Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Chandrayaan-3: Kartikeya V Sarabhai on his family's legacy from textiles to space research

Vikram Sarabhai was nurtured and grew up at a time when there was a tradition of not thinking only of business as your business but doing things for the country and larger society as also your calling, your work, your business, Kartikeya V Sarabhai, writes

Published: Sep 6, 2023 02:39:29 PM IST
Updated: Sep 8, 2023 06:52:10 PM IST

(Clockwise from top) The Sarabhai family; Vikram Sarabhai with son Kartikeya; Mallika (extreme left), Mrinalini, Kartikeya and Vikram (right)
Image: Courtesy Sarabhai Family(Clockwise from top) The Sarabhai family; Vikram Sarabhai with son Kartikeya; Mallika (extreme left), Mrinalini, Kartikeya and Vikram (right) Image: Courtesy Sarabhai Family
On August 23, as the time approached 6.04 pm, the nation held its breath. Each of those last few minutes seemed long and there was a lot of understandable tension. My 11-year-old grandson Kavan held my arm tight as we sat in anticipation, glued to the television. Finally, Vikram landed, softly and exactly as it was supposed to. There was a spontaneous outburst of joy wherever the cameras could take their viewers. The phones started to ring. Media channels wanted a sound bite. “How did you feel?” was one of the first questions. “Like every other proud Indian”, I would reply, “full of admiration for the team at ISRO which had so meticulously and without much hyperbole conducted a very difficult operation, one which no other country had done before”. The lander did carry my father’s name in respect of his contribution to establishing the Indian Space Agency, but he belonged to all of us. 

(Clockwise from top) The Sarabhai family; Vikram Sarabhai with son Kartikeya; Mallika (extreme left), Mrinalini, Kartikeya and Vikram (right)
Image: Courtesy Sarabhai FamilyYoung Vikram Sarabhai was fortunate. Born in what was then one of the leading industrialist families, his passion for science was encouraged by his parents. A small lab was set up, under the water tank, at The Retreat, the family estate in Shahibag, Ahmedabad. Never was there any pressure to only focus on the business which was then largely textiles—the Calico mill was one of the largest in the city. That tradition of not thinking only of business as your business but doing things for the country and for the larger society as also your calling, as also your work, your business was quite unique and rare.

Ambalal Sarabhai himself belonged to a wealthy family in the city. His grandfather Maganbhai, otherwise a merchant, was known for his love of trees. He started the first girls’ schools in Ahmedabad in 1851. It was Ambalal’s father who, at the young age of 18, took responsibility for running the Calico mill in 1880. Calico was a small unit then. He died at a very young age. Ambalal who inherited this responsibility was determined to modernise the textile mill. He spent time in England studying modern textile manufacturing at Lancashire in the UK. Working with cutting-edge technology and bringing to India what was best in the world was another characteristic of the way the family saw their mission. In 1937, Calico erected India’s first Diamond Mesh Mosquito Netting plant.  

Ambalal had helped his sister Anasuya to go to London and study at the London School of Economics. When she returned, she started working with the children of textile workers. In 1917, there was a plague epidemic in Ahmedabad. To help the workers, mills in Ahmedabad had started to give a plague allowance along with the salary. But, by 1918, the plague was over and the millowners wanted this allowance removed. The workers resisted and it soon led to a general strike. Ambalal was the head of the Millowners Association, and Anasuya was leading the workers. The brother and sister, while leading opposite sides, would still eat together at night. Nowhere did the family question whose was the right ‘business’? The legitimacy of both stands and actions were equal, even in the eyes of each other. Finally, the strike ended with a formula worked out by Gandhiji, who had returned to India just a few years before this and set up his ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati.

(Clockwise from top) The Sarabhai family; Vikram Sarabhai with son Kartikeya; Mallika (extreme left), Mrinalini, Kartikeya and Vikram (right)
Image: Courtesy Sarabhai Family Staff members of Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre in Ahmedabad Image: Sam Panthaky / AFP
Mahatma Gandhi was a huge influence on the family. Anasuya had started working closely with Gandhiji. My grandmother Sarladevi and my aunt Mridula had also joined the movement for Independence. They started wearing only khadi. Ambalal, while being a strong supporter, was an aristocrat. Dressed in some of the best suits tailored in Savile Row in England, he not only understood but also supported those in the family who had made it their business to give their best for India’s Independence. Inspired by Gandhiji, Mridula established the Jyoti Sangh to improve the status of women.  

Vikram’s education was quite unique. He and his seven siblings had been home-schooled, at a school set up in the Retreat compound. Wanting quality education for their children, Sarladevi had been in search of an answer when she came across the early writings of Madame Montessori. In England, she visited some of the Montessori schools and with the help of Madame Montessori established a school on the Montessori principals, the first such school in India. Later, with the family’s increasing closeness with Rabindranath Tagore, the pedagogy of Shantiniketan, especially in the arts, had a huge impact on the school. The basic philosophy, as Sarladevi used to say, was to nurture each child so that the best of the child’s inherent qualities and talents emerge. Not to try and fit the child into some predetermined mould of what the parents thought best. In this sense, a person’s ‘business’ emerged from within as much as it was a reflection of the external situation and what the family did. In 1948, my aunts Leena along with Manorama started Shreyas, a school based on the same principles.

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The three sons of Ambalal and Sarladevi, having pursued different subjects at Oxford and Cambridge, joined the business. The eldest Suhrid died young and Gautam—on his return—started working at Calico. Vikram, while continuing his research also started working on what was then a small chemical operation in Vadodara. His association with the textile business and his strong belief in scientific research as a way to improve led him to establish ATIRA, the Ahmedabad Textile Industrial Research Association in 1947. In that same year, he founded the Physical Research Laboratory, PRL, which was to become the cradle of India’s space programme. In this, he had the support of Kasturbhai Lalbhai the head of another one of Ahmedabad’s business families. In the tradition of not defining one’s business as only industry and trade, he was a pioneer in several initiatives that have shaped Ahmedabad as it is today, including the Ahmedabad Education Society. The support and partnership with Kasturbhai remained strong throughout Vikram’s life. With my mother Mrinalini, Vikram helped establish the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts that my sister Mallika now heads.  

Working in the Sarabhai Enterprises, Gautam established new standards and new technologies. Calico became one of the most modern and diversified pacesetters of the Indian cotton industry. It was the first to make cotton and later synthetic sewing thread. It diversified into manufacturing caustic soda and chlorine at a plant in Mumbai and later PVC. In 1974, it put up India’s first Polyester Fibre Plant in collaboration with ICI, UK. With his sister Gira joining the business, Calico became a name in design. Gira with Gautam established the Calico Museum of Textiles, considered one of the finest collections in the world. They played a critical role in the establishment of the National Institute of Design, NID, in Ahmedabad. Meanwhile, Gautam’s wife Kamalini started Balghar and the BM Institute of Mental Health in 1951.

(Clockwise from top) The Sarabhai family; Vikram Sarabhai with son Kartikeya; Mallika (extreme left), Mrinalini, Kartikeya and Vikram (right)
Image: Courtesy Sarabhai FamilyVikram Sarabhai being honoured by the citizens of Ahmedabad after he was appointed as the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1966 Image: Courtesy Sarabhai Family
In the business, Vikram focussed on the chemical business. In a short duration, with collaborations with ER Squibb, USA, and Geigy, Switzerland, among others, the Sarabhai businesses were rapidly becoming the leaders in pharmaceuticals. Vikram realised the need for India to produce its active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) and critical bulk drugs. Synbiotics was set up to produce fermentation-based antibiotics and a vitamin C plant was set up in collaboration with E Merc, Germany. With his strong belief in research and science-based decision-making, he set up ORG, the operations research group. For years it provided the main database and tool for pharmaceutical marketing.

During this period, he was also responsible for the creation of a number of institutions, including the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad (IIM-A). Earlier he had played a leadership role in the formation of the Ahmedabad Management Association (AMA), one of the most active local business associations in the country. He was a strong believer in professional management and established many management systems in the family business. Key employees were sent abroad for further studies. Mr KJ Divatia, who had joined Sarabhai Chemicals in the quality control department went on to become the chairman of the business.

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In early 1966, Homi Bhabha died in a plane crash and Vikram was appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, which included the Department of Space. At that time, he had to resign from all his positions in the Sarabhai businesses. He was instrumental in developing the initial culture and ambition that drives ISRO. I remember as a student standing at the end of a big hall in Delhi with papa explaining how space and satellites could be used to reach educational television to the remotest of Indian villages and how satellites were the future for point-to-point communications. He was asked then what business had ISRO in education and communication.He knew what wonders space could do for the country and did not let anyone else define his ‘business’.

After the success of Chandrayaan-3, when I was asked if I thought Vikram Sarabhai’s dream was now fulfilled, I replied that from what I knew of him, development was as much his dream as scientific exploration itself. And by development he did not mean develop in the conventional fossil fuel-based way, but in a responsible and self-evolved way. We had to define our goals and leapfrog using the best of technologies without forgetting who we are. That day will certainly come.

(Clockwise from top) The Sarabhai family; Vikram Sarabhai with son Kartikeya; Mallika (extreme left), Mrinalini, Kartikeya and Vikram (right)
Image: Courtesy Sarabhai FamilyThe Physical Research Laboratory (left), founded in 1947 by Vikram Sarabhai with support from Kasturbhai Lalbhai, went on to become the cradle of India’s space programme; Mrinalini Sarabhai founded the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad Image: LEFT: Image: Courtesy Sarabhai Family.; Manpreet Romana / AFP
When I went to Cambridge in 1965, I was very sure I wanted to do physics and mathematics. But with a major drought happening in Bihar in 1967 and generally seeing India’s development issues, I decided that I would like to switch to understanding development processes and how we could impact them. Papa advised me to finish my degree in sciences and then go to MIT, Cambridge,USA, where I studied Development Communications. Papa passed away at the end of 1971. The Nehru Foundation for Development was the youngest of the institutions he had founded. I took up this responsibility. Over the next two decades, we strengthened the Community Science Centre, now named after Vikram Sarabhai, and established VIKSAT, Sundarvan, CHETNA and the Centre for Environment Education (CEE). Thinking of larger societal issues and setting up institutions to deal with them was part of the legacy of learning and thinking.  

My cousin Suhrid joined the business in the late 1960s and I started working in the business in the mid-1970s. But as is the problem in many family businesses, issues of succession proved difficult. An interim solution was worked out, but nothing very satisfactory.

In 1980, Calico celebrated its centenary under Suhrid’s chairmanship. But all was not well, and the businesses went through a very difficult period in the late 1980s and 1990s with the collapse of the Calico mills and the sharp downward trend of the other businesses. On Gautambhai’s passing, I rejoined the business towards the end of 1995 and started a difficult and long-drawn-out process of solving old problems. Today, we have been able to clean up most of the problems and set the ground for growth.  

My son Mohal who started working in the family business leads much of the new developments, which are now all a part of Ambalal Sarabhai Enterprises,a publicly listed company, its subsidiaries and joint ventures. There is today once more excitement in a business house that once was the sixth largest in the country. The business is back to sourcing cutting-edge technologies and things relevant to the country. A project to accurately detect infectious diseases in a cost-effective way across India for all its villages is on the anvil. Others in the family pursue their own passions whether in textiles and fashion, architecture, the arts and theatre, education, the preservation of heritage and hospitality and high-quality design and construction. Some work through business enterprises while others through non-profit entities espousing a wide range of causes. Abhay, Leenaben’s grandson now leads the Shreyas Foundation.

A few years ago, a very large, beautiful and ancient Pipal tree crashed to the ground in heavy rain right in front of our Ahmedabad office. It was too heavy to move, and we left it there. Before long new shoots started coming up from the fallen trunk. And in just a few years these shoots drawing strength from the trunk have shot up to sizable young trees. Businesses and institutions can also be resilient if they remember their core values and heritage. We hope to see these new ventures take off with as much precision as the Vikram landing.