LADY MEHERBAI TATA (1879–1931)
Meherbai Tata was a social worker and philanthropist. Her father was the educationist H.J. Bhaba, who had personally supervised his daughter’s education and introduced her to European ideas and people. She was beautiful and accomplished, and had a love for English literature and playing the piano. She married Sir Dorabji Tata, eldest son of Sir Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata and elder brother of J.R.D. Tata. She was thus uniquely placed to advance the cause of women, belonging to one of India’s foremost families, and having access to the drawing rooms of Europe as well as the palaces of India.
In 1904, six years after her marriage, she went on a tour of Europe, and was struck by European women’s commitment to social work. She felt that a network of women’s clubs should be formed among well-to-do Indian women as well. In 1905 she organized an exhibition of women’s crafts as part of the Industrial Exhibition in Bombay. But she also exhorted her compatriots to show an active interest in social problems, to visit the slums and talk to poor women rather than set up homes and orphanages.
In 1917 she led a large delegation of women to the Viceroy to protest the condition of indentured labourers in the colonies. She blamed purdah, caste differences and lack of education for the divisions between women and their inability to associate with each other and produce social change.
Under her aegis the National Council of Indian Women was formed in 1929. Those who joined were, like Lady Tata, wives of powerful men who could use their husbands’ wealth and status for social work, but unlike Lady Tata they did not feel the necessity of making links with slum women. Thus the pattern of the Council’s work came ever closer to the social work undertaken by ‘society’ ladies in Europe, in spite of Lady Tata’s rather different intentions.
She was a keen sportswoman, and especially enjoyed tennis and riding. When playing games she always wore a sari and was dismissive of women who played in Western clothes. In 1912 she became the first Indian woman to fly. She also drove her own car. She died of leukemia in 1931. Shortly after her death, Dorabji established the Lady Tata Memorial Trust to help advance the study of diseases of the blood.