The land of Ahmedabad that symbolizes courage is also a bearer of rich history as these great personalities have built the history of this city. Following are the people who are either born in Ahmedabad or have been a part of development of Ahmedabad.
Ahmed Shah: The Shah of all Shahs
About 600 years ago, Ahmed Shah stood on the banks of the river Sabarmati. There was no Ahmedabad at that time. But he saw an entire new city in his mind. He was only 20 years old then. But he was a mature and determined man.
Within a year of getting the throne of Gujarat in 1410, he moved from Patan to Ashaval. Ashaval was a small village. Ahmed Shah moved into the place with one lakh soldiers, 800 elephants, 32,000 camels, 600 cannons and 1,600 cattle carts. And Ashaval became Ahmedabad.
Ahmed Shah ruled for 32 years and left behind monuments that have not crumbled even today. The examples are Manek Burj on the corner of Ellisbridge, Bhadra fort and Jama Masjid. In fact, the city’s foundation was laid at Manek Burj, which was the first settlement to be built for the fort walls.
The sultan was a scholar and had a deep understanding of religion, government and Justice. When his son-in-law murdered a man for no clear reason, the judge let him go with a fine. Ahmed Shah came to know about this, he reversed the judgement. Ahmed Shah issued a death sentence. He did not want people to think that his son-in-law could get away with murder. He hanged his son-in-law in the courtyard of his palace. And no major crime was reported in the city during Ahmed Shah’s reign.
Ranchhodlal Chhotalal: The original Rancho
Like Aamir Khan in the hit Bollywood movie ‘3 Idiots‘, this Amdavadi always listened to his heart. He believed in innovation and excellence. He was Ranchhodlal Chhotalal- the real Rancho of Ahmedabad. He was the one who put the city on the textile industry map of the world. He founded the city’s first textile mill. He raised the Gujarati business spirit to a higher level.
As the first president of the Ahmedabad Municipality, he laid common water supply lines in 1883. There was massive opposition from the upper castes. And it took him two years to convince people. He roped in Kavi Dalpatram, who penned a poem that was recited at every community gathering. He also ordered literature about health and hygiene from England. He shared the works with prominent doctors of the city.
Ranchhodlal Chhotalal laid the foundation of the Manchester of the East in 1888. He also gave idea of connecting Ahmedabad to Dholera and Ghogha ports through the Sabarmati waterway. Today, these regions are expected to become drivers of Gujarat’s economic growth. In 1894, he joined other big entrepreneurs like Mansukhlal Bhagubhai, Sarabhais, Lalbhai Dalpatbhai and Shambhuprasad Laskare to float the Gujarat Navigation Company. Besides river connectivity, he also proposed a rail link between Ahmedabad and Dholera. But the British did not accept the plan. History is repeating itself after 120 years. A metro link to Dholera is being planned by the government of Gujarat.
Nightingale hailed city’s hygiene
Florence Nightinagle‘s caring hand during the Crimean War( (1853-1856) made her the most famous nurse in the world. She was known as ‘Lady with the lamp’. That is because she took care of wounded British soldiers in temporary hospitals.
She was also an authority on situation, the field connected to health and hygiene. British officials thought Indians did not care about situation. But Florence never believed that. She always gave the example of Ahmedabad’s work in sanitaion. She specially mentioned the president of Ahmedabad Municipality, Ranchhodlal Chhotalal. In 1881, the international Congress of Hygiene and Demography was held in London. There, Florence icluded Ranchhodlal’s paper, ‘The sanitation of the city of Ahmedabad in the Mumbai Presidency’.
Ranchhodlal kept in touch with Florence and often sought her advice. Once, Ranchhodlal wanted a sanitary engineer for Ahmedabad. Florence sent a copy of his letter to her friend, Sir Douglas Galton. In the letter, she said: “We can’t abandon the people of Ahmedabad as they have done everything we have asked them to do for the city. Ahmedabad is working splendidly at water supply and sewerage with the initiative of Mr. Ranchhodlal Chhotalal… We hope the good example will be followed by other cities.”
Sardar Patel: Smashed walls, built modern Ahmedabad
Ye diwaron ko tod do… And, the new Ahmedabad grew out of the strengthened walls. The walls were partly demolished. Today, the city has over five million residents.
The man who saw modern Ahmedabad in his mind was the Iron Man of India- Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Sardar was a visionary, a man who could plan great things for future. He decided that Ahmedabad should grow out of the walled city. And he wanted the city to spread beyond the river on the western side.
Sardar started his political career as a corporator of the Ahmedabad Municipality in 1917. Later, when he was elected president, he felt Ahmedabad was boxed in the walled city. he knew it had to be expanded.
In 1872, when Sardar took over, he broke down the walls and this shocked many people, especially Muslims. They had felt safe withing the huge walls built by former rulers. Professor Rizwan Kadri says, “There was much opposition to the move. But Sardar stuck to his guns and finally won over the masses, by saying that unless we break down the walls and expand our horizons, our development will remain inhibited.”
Sardar wanted Ahmedabad to be a new-age city. He came up with Ellisbridge and Maninagar as part of town-planning schemes. Sardar planned to expand the city from the walled city, across the river with the Ellisbridge Town Planning Scheme. Farmers opposed this move because they were losing land. But Sardar made them realize that his dream of a new city would bring prosperity to all.
He wanted women’s reservation in 1918
Should women be encouraged to become lawmakers in Parliament and legislative assemblies? This question was debated for almost 12 years. And it was resolved in Ahmedabad. In 1919, the Ahmedabad Municipality passed a resolution allowing women to contest elections. Till then, women were barred from contesting civic elestions. In 1918, the country for the first time debated about involving women in politics. Bombay Municipality tabled a proposal to allow women to contest the civic elections on December 12, 1918. It was rejected by an all-male council.
But Ahmedabad had the Iron Man of India as city councillor. He sent a letter to the president of the municipality, Raman Neelkanth, on February 13, 1919. In that letter, Sardar requested that the council be opened for women. Neelkanth accepted Sardar’s idea and moved the proposal on March 13, 1919. Later, Sardar gave a speech in the cpuncil demanding the Bombay Municipality Act to be changed. “Because you cannot leave half the population out of decision making process,” he said. Inspired by Sardar’s oratory, all members passed the proposal.
Indulal Yagnik wrote in Navjivan: “This is the first time in India that such a proposal has been passed and this initiative by Ahmedabad is significant in the light od Bombay’s rejection.” Yagnik was to later lead the movement to carve out a separate Gujarat state.
And what happened to the initiative? It did not see the light of day because othe municipalities under Bombay state did not take the same line.
Kasturbhai Lalbhai: Difficulties = Opportunity
At a time when the world was facing economic problems, India did not have too many difficulties. And no other Indian state had been stronger economically than Gujarat. The state, which is home to Nano project, has led the first fight-back. Just like it did during the Great Depression of 1930 as the Manchester of the East. During this period, the city-based Arvind Group was shining example of converting problems into opportunity.
Then there came a phase. Textile mills around Ahmedabad were collapsing. Even then, textile baron Kasturbhai Lalbhai did not lose hope. He preyed on the fact that prices of machines were falling in England. He imported new machinery at 30% lower prices and churned out the best quality fabric.
Business historian and former IIM-A faculty, Dr Dwijendra Tripathi has written a book called ‘The dynamic of a tradition- Kasturbhai Lalbhai and his entrepreneurship’. In that Tripathi says: “The group made progress during one of the worst periods in the history of the Indian textile industry… The only other example of such enterprise during the Great Depression was Henry Ford of US, who is also known as the father of the modern automobile industry.”
Today, history is repeating itself for Arvind Group. It is India’s largest denim maker and a great success story.
This is the city which has given birth to visionaries. People who have the power to think about or plan the future are called Kasturbhai Lalbhai and Vikram Sarabhai. Vikram Sarabhai is the founder of the Ahmedabad Education Society (AES).
Sheth Kasturbhai bought a huge stretch of land from Swastik crossroads to Vastrapur. He knew that this city would eventually need it for creating professional workers. And Sarabhai put this land to good use of establishing the Indian Institute of Management- Ahmedabad.
It was a healthy coexistence that depended on the principle of demand and supply. But something began to go wrong in the mid-50s. The irony is that IIM-A, the face of quality education in India, did not have Amdavadi students. When Gujarat was about to cut the ties from the former Bombay state, political factions began to dictate terms. They decided to vote against industrialists taking charge of educational campuses. Sarabhai lost the elections for vice-chancellor of Gujarat University (GU).
GU was established in 1949 on the AES grounds. In 1956, GU passed a resolution to drop English as its medium of instruction. Educationalists today say that Ahmedabad lacks the competitive edge. And, it is because of English education. Facts support this view. Ahmedabad has approximately, 521 Gujarati medium schools and only 123 English medium schools.
Vikram Sarabhai: Institution builder par excellence
He lived for only 52 years, but gave Ahmedabad what many successive goevernments could not. People who knew Dr Vikram Sarabhai say that when he lived, Ahmedabad grew with the speed of light. It also created world-class institutions.
Sarabhai was the scion of the family that owned Calico textile mills. He carried out research about cosmic rays. He set up the Indian Institute of Management (IIM-A), Physical Research Laboratory (PRL). Ahmedabad Textile Industries Research Association, Ahmedabad Management Association and Community Science Centre.
Dr Padmnabh Joshi, a close friend of Sarabhai, says: “I did not know till he died that he was chairman of Atomic Energy Commission and secretary of the department of atomic energy!” Joshi has done a doctorate on Sarabhai.
Though Sarabhai hardly lived in Ahmedabad, he worked for it very hard throughout his life. But for Sarabhai, Ahmedabad would have remained a city only dealing with business.
Mills dominated the city across the eastern bank of the river. And Sarabhai started working on its western bank. He changed the landscape by making institutions and creating campuses. Those institutions have propelled Ahmedabad’s growth.
He made city think of culture
He is known as the father India’s space programme. But few know that Dr Vikram Sarabhai also brought culture business-obsessed Ahmedabad.
He loved classical music and dance. In fact, he personally designed the stage for the Bharatnatyam performance of his wife. That was way back in the 40s.
“Vikram took a great deal of interest in the stage and lighting for my recitals,” writes Mrinalini in her autobiography.
“Vikram enrolled in a stage-lighting course in London to design the sets for Mrinalini.” says Padmnabh Joshi. Vikram Sarabhai also took deep interest in setting up Darpana Academy.
In the letter written to the family in 1944, his interest in the subject was aptly reflected.
“It is quite an innovation to such dance performances to use light background intead of the usual dark, blue or black curtain,” he writes. “I think that the effect is very successful, for the soft colours of curtains add life to the whole setting, and make it more in harmony with the kind of dance that Bharatnatyam is.” He further writes, “I have also got portable footlights and sidelights for Mrinal, and those will also be very useful for her future performances.”
Sheth Kesrising Hutheesing: Opium trader gave city a new high
He was one of the richest merchants in the history of Ahmedabad. He was the most influential trader in western India in the 1800s. He exported opium mainly to China, which had a huge market for the drug.
But Sheth Kesrising Hutheesing’s wealth was not meant for luxuries alone. He donated generously to social causes as well. He donated land for Civil Hospital at Asarwa. He also laid the foundation for the Anandji Kalyanji Trust. It’s still the country’s largest philonthropic group. Today, this trust is spread across the country and contributes to a variety of cause. But, its donors remain anonymous, just as Hutheesing wanted.
Mridula Sarabhai: Saraben from Sarabhais“If I had a hundred women like Mridula, I could launch revolution in India,” said Mahatma Gandhi about this courageous woman. Her courage and commitment to create a better society in unparalleled. She was the eldest daughter of Ambalal and Sarla Sarabhai and the sister of Vikram Sarabhai.
Mridula came under the spell of Gandhiji at a young age. She left home to join the Salt Satyagraha. She worked for women’s roghts, the freedom struggle and for Hindu-Muslim unity. She was imprisoned several times between 1930 and 1944.
Mridula worked fearlessly during communal riots. The riots broke out soon after Independence. She worked to protect the rights of minorities and restore peace. Her work to make possible the release of abducted women in Punjab after the Partition is well known.
The last 20 years of her life were devoted to Kashmir. She was also a journalist for some time. Unlike her siblings, she obeyed Gandhiji’s call to boycott foreign institutions and refused to study abroad. She enrolled at Gujarat Vidyapith in 1982, but dropped out during the Salt Satyagaraha. In 1934, Mridula established Jyoti Sangh in Ahmedabad. It is an organisation run by women for women. It not only fights for women’s rights but also helps them earn a livelihood and become independent.
B V Doshi: Architect with a Sufi soul
If B V Doshi had not become a famed architect, he would have been a poet, a Sufi, a kathakar or a kirtankar. His words have the beauty of a religious thought. Doshi is a Gujarati from Pune. One of his best works in the city is his studio, Sangath. It is like a sanctuary of art. It has soft white mosaic domes resting on rolling green lawns. Even in his architecture, he is always trying to connect form, space and environment to spirituality. A fine example is the L D Museum.
Doshi worked on the Amdavad ni Gufa with M F Husain, one of India’s most famous artists. He has worked with the world’s greatest architects, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn.
Doshi is one of the pioneers of the School of Architecture, CEPT University. he says, “I like teaching. I feel like a gardener when I nurture students and see them blossom.”
“Ahmedabad is a fascinating human habitation. It is the most important living historical city in India. The walled city is our cherished possession. For us architects and planners, Ahmedabad is an ideal model which, with perhaps a few modifications, should fulfill contemporary needs. The walled city imbibes a culture of sharing, exchanges and gatherings and is designed around ethos which we hold so dear. This is the sole reason why the city has survived for 600 years.”
Ela Bhatt: Sisterhood’s Big Ben
It is a Gujarati custom to address women as ben. But it was Ela Bhatt who found that the word had the sense of ‘sisterhood’ too.
And it didn’t take her long to bring the women of Gujarat together to form what is today the country’s largest trade union.
And for over three decades, she has held firm. The power comes from the collective strength of women. That is the foundation of her organisation, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). SEWA’s membership now touches 10 lakh. It began in 1972, when Elaben became angry that women in the unorganized sector were being termed as ‘marginal’. Marginal to what, she asked. She then gave voice to these women. They were rag-pickers, street vendors or crafts-people from Gujarat’s deserts.
If you find echoes of Mahatma Gandhi in her words, put it down to her upbringing. Her grandfather had joined Gandhiji’s Salt March. She began her career as a lawyer with the Textile Labour Association, a union formed by Gandhiji.