The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Life and Times of G.D. Birla By Medha M. Kudaisya Oxford, Rs 850

Medha M. Kudaisya has managed two things that perhaps Ghanshyamdas Birla would not have thought possible: written the story of a man who believed Indians were not up to writing his biography, and written it in a way that yanks him out of the shadow of the Mahatma. Birla had himself cast the mould in which biographers have looked at him so far — by highlighting the story of his relationship with Mahatma Gandhi in his 1953 memoir, In the Shadow of the Mahatma. Kudaisya scores a first in breaking out of this mould, placing Birla in the context of the historical forces that shaped his life and showing how he influenced them in turn.

The book gives, for the first time, a historical assessment of the man well-remembered as a builder of magnificent temples and a philanthropist whose donations ran into crores. It establishes that Birla’s complexity as a biographical subject arises from his ability to function simultaneously in several public spheres without losing count of his business interests.

Although the book tries to stay off the beaten track, it does talk about the relationship Birla shared with Gandhiji. But more important, it gives a detailed narrative of Birla’s life: his zeal in reforming the Marwari community; his patronage and funding of Hindu causes; his backing and generous financing of the Congress campaign against the British raj; his fight against foreign capital; and his transformation of the family business of trading and money-lending to make the Birlas the second largest industrial group in the country.

At one level, the book is the story of the life of a man; at another, it provides a window to the changes the country saw in the 20th century. By placing Birla against the background of history — he lived through two world wars, the global economic depression, the struggle for independence and the end of colonial rule — it provides a bird’s eye view of several processes that have coalesced to shape modern India. The book also throws light on the nexus between politicians and businessmen and uncovers the world of corporate lobbying. By dwelling on Birla’s role as a strategist for big business, it shows how the fortunes of business are shaped by the changing political times. It also takes a detailed look at his charities and turns the glare on the political edge that unlimited donations bring.

The one thing that the book — its author is the first scholar to have unrestricted access to the Birla private papers — is a little thin on is details about the man’s two marriages and the impact the death of his wives had on him. But at the end of the day, it has enough meat to overturn what Birla had once told a Times correspondent: “Certainly, no Indian can write my biography because biography isn’t an Indian skill.”

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