A Tribute On JRD Tata’s 119th Birth Anniversary

By Dara M. Khodaiji


Our glorious Parsi community has birthed a large number of most inspiring stalwarts in every field of human endeavor, be it arts, science, humanities, law, defense of the country, and even politics. They have left behind footprints of inspiration for our youth to follow. JRD Tata – as much the pride of the Parsi Community as of the nation, here is a tribute to the great man!

Popularly known the world over as ‘JRD’, or simply ‘Jeh’ to his close circle of friends, Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (29 July, 1904 – 29 November, 1993) was the pioneer of aviation in India – holder of India’s first Private Pilot License; a dynamic entrepreneur and the legendary Chairman of the iconic Tata Group of Companies and Tata Sons Ltd. A man of impeccable honesty, integrity and humility, he was a bit of a romantic, with a dare-devil attitude and an adventurous life, all through his remarkable eighty-nine years. If there was a truly global Indian, it was JRD Tata!

The second child of Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (second cousin of the pioneer Industrialist Jamshedji Tata) and Suzanne (Sooni) Tata (a French woman and the first Indian lady to drive a car), young Jehangir studied mainly in France and India.

With the famous aviator Bleriot having built his house quite near where JRD’s house was located at Hardelot, his interest in flying was set for good. At age 14, he experienced his first thrill of flying when he flew a joy-ride Bleriot at Hardelot! And that was that – he decided to become a pilot. And a pilot he did become. He enrolled in the newly opened flying club in Bombay with three hours and forty-five minutes of dual flying he did his solo flight and earned for himself his greatest possession, his flying license No. 1 from the Flying Club of India and Burma on 3rd February, 1929. It was the landmark year for young JRD. This is the year he renounced his French citizenship and became an Indian citizen. This is the year when instead of joining Cambridge for further studies in engineering, he came to India and started working at Tatas, at age 21.

His father passed away within a year and at the young age of 22, he found himself on the board of Tata Sons. In 1929, he fell in love with Thelma Vicaji and they were married a year later. At age 34, he took over as Chairman of the Tata Sons Board from Sir Nowroji Saklatvala. He embarked upon a journey of business expansion which led to the unprecedented rise of the Tata Group into an industrial conglomerate – increasing the number of companies from 14 to 95, over fifty years, when he retired in 1988. He ensured Tata Group’s solid presence in all key industries including chemicals, automobiles, hospitality, cosmetics, tea and information technology. Under his astute leadership, talent was always encouraged and the staff was treated with utmost dignity– a tradition which is still one of the keystones of the prime Tata business ethic.

JRD is often revered as the ‘Pioneer of Indian Aviation’. When the Tata headquarters received a proposal to start an airmail service that would connect Bombay, Ahmedabad and Karachi, the enthusiastic JRD had to fight a tough battle to convince the then Chairman, Dorabji Tata, to take on the initiative. 1932 was the year of the first historic flight of the Tata Aviation Service, when JRD at the controls of a Puss Moth lifted off from Drigh Road, in Karachi. It was later named Tata Airlines and then Air India.

JRD was the driving force behind the branding of the airline and the creation of the iconic Air India ‘Maharaja’. He suffered a major disappointment when Air India was nationalized by the Indian government in 1953. Though he and Nehru were friends, he could not reconcile with the socialist politics of the time. Even so, he magnanimously accepted Nehru’s offer to continue as the head of the national carrier till 1977 and managed to insulate it from the red-tape and petty politics that governed other public enterprises.

Over the past few years, a signature campaign has been launched to name the proposed Navi Mumbai airport after the pioneer of Indian aviation – JRD Tata – the powers that be should take note!

JRD was known for his dry wit and his nobility. Indeed, one had heard tales about his self-effacing humble nature – how he would always sit upfront, next to his driver; how a person stuck in the rain was shocked to have the great JRD Tata stop his car and offer a lift to a complete stranger… the anecdotes are many and each one only increases our admiration for this great man.

Other than his business acumen, he was also interested in the fields of science, medicine and the arts. To bring India to the forefront of cutting-edge research, he established the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Tata Memorial Hospital, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the National Institute of Advanced Sciences. The performing arts in the country are indebted to his great support ad patronage to the National Centre for the Performing Arts.

In keeping with the tenets of our noble religion, JRD always sought to help those in need. He realized that in order for India to become a global force, we would need to eradicate poverty. Rather than indulge in casual charity, he set up the multipurpose JRD Tata Trust as well as the JRD and Thelma Tata Trust to aid disadvantaged women. Realizing the inexorable link between poverty and population, he worked tirelessly in the field and helped established what is now known as the International Institute of Population Studies.

India honoured him with the Padma Vibhushan and also the highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. He was also awarded the French Legion of Honor, the highest award for military merits.

JRD passed the reigns of the legendary Tata empire into the capable hands of Ratan Tata.  He breathed his last battling a kidney infection, in a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 29, 1993, at the age of 89. The Indian Parliament was adjourned in mourning – an honor that Non-Member of Parliaments do not receive. He is buried in the iconic Père Lachaise cemetery, put to rest amongst many peers of the Tata family and other luminaries including Jim Morisson and Oscar Wilde.

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