Basant Kumar Birla was born to a great father, Ghanshyamdas, had an illustrious son, Aditya, and has an even better-known grandson, Kumar Mangalam. In the lineage, he is perhaps the least famous. So Rashme Sehgal’s book on Birla and his wife, Sarla, called Life has no full stops (Amaryliis, 2011) ought to be an interesting read. And it won’t disappoint you — it will take you from his childhood in Kolkata to his marriage, Independence, years in business, Aditya’s death and beyond. No less interesting than the text are the pictures — most in black & white and a few in colour.
The first that will catch your attention is one of Ghanshyamdas with his three brothers: Jugalkishore, Rameshwardas and Brijmohan. All are attired in white cotton dhotis and bandhgala coats. Kerchiefs peep out of their coat pockets, except for Ghanshyamdas who has two pens tucked in. Each of the four wears with pride the now-out-of-fashion Marwari cap. All are wearing well-polished Oxfords, except Ghanshyamdas who stands out because of his white jutis. In another photograph, the young and energetic Ghanshyamdas can be seen in a pin-striped suit, the tie and kerchief perfectly matched. The moustache below his nose is firm and there is an unmistakable cockiness about him. In fact, he looks more like a zamindar than a businessman.
The photograph of Ghanshyamdas’ three young sons — Laxmi Niwas, Krishna Kumar and Basant Kumar — and daughter (Chandrakala) has every sign of tradition as well as money. A leopard skin is spread in front of the diwan where the kids are seated. Krishna Kumar, though barefoot, wears anklets and also bangles. All the three boys have the Marwari cap on their head, while young Chandrakala is draped in a sari and has her head covered. There’s a dark boy standing behind the children; his head is wrapped in a white safa and he looks stiff, which marks him out as an attendant.
On another page, Basant Kumar can be seen with his moped in Delhi — really a bicycle with a tiny motor. There’s also a camera, in its tight-fitting leather bag, hanging from his neck. He is evidently pleased at these marvels of modern technology at his disposal. The sleeves of his white kurta have been rolled up, his white dhoti is crumpled, and white socks neatly go into his white PT shoes. Nothing can spoil the young man’s date with his gizmos this sunny day. On another page is the photograph of Jamnalal Bajaj’s Ford which has been sawn off from the middle and is drawn by a pair of bullocks. Basant Kumar and Sarala travelled to Wardha, where Bajaj stayed, in this car(t)! A picture of the couple on holiday in Switzerland has Sarala in a sari and overcoat and Basant Kumar in a dark suit with a tie, skiing on the Alps. In Egypt too, atop a camel and in front of the pyramids, they stick to the same dress. Aditya, their son, too wears a suit and looks all set to jump off the camel.
Of course, there are several pictures of Basant Kumar, as well as a few of Sarala, with national leaders and statesmen from across the world: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Govind Ballabh Pant, Sardar Patel, Leonid Brezhnev et al. This is something that has always puzzled me — why do businessmen, successful as well as unsuccessful, preserve with great pride their pictures with public figures? My guess is that this is the legacy of the Licence Raj when political connection was the only core competence businessmen needed to have.