January 11, 2013 8:02 pm

At home: Rajashree Birla

One of India’s most respected philanthropists is guided by Gandhian values
The marble staircase and portrait of Birla’s late husband with his grandfather©Ritam Banerjee

The marble staircase and portrait of Birla’s late husband with his grandfather

A palatial house on south Mumbai’s prestigious Carmichael Road is an obvious choice of residence for 65-year-old Rajashree Birla, whose family is one of the wealthiest and oldest business houses in India. Birla moved into the spacious home with her son Kumar Mangalam, daughter-in-law Neerja and the couple’s three children, when the family outgrew their apartment in nearby Malabar Hill a few years ago.

Rajashree Birla lives in a mansion but her preferred place is this corner in her bedroom©Ritam Banerjee

Rajashree Birla lives in a mansion but her preferred place is this corner in her bedroom

The three-storeyed building is furnished with generous amenities – several grand areas for dining and entertaining guests on the ground floor, a sweeping marble staircase, private spaces and bedrooms upstairs, as well as a gym and swimming pool. The decor is a blend of European grandeur and Indian craftsmanship, a favoured aesthetic in traditional Indian palaces.

Yet Birla’s preferred spot in the mansion is a foot-wide table and armchair, lit by a tasselled lamp, next to a Dyson fan, an iPad and a jug of water, in a corner of her bedroom. It is a compact, self-contained setting. “This is where I like to read and do my pending work, in the mornings and evenings,” Birla says. The juxtaposition of scales – the almost miniature table in the expansive suite of rooms – underlines her personality, and helps to explain how she has carved a professional niche for herself.

Birla chairs the Aditya Birla Centre for Community Initiatives and Rural Development, the unit which oversees the corporate social responsibility programmes of the Aditya Birla Group of companies. The $40bn Indian multinational was named after her late husband Aditya Vikram Birla, who spearheaded its international expansion but died prematurely of cancer, aged 51, in 1995. The diversified conglomerate is now headed by Kumar Mangalam, while Birla leads its philanthropic initiatives.

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With century-old roots in commodity trading, the Birlas were among the first Indians to build an industrial empire, and the name is now synonymous with the country’s economic evolution. The group’s founder Ghanshyam Das Birla (Rajashree’s grandfather-in-law) was closely involved with India’s freedom movement, both political and economic.

“It pained my grandfather-in-law to see the total dependence on imports, for basic needs. India’s economic independence became his cause. With his remarkable vision, he turned this social cause into a profitable business,” Birla says.

The group now has global leadership in commodities such as aluminium, copper and carbon black, and has also successfully ventured into India’s newer growth sectors of mobile telephony, outsourcing and retail.

The formal living room on the ground floor©Ritam Banerjee

The formal living room on the ground floor

Birla family homes are part of history too; Mahatma Gandhi spent many months at Birla House, the family home in Delhi, and was assassinated on its grounds in 1948. Birla House is now a museum dedicated to Gandhi’s life and legacy, sponsored by the centre. “We had gone there to shoot a film on my husband because he was born there, when we saw that it was just lying vacant. Then Kumar Mangalam decided to speak to the government about doing something with the property. So they gave us the whole upper floor. And there we put up a museum, where 1,000-1,500 people visit every day,” says Birla.

The casual living room©Ritam Banerjee

The casual living room

Birla women, however, were traditionally far less visible in public life, in keeping with the conservative norms of the Marwari business community to which they belong. Rajashree Birla was engaged at the age of 10, introduced to her husband for the first time at 14 and married at 17. Although she was the first Birla daughter-in-law to be college-educated, she was not expected to have a career. Her son and daughter were always a priority for her, she says, confessing that the few occasions when she lost her sense of calm were “when my children were taking exams. I was most worried, at one point, I started crying.”

Today she runs a centre which claims to work with more than 3,000 villages, reaching out to 7m people annually in India, south-east Asia, Brazil and Egypt. She is also widely respected as one of corporate India’s most senior philanthropists, a role for which she has been awarded the Padma Bhushan, the country’s third-highest civilian honour. Birla has clearly acquired something uncommon among her female peers: an identity of her own.

She traces her interest in philanthropy to the early years of her marriage. “At that time my only wish was to build an orphanage for small children,” she says; she and her husband established one in Mumbai in the mid-1970s. She then started visiting “two or three villages in a year”, overseeing the work of company officials with grassroots communities, located close to their manufacturing operations.

One of the dining areas©Ritam Banerjee

One of the dining areas

Her interest in philanthropy increased after her husband’s death, when both she and Kumar decided to organise the companies’ existing efforts “in a more structured and organised way, with the help of professionals,” she says. The family had always been known for its tradition of giving back, particularly for establishing religious and educational institutions. Since the centre was set up, the focus has been more sharply defined to five spheres, including education, health, sustainable livelihoods, infrastructure support and social reform.

Projects range from running medical camps and setting up vocational training centres to encouraging widow remarriage, still a social taboo in many parts of India. Local communities welcome the centre’s involvement and intervention, Birla explains, adding, “It could be because there’s been a long history, they’ve seen our work. We do a lot of collaborations with government schemes and other NGOs.”

Each group company assigns budgets and targets for its CSR efforts, which are monitored every quarter. Birla is flanked by an extensive team, including several senior executives, 250 full-time CSR staff and 3,000 field workers. “Looking after CSR has become my main activity,” Birla says.

She remains conscious of her late husband’s belief in sustainable development and Gandhian values, pointing out that “Gandhi believed in self-reliance – that is very relevant today.” The development of “model villages”, or those that are fully self-sufficient in all developmental aspects, is a key focus area for the centre.

European grandeur meets Indian craftsmanship©Ritam Banerjee

European grandeur meets Indian craftsmanship

Birla’s formal demeanour conceals a lively sense of humour, which emerges when she mentions her grandchildren. “The only way I can correspond with my grandson is on Whatsapp. He replies immediately,” she laughs, admitting that a computer expert helps her to stay updated with modern technology.

Mental and physical wellbeing are also personal priorities. Birla exercises for two hours a day with personal trainers, rising early at 6am. She also has a spiritual guru, with whom she reads the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy book. Spirituality is woven into everyday life, not enforced through ritual. “I never sit and do puja for long hours. But I like to read spiritual books whenever there is an opportunity,” she says.

On a recent Caribbean cruise, Birla and a group of friends asked a guru to accompany them, to deliver discourses on the Gita. The Gita’s central theme – of selfless action, without an accompanying sense of entitlement or ego – informs her approach to her work, and helps her maintain a sense of balance and composure. “What power do we have? Recently I went to the planetarium with the children, it was so fascinating. We are not even tiny specks in the universe,” she says. In this respect, Birla manifests a quintessentially Indian trait – the ability to modernise and adapt to changing times, without losing sight of centuries-old tradition.

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Favourite thing

Jagjit Singh’s bhajans©Ritam Banerjee

A portrait of her late husband Aditya Vikram Birla and his grandfather, the conglomerate’s pioneer Ghanshyam Das Birla, is prominently placed at the entrance of Birla’s home. She considers it one of her most treasured possessions. She also likes a colourful tapestry of a woman waking up to a bright morning, which hangs in her bedroom suite. A particular collection of devotional music is a nightly essential. “Just before going to sleep I switch on Jagjit Singh’s bhajans. I listen to the same tape everyday. Most of the time I don’t even know when it gets over, so this is working for me,” she says.

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