Raman Mahadevan, economic and business historian based in Bangalore talks, to Business Today about the evolution of the role of women in Indian business families
Q What was the participation of women in Indian businesses in the pre Independence era?
Broadly, in the pre-independence era, Indian business, both traditional or the indigenous variant as well as the modern enterprise as embodied in the form of companies were very much a male dominated sphere. This was consistent with the then dominant patriarchal social mores. Furthermore, Indian business across large swathes of India was largely dominated by members of the vaishya or merchant castes, of various hues. Being essentially conservative social groups the women from these communities were by design excluded from the nitty gritty world of commerce and business. They were essentially perceived as home makers and care givers. This was largely true of India of the Pre-1947 period though there were signs of change from around the 1940s. As a rule there were hardly any women even in the Board of Directors of the companies, let alone managing companies on their own. Paradoxically even the Parsis who were otherwise considered as a relatively more westernised business community being more readily open to assimilating modern cultural mores were not exceptional in this case. The only Parsi woman and probably the first Indian women in Imperial India to be coopted as a director of a company was Navajbai Tata, wife of Sir Ratan Tata, the younger son of Tata Group founder Jamsetji Tata. Navajbai was inducted as a full-fledged Director of Tata Sons Ltd, the holding company of all Tata enterprises in Pre Independence India. She joined the Board in 1918 following the death of her husband and remained in that position for several decades.
Q What was the scenario in South India?
Down South the situation wasn't very different either. Paradoxically while the Chettiar banking firms spread all across south India and in the overseas regions in the pre independence period, were not averse to accepting deposits from Chettiar women, being the stridhanam or bride price acquired by the women at the time of the marriage and which they prudently invested and nursed its growth, yet the women were kept out of the business enterprise. Even in post-Independence India the few surviving Chettiar firms do not have any women members in the board of companies. Their role was largely confined to social work, philanthropy and managing schools and colleges It was much the same in the other major commercial centres of Imperial India be it Bombay Calcutta or Ahmedabad.
Q Did women have any role in business in European establishments in Imperial India?
Interestingly, the situation with respect to women representation in the management of companies in several European or British controlled companies in imperial India wasn't very different either. The only exception was the British India Corporation set up in Kanpur 1920 by Alexander Macrobert with a view to amalgamating six other European/British enterprises which were into manufacturing of woollen textiles and leather among other products. Following his death in 1922 lady Rachel Workman MacRobert was inducted into the board of BIC, a position which she held until the late 1930s. This is probably the first instance of a European women being associated with the management of a company in India. However, In so far as pre-Independence India is concerned, the distinction of being the first full-fledged women entrepreneur closely associated with a modern enterprise would fall, without question, on Mrs Sumati Morarjee. She was clearly the pioneer and trend setter for women who were to follow. Married to Shanti Kumar Narottam Morarjee, the son of Narottam Morarjee, an established business man and the co promoter along with Walchand Hirachand of the renowned Scindia Steam Navigation Company Sumati was inducted into the managing agency firm by her father in law and following his death in 1929 she along with her husband began devoting greater attention to the management of the company. It was however in the late 1940s that she assumed greater responsibilities of running the company. Her role in guiding the company and her expertise in the area of shipping eventually resulted in Sumati being nominated as the President of the Indian National Steam Owners Association in 1956.
Q What will be the big game changers for women in Indian business post independence?
A few major game changers in so far as women general empowerment and the creation of a favourable environment for women to enter business in post-Independence India would include the Amendment of the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 with the right of women to an equal share of the family property was a landmark act and a catalyst for change in so far as women's rights were concerned. Increasing access to quality education for girls was another notable feature of the post-independent India developmental programme. This had implications over time in building up the necessary professional skills among girls, which in turn enabled them to seize the opportunities for professional advancement. Many of the third or fourth generation women entrepreneurs from business families were able to shoulder major business responsibilities with confidence because of their exposure to specialised professional education. Another major social change that got underway as a consequence of the deepening of the development process and the strengthening of market forces in post independence India was the dissolution of joint families and its substitution by the growing nuclearisation of families. This was true of business families. This in the long run tended to create the necessary space for women to be involved in the family business. Thus women were encouraged to be involved directly in family business because of the absence of a male progeny. Role of the women's movement right through the 1960s 1970s and 1980s in empowering women and sensitising society at large for need to legitimise equal access to rights across the gender divide needs to be appropriately acknowledged. It certainly contributed in creating a more favourable climate of introspection and of the need to move towards reform.