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Sarala Birla: A businessman’s wife, who won hearts with her humanity

It seemed that the entire Marwari fraternity of the city had thronged the last rites of Sarala Birla, who is respected for long as a role model for the community.

She was cremated on Sunday evening as hundreds of people, mostly from Kolkata’s business families, converged to pay their last respect to her. A deep sense of loss was palpable across Kolkata Inc.

ET spoke to a cross-section of corporate hotshots who had known her well as an accomplished academic and a philanthropist. She was inspiration for many, including her daughter-inlaw Rajashree Birla. “Pujya ma has been a role model for me. She symbolised commitment, passion, integrity and compassion. Apart from being one of the finest educationists, having established more than 20 schools, she was a woman of substance… She was a great inspiration for me and many, many others,” she had said earlier in an interview.

Wife of Basant Kumar Birla and Kumar Mangalam’s grandma, Sarala breathed her last in Delhi Saturday morning.

Ever the epitome of a true life partner, Sarala had always been at husband’s side for 73 years since their marriage in April 1942. She was 91 years old. Always dignified, Sarala stood by her husband like a rock through the thick and thin and specially in the last few years as Basant Kumar’s health deteriorated. It was a familiar sight to see her holding her husband’s hand during family functions, walking with him step by step, even accompanying him to the annual general meetings of various group companies.

“They were inseparable,” agreed all Birla sources.

Basant Kumar had once described Sarala thus: “I should not be the person to talk about my wife’s virtues, but let me say that she speaks sweetly to all. She is totally free from ego, feels deeply for others’ joys and sufferings and has a smile for everyone. She is ever-ready to help those who approach her. She wishes for everybody’s welfare and she has total faith in God.”

Recalling his interaction with Sarala Birla for more than 80 years now, SK Birla said: “She was like a mother figure for me.” For her age, she was remarkably progressive, but on certain issues she could be very orthodox. In the Birla household, where enterprise, culture and convention ruled side by side, Sarala Birla could have opted to exclusively play the role of a homemaker. But she felt her life’s mission would be incomplete if the philosophies that she had meticulously absorbed in her growing years were not put into practice. Over the years, she carved out a niche of her own in the spheres of education, art, culture and philanthropy, said Birla family sources.

A person with remarkable artistic talent, “she and her husband together had built up a formidable collection of sculptures, paintings and art objects, many of which were turned over to the Birla Academy of Art & Culture in Kolkata”, Rajendra Prasad Pansari, a close Birla aide, told ET.

Birla family sources described her as a pillar of strength for everyone in her family, the larger Birla family and to everyone she had known. “She was exemplary as far as will power is concerned. Her demise would create a void in the Birla family, which will never get filled up,” lamented DK Mantri, a family relative.

Sarala Birla was deeply concerned about education of girl child, and was in charge of the group’s educational activities, as well as social institutions including the Sangit Kala Mandir, Birla Academy of Art & Culture, Vivas wan – Sun Temple, and Mahadevi Birla Niketan.

Though her daughters, Jayashree Mohta and Manjushree Khaitan are now in charge of the various establishments, she never missed programmes or functions organised by the institutions if she was well.
Commenting on Sarala Birla’s demise, RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group Chairman Sanjiv Goenka said: “In Sarala Birla, we have lost a living legend of Kolkata. We talk about empowerment of women, but here in our city, we had shakti herself. Generations ahead, we find it difficult to believe that such a daughter, wife, mother and woman lived for so many years during two most difficult centuries of our history.”
Duncans Industries Chairman GP Goenka described Sarala Birla as an institution. Harshavardhan Neotia, chairman of Ambuja Neotia Group, said she was an incredible woman who was spiritually and deeply involved with her family, besides doing innumerable amount of philanthropic work.

An emotional Keventer Agro Chairman MK Jalan said: “It is a big loss to our society. I was in touch with her regularly. I will miss the love and affection she would shower on me during my visit at Birla Park. Her eagerness to learn a something new even at this age was exemplary. She was learning French for the last couple of years.”

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