The JRD Tata I knew

JJ Bhabha* recalls his close involvement with JRD Tata, at Tata Steel and also, at an important personal level, with the funding and development of the National Centre for the Performing Arts


JRD Tata's involvement in my life goes back more than 50 years. In 1929-30, I was posted at Jamshedpur with the Tata Iron and Steel Company (Tisco) on a year's training in all departments. JJ Bhabha recalls his close involvement with JRD Tata, at Tata Steel and also, at an important personal level, with the funding and development of the National Centre for the Performing Arts of the steel works and the town. After a year I got my first appointment, as assistant chief town administrator, a post I held for a number of years. At the outbreak of the Second World War, I was involved with the general administration at Jamshedpur and was concerned principally with operations relating to air-raid precautions.

About that time an unexpected problem cropped up. One evening, when my mother was having dinner with her invalid sister in the family dining room, a group of six Britishers burst into the room and ordered the servants to take them to the two floors of the house. They were acting on information about a clandestine radio transmitter operating in that area.

They rushed out of the house with the same discourteous haste as they had entered it. The very next day my mother telephoned Tisco's all-powerful managing director, Sir Ardeshir Dalal, recounting the frightening incident that she had experienced and requesting him to transfer my services from Jamshedpur to the Tisco Headquarters in Bombay (now Mumbai).

When Sir Ardeshir consulted Tisco chairman JRD Tata, he readily agreed to find a position for me in his own secretariat. Once I got involved with JRD Tata's secretariat, I travelled with him whenever he went to Jamshedpur or Kolkata.

In 1958, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced his decision that the correct place to celebrate the golden jubilee of the Indian steel industry would be at Jamshedpur. At that time the chairman and his many colleagues concerned, like Sir Jehangir Ghandy, considered various alternatives including the construction of a college of engineering to commemorate the occasion. They ultimately decided, as proposed by JRD Tata, that the most appropriate choice would be the preparation of a beautiful park for the benefit of the steel workers and their families, and the citizens of Jamshedpur. I was closely involved with the chairman in the precise location and development of the park with its terraced fountains and well selected flowering plants, specified by the highly respected horticulturist BR Nirody.

In his memorable remarks at the inaugural function, Jawaharlal Nehru said these words: "I wanted to come not only because of the importance of this great steel works here and this city of Jamshedpur, but even more so because this place has become symbolic in some ways of the growth of Indian industry, starting, as you have just been told by JRD Tata, from those days when Jamsetji Tata had the vision of developing industry, and not developing it merely in a petty way but going down to the rock-bottom and realising that steel was the base for any modern industrialisation."

He added: "I have said that iron and steel are likely to play a vital role in human existence for as long a time as one can foresee, probably much longer, but, in the ultimate analysis, I imagine that parks and flowers are more important than iron and steel."

For me, personally, no less important was JRD Tata's involvement in the establishment and development of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, speaking at the premises made available to the NCPA by the Bhulabhai Desai family, delivered the keynote address at its inauguration in December 1969.

Indira Gandhi ended her fine inaugural address with the following heartening words: "I wholeheartedly support the aims and objects of this institution. I think it is inspired by great vision and I sincerely hope that it will be sustained by a sense of dedication."

As a young trustee of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, I recorded a proposal that while the Trust had funded and supported institutions of national importance such as the Tata Memorial Centre for Cancer Research and Treatment, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, all three were in the area of medicine, science and technology. There was a great need now for a similar pioneering institution in the area of the arts and humanities, particularly music and theatre arts, including especially rural and folk arts dependant for survival entirely on oral traditions transmitted from generation to generation as typified by the ‘gurukula system’.

While doubts were expressed by some members of the board about diverting funds from the main objectives of education and relief of distress, the project submitted by me was supported by the far-sighted group chairman JRD Tata and the equally enlightened managing trustee, Prof Rustum Choksi. They succeeded in getting the sanction of an initial grant to the NCPA project of Rs 4 million (equivalent in today's money terms to about Rs 80 million), on the condition specified by the older trustees that an area of five acres would be found for the project in Bombay.

When first approached for the allotment of an area of five acres, the state government replied that no land was available in Bombay, but a larger area could be found in the vicinity of the Ajanta caves. Since the nature of the project required its establishment in a dynamic metropolitan centre like Bombay, the alternative location offered by the government could not serve the purpose. The thought then occurred to me of approaching the government not for land but for permission to reclaim from the sea a plot of five acres opposite the Taraporewala Aquarium on Marine Drive.

The Government of Maharashtra agreed to this request, subject to two conditions. The first condition was that the reclamation should be effected at a distance of 100 metres beyond Marine Drive to leave room for the proposed West Island Freeway to the airport. This condition could have been met by the provision of a traditional coffer dam and solid earth filling. The government had also specified that the prior approval had to be obtained of the government's Central Water and Power Research Centre at Khadakvasla in Poona. This institution ruled out any form of reclamation by the traditional method of a coffer dam and earth filling on the ground because this would deflect the strong monsoon sea currents and cause erosion of the sands of Chowpatty. The institution specified that the area of five acres should be constructed as a concrete platform standing on stilts in the sea in the manner adopted at Hong Kong. While practicable for a wealthy national centre like Hong Kong, it would be impossible for a charitable public Trust, the NCPA, to undertake it.

The State Government's basic consent in general terms for reclamation made it possible for me to approach and secure the Maharashtra Government's consent to reclamation being effected at the other end of Marine Drive. At that point of time none of the high-rise buildings had come up there, with the exception of the Oberoi hotel, still under construction.

At that juncture, the NCPA's steadfast supporter JRD Tata played another crucial role in persuading the then cabinet minister Balasaheb Desai to agree to release to the NCPA three additional acres. I was present at the discussion between the two of them. Balasaheb's assertion that he was keeping the three acres for a public park was countered by JRD Tata with the plea that an even greater public purpose would be served by the NCPA making available to the public programmes of music, dance and theatre arts. That is how the total area allotted by the Maharashtra Government for the NCPA amounted to the present total of eight acres (approximately 32,000 square metres).

JRD Tata's steadfast support to the NCPA and me was exemplified on the occasion of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's inauguration of the NCPA's programme of work: "The project of the national centre is exclusively dedicated to this cause, and I sincerely believe that it will play a powerful and unique role in this nation-building work under the dynamic leadership of my indefatigable and dedicated colleague, Jamshed Bhabha, who initially conceived the project, pursued it with formidable determination and continues to be its moving spirit".

* JJ Bhabha has been a director on the boards of several Tata companies. He is the chairman of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.