Saluting a true captain of industry

Hiram To

J.R.D. Tata was an adventurer and a visionary with a passion for flying, tidiness and collecting books

FOR ANY TOURIST visiting India, it is hard not to notice the broad spectrum of business interests belonging to the Tata Group.

From motor vehicles to power supplies, tea, internet to hotels, the company's influence and impact run deep across the country.

This is a special year for the Tata Group, which was founded in 1868. It marks the death centenary of its founder, Jamsetji Tata, as well as the birth centenary of J.R.D. Tata, a charismatic industrialist who took Tata Group to the skies to become the Indian subcontinent's first aviation company.

As a child, J.R.D. Tata had been fascinated with the daring exploits of air pilots. One of five children of Ratanji Tata and a French mother, Sooni, a young Paris-born Tata and his family moved to Bombay from France after the first world war broke out in 1914. After he completed a year in the French Army at only 20 years old, he was called back to India to assist in the running of the family business empire.

By 1926, he was head of the family at the tender age of 22 after both his parents passed away.

Three years later, Tata's passion for the sky led him to become the first Indian to get his flying licence in India. When he encountered a business suggestion of creating an air service, the project piqued his interest and Tata Aviation Service soon came into being. The air service sowed the seeds of the nation's aviation industry, which eventually led to the formation of Air-India International in 1946.

The air service was famed for its timeliness, a factor that could have much to do with Tata, who was passionate about the many facets of his work and environment.

According to S. A. Sabavala, a long-time associate who worked with Tata for 30 years, Tata was fanatical about tidiness and would instruct workers exactly how to clean carpets. Whenever Tata travelled on a flight, he would painstakingly record every inflight detail - from the comfort level of the seat, to the cutlery and glasses - and pass them on to the relevant departments for improvement.

On one occasion when Tata and Mother Teresa met, the ever-talkative Tata kept putting questions to her as she prayed.

Apparently, Mother Teresa remained silent to his queries, but when he asked about what the Tatas should do with children in the slums and poverty, she answered: 'Mr Tata, you just do your job and get people employed. Leave the poverty to me.'

The man who never did things in half-measures kept quiet after that.

An avid reader and keen book collector, Tata had a love for books on aviation, military ventures and warfare, sports cars and motor racing.

In the book, A Touch of Greatness: Encounters with the Eminent, writer R.M. Lala asked Tata about the greatest adventure in his life, to which he said: 'The flying experience. None can equal that. When you are on your own in that little plane at the control without an instructor and the plane speeds on the runway and finally take off - you know you are in the air on your own.'

A visionary on many aspects of social and cultural concerns, Tata was awarded India's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, a year before his passing away in 1993.