter, and why it is so extraordinary.

Mr KC Bhansali, in his letter dated 6th August, 1965, enquired of JRD Tata what were the guiding principles of his life. This educationist lived in Howrah, and he was keen to understand the principles which had governed JRD’s life, which had already made a huge impact on the country by then. 

In 1965, when JRD received this letter, he was 62 years of age. It was now 27 years since he had assumed charge as Chairman of the Tata group. By then, he had already given the country its first commercial airline, Tata Airlines (now Air India). He had guided the establishment of Tata Motors, then called TELCO. He had given India the Bombay Plan, the country’s first comprehensive economic plan, along with three other prominent industrialists. Tata Memorial Hospital and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), two iconic national Institutions, had been established during his tenure as Chairman. And much more.

As Chairman of the Tata Group and of several Companies, JRD would have no doubt have been caught up in a busy schedule. It would perhaps have been simple to ignore the school teacher’s letter, or request one of his officers to send him a brief response, out of courtesy. Instead, JRD Tata took the time and effort to craft out a detailed and thoughtful response. Here is the extraordinary letter that he wrote to Mr Bhansali.

"Dear Mr Bhansali,

I thank you for your letter of the 6th August, enquiring what have been the guiding principles which have kindled my path and my career. I do not consider myself to be an “illustrious personality”, but only an ordinary businessman and citizen who has tried to make the best of his opportunities to advance the cause of India’s industrial and economic development. Any such guiding principles I might unconsciously have had in my life can be summarized as follows:

That nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without deep thought and hard work;

That one must think for oneself and never accept at their face value slogans and catch phrases to which, unfortunately, our people are too easily susceptible;

That one must forever strive for excellence, or even perfection, in any task however small, and never be satisfied with the second best;

That no success or achievement in material terms is worthwhile, unless it serves the needs or interests of the country and its people, and is achieved by fair and honest means;

"That no success or achievement in material terms is worthwhile, unless it serves the needs or interests of the country and its people, and is achieved by fair and honest means"

That good human relations not only bring great personal rewards but are essential to the success of any enterprise.

Yours sincerely,

JRD Tata”

JRD wrote over 40,000 letters in his lifetime

I have found this letter extraordinary because it is so simple, yet so powerful. 

In less than 200 words, JRD Tata had put forward the guiding principles by which he lived his life. When I first read this brief letter, it brought to my mind President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, which was less than 275 words in length. The most powerful ideas are inevitably communicated in such compact and brief pieces of communication. They do not need lengthy documents or orations.

The most powerful ideas are inevitably communicated in such compact and brief pieces of communication. They do not need lengthy documents or orations.

The letter is very thoughtfully crafted, because it puts forward six independent principles which are enmeshed with each other, in the creation of a good, successful and fulfilling life – hard work, thoughtfulness, excellence, ethical behavior, good human relations, and putting the nation first. JRD has drawn these excellent principles not from any fancy theoretical construct, but from his own life experiences, which are always the best teacher.

The letter resonates with every reader. In fact, each of these principles are pointers that we can use in our own lives, wherever we are, and whatever we are engaged in. All of us wish to work hard, and we would like to be thoughtful. Don’t we often wish we could push ourselves even more, to attain excellence, even perfection, in everything we do? And so many of us aspire to do something impactful for our nation and community, ahead of everything else.

And, finally, this letter is so simple to understand. Management jargon is totally absent. JRD has written these guiding principles in simple, straightforward, yet perfect English which is a pleasure to read. This is the art of simplicity in communication that we often forget, when we get sucked into the jargon and hyperbole of the corporate world. No wonder Edgar F. Kaiser, the American Industrialist, said this to JRD Tata, in his letter of February 1972 – “I have commented before on your ability to use the English language. I repeat again, I don’t know anyone who does it better.”

For more than thirty years now, JRD Tata’s guiding principles – an extract from this memorable letter - have stood on my work desk at the Tata Group, printed on a bright, laminated board that also bears his photograph. Whenever I need a special burst of motivation, or some internal guidance, I look at these simple, powerful points, and I always draw great energy from them. 

I think this extraordinary letter, and the principles it sets forth, will stand the test of time.

Harish Bhat is brand custodian, Tata Sons. He is the author of several books including Tatalog: Eight Modern Stories from a Timeless Institution.

Photos courtesy Tata Central Archives.

The Tinkerer

JRD loved carpentry and had a 250-sq-ft workshop in his home. However, before air conditioning, he found it uncomfortably stuffy concentrating on woodwork as a ceiling fan would throw up sawdust. And so he turned to metalwork.

.He so enjoyed tinkering and working with his hands, that he once took apart a British motorbike with a gearbox like a car, just because he was curious to find out how it was built. “When putting it back together,” he said, “I found out it had a few surplus parts.”

He was lucky to get the same Rs. 100 he had originally paid for it.

JRD's scrapbook was filled with poems, and sketches of birds, flowers and planes

The Art Connoisseur

As a patron of the arts, JRD Tata was revered by India's artists, sculptors and performing artists. It was under him that the Tatas became the biggest buyers, promoters and supporters of the art world in India.

The National Centre for the Performing Arts was also established because JRD Tata and Jamshed Bhabha envisioned the need for a world-class, all-encompassing centre for the arts. He believed that man was incomplete without art and music. NCPA counts among its mentors leading lights like filmmaker Satyajit Ray and violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Since it was built in 1969, several legendary artistes have performed here, lending it its iconic status.

Personally too, JRD also maintained a scrapbook of poems in French and English which had impressed him, and which he copied down over the years. The red leather book, with the name “J.R.D. Tata inscribed in gold”, was his abiding companion since the 1920s. Each page of the scrapbook had a poem, and on the side he had sketched small pictures of birds, flowers and planes. 

Source: Beyond The Last Blue Mountain; JRD Tata Letters

Photos courtesy Tata Central Archives

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