At birth, her parents had named her Jamuna after the sprightly Northern river that wove the history of India for ages. Little did they know then that their only daughter among seven children would one day play a substantial role in shaping the history of the nation.
Sumati Morarjee, as Jamuna came to be known as later, is recognised as the Mother of Indian shipping. In the nascent years of the 20th century, she set a precedent as the first woman in the world to head a pioneer organisation of shipowners – Indian National Shipowners Association (INSA).
For 69 years, she managed Scindia Steam Navigation (SSN), co-founded by her father-in-law, Narottam Morarjee and steered the company’s exemplary success. She was also elected as Vice-President of World Shipping Federation, London in 1970. A year later, the Government of India officially honoured her contribution by conferring the Padma Vibhushan on her.
Even today, Sumati Morarjee serves to be an inspiration for modern Indian women who brave all odds to don the CEO’s role in various domains.
Born on 13 March 1909 to Mathuradas Gokuldas and his wife Premabai, an affluent merchant family in Bombay (now Mumbai), Jamuna grew up under the strict vigilance of a society which limited a girl child’s freedom in ways too many. At the tender age of thirteen, Jamuna was married to Shanti Kumar Morarjee, the only son of Narottam Morarjee, an eminent industrialist of pre-Independence India.
As records reveal, extravagant would be an understatement for their wedding – the festivities for which lasted nearly a month. It was no surprise that Shanti would inherit his father’s property and would head the family businesses of textiles and shipping one day. What was beyond imagination was Jamuna’s induction into the forefront of the Morarjee business estate.
Narottam was fascinated by a teenager Jamuna’s keen intellect, fast learning skills and a thirst for knowledge. He decided to rename his daughter-in-law as Sumati – a Sanskrit-derived word which translates as a woman with superior wisdom. At that age, she was fluent in English and Hindi and Marathi. Time and again, she expressed her deep interest in the Morarjee family’s business affairs and often shared her brilliant insights. Sumati also took the onus as the lady of the household after her mother-in-law’s early demise.
When she was barely an adult, Shanti nominated his wife to the managing agency of SSN. At 20, Sumati thus became an integral part of the company’s management.
Sumati joined the company in 1923 when the shipping venture was at its infancy, with Morarjee parlaying a few vessels for cargo transport between India and Europe. Over the next few decades, Sumati single-handedly scaled the company’s strength to a fleet of 43 large ships.
In 1946, as India was slowly inching towards the dawn of freedom, Sumati quietly assumed complete charge of SSN, supervising over six thousand employees. Throughout 1956-58, she was consecutively elected as the president of INSA and also once again in 1965.
Unknown to many, Sumati Morarjee had a substantial contribution in India’s freedom struggle. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi considered her a close aide and used to exchange regular correspondence with her. Sumati actively participated in the underground operations of Indian freedom movement. Using her fleet, she helped to safely transport Sindhis from Pakistan to India during the partition unrest.
Post 1947, as Indian trade slowly evolved, ships started playing a crucial role in facilitating exports and imports. Sumati’s expertise and experience became instrumental in helping India’s trade relations as well as transport. She had written several essays and articles about the correlation between governmental policies and the Indian shipping scene.
When not strategising covert operations for Independence or heading business meets, Sumati would often perform a lot of social endeavours like founding schools and conducting relief operations. She was also known to be a deeply spiritual person.
However, Sumati’s passion for her venture surpassed all her other attributes, as evident from the fact that she regarded her ships as her ‘daughters’. In the early 1990s, when her company ran into debts, she tried her best to save her ships from being sold.
Sumati Morarjee passed away on 27 June 1998, leaving a trail of legacy. She was the ‘Mother of Indian shipping’ in the truest sense of the phrase, as her venture went beyond business purposes and effectively helped in propagating Indian culture across Europe and America.
It is not purely for business motives that we today concentrate on shipping….We did business in merchandise for centuries, but our most precious cargo has been ideas of universal brotherhood and deep spirituality…, reiterates one of Sumati’s most famous quotes.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Sumati’s mother tongue was Marathi. The same has been rectified. The error is regretted.