Sudarshan Kumar Birla, popularly known as S K Birla or simply SK to his friends, is the eldest grandson of the legendary Ghanshyam Das Birla, the patriarch of the massive Birla empire, and the son of L N Birla, who was the eldest son of G D Birla. As the creators of perhaps the largest and wealthiest Marwari business empire, the Birla clan has been synonymous with wealth, entrepreneurship and philanthropy for well over a century. Though divided now, it continues to command substantial presence in India’s corporate world through scores of businesses and through numerous philanthropic initiatives, especially educational institutions.
The Birla Education Trust
The seeds of education were sown in Pilani, the native village of the Birlas in Rajasthan, in 1901 by G D Birla’s father, Seth Shiv Narayan Birla, when he set up a pathshala for educating both his family’s children, as well as the children of the village. This pathshala, where G D and his brothers had their early education, led to the foundation of a charitable trust after more than quarter of a century called the Birla Education Trust (BET), which has grown into a huge entity today.
The Birla Education Trust was registered in 1929 in Calcutta (now Kolkata) with G D at the helm, its sole objective being to put a nondescript village in Rajasthan on the education map of the country. The rest is history. The initiative actually was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of trusteeship—a socio-economic philosophy propounded by Gandhiji, by which the wealthy of India should establish trusts for the welfare of the masses, especially the poor.
Accordingly, BET went on to spread the light of education through 400 village schools in and around Pilani and Jaipur. A century later, it still runs the Birla School, Pilani, and other reputed institutions such as the Birla Public School, Birla Balika Vidyapeeth, Birla Shishu Vihar, Birla International School, Kishangarh, and the Birla Public School, an upcoming school at Shri Ganganagar.
After G D Birla, the baton was picked up by his three sons— L N Birla, K K Birla and B K Birla—who went on to further nurture and develop the Birla Education Trust. Under their guidance, BET institutions marched ahead and flourished for their quality education and environment. In 1964, the trustees decided to segregate school education and college education and with that the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) was carved out of BET, which today is a globally famed institution. Presently BET is managed by Sudarshan Kumar Birla as a senior trustee, while B K Birla continues to be the chairman.
But why this zeal for education in his twilight years? In response, S Birla says, “It is a matter of pride for me to be associated with Birla Education Trust that has been a pioneer in the establishment of modern education in India. And what can be a better road to travel than the one traversed by our group to bring about transformation of society through education?” Incidentally, the S K Birla Group, through various trusts, runs several educational institutes including a business school in Kolkata.
A tireless educationist
Sudarshan Birla, who also is the founder of the S K Birla Group, decided to pass on the baton to the next generation in 2010, and today it is his son Sidharth who heads the group. Given his vast experience, not only is he regarded a repository of knowledge in varied fields such as finance, marketing, general management and financial and corporate restructuring, but also a worthy successor who has upheld to the letter the philanthropic spirit of the Birlas. Even at 84, with unflinching fervour he continues to pursue the Birla yen for spreading education through new educational institutions, and the Birla International School near Kishangarh (Ajmer), which has been ranked as one of India’s best international boarding school, is a testimony to this. His latest obsession, however, is the upcoming Birla Public School, Shri Ganganagar, which he is determined to turn into yet another world-class institution.
The Birla Education Trust institutions today need no introduction to the India’s academia, which runs some of the most prestigious institutions in the country.
The Birla institutions
Raised from the historic pathshala that Seth Shiv Narain Birla had established in 1901, Birla School Pilani is a reputed CBSE English medium school today that draws students from all over the country. The heritage school has two separate wings: the Day Wing and the Residential Wing. While the former caters to 1,200 students, the latter accommodates 6,00 students. Birla Public School (BPS), the flagship residential school of Pilani was established in the year 1941 as Montessori school that was developed under the personal supervision and guidance of the great educationist Madam Montessori herself. A NABET-accredited school with membership of Indian Public School Conference, International Round Square Conference and many such professional bodies, it ranks among the top five residential schools for boys. Birla Balika Vidyapeeth, established in the year 1941, is known for its quality education and co-curricular activities. It is also famed for its all girls band, the Pilani Band that has been marching down Delhi’s Rajpath on Independence Day, right from 1958 to date. Birla Shishu Vihar, contrary to what the name suggests, is a school for grownup students. It ranks among the top day schools in more categories than one. A coeducational day school, it caters to the students of Pilani and surrounding areas. The academic and non-academic domains of this school are so strong that it often throws a challenge to most other established schools. Birla International School (BIS), which is located near Kishangarh, on the Jaipur-Ajmer highway (NH-8), is Sudarshan Birla’s pet project. It sprawls over 48 acres of playgrounds, manicured lawns and an expansive school building that reflects the traditional architecture of Rajasthan.
Asked why BIS is so dear to him, Sudarshan Birla says, “Birla International School was founded by me in 2010 to take forward the legacy and standards set by the Birla family. The Gurukul system of education that existed in ancient India ensured the holistic development of a child. Inspired by this, I wanted to establish an institution par-excellence which would not only ensure the academic development of children, but also ensure their physical, spiritual and emotional development so as to nurture them to be global leaders of the 21st century.”
Despite the fact that BIS is located in an arid region, it is the first ever school to have received the prestigious Gold Rating Green Building Certification from LEED India for its splendid environment friendly green campus—a prime factor that has brought it the distinction of being one of the top international schools in the country.
Apart from schools, there is the Birla Science Centre, the country’s first science and technology museum, which was established in the year 1954 by L N Birla, under the guidance of G D Birla.
Not to forget the goddess of learning, at the heart of the Vidya Vihar campus in Pilani, a huge white marble temple is dedicated to goddess Saraswati. This is Shardapeeth (Saraswati Mandir), which is a great attraction in the town.
Towards holistic development
The mission and vision for all BET schools is to not only inculcate nationalistic fervour through the essence of India’s ancient civilisation, culture and value system, but also ensure holistic development of young minds. “The mission of all the schools forms the base to curriculum planning and concept designing, through which schools constantly strive to create a generations of young minds that think beyond the walls of class, caste, race, religion or gender,” says Sudarshan Birla.
Accordingly, apart from offering a secure and caring co-educational boarding environment to students, BET also places emphasis on academics, extra-curricular activities and games and sports to foster academic excellence, respect for others’ opinions, awareness about international affairs, understanding of environmental issues, the spirit of acceptance of challenges, leadership qualities and commitment to the service of others. In this regard, BET schools volunteer to be part of international youth exchange programmes, in collaboration with international education societies. BET also tries to arm students with aptitudes and competencies needed to resolve real life problems and lead from the front in their chosen careers, once they pass out.
Beyond the classroom
Beyond academics, students at BET schools choose from a string of hobbies such as music (vocal or instrumental), dance (classical or Western), art, clay modelling, woodcraft, brass band, photography, etc. Similarly, they can choose from a host of sporting activities such as cricket, football, volleyball, basketball, tennis, horse riding, swimming, shooting, gymnastics, skating, etc.
Making all these possible, however, requires excellent facilities, and here, all Birla schools go the extra mile to offer the best, be in terms of infrastructure and amenities, or learning and grooming. Apart from aesthetically designed air-conditioned classrooms and resources for cocurricular activities, the residential schools house excellent boarding facilities such as well-equipped sick rooms/ hospitals with qualified doctors, large dining facilities run by trained catering staff and monitored by qualified nutritionists, library, indoor and outdoor recreational facilities, etc.
Creating world citizens
The academic programme followed by most Birla schools is based on curriculum drawn from the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). Birla Schools are open to both Indian as well as foreign students. In that, not only do they look to foster an ambience that would ensure learning from different cultures, traditions and religions, but also implement a curriculum that caters to the requirements of both Indian and foreign students. SKB feels such learning through mutual appreciation would enable BET to create a society of world citizens, which is the need of the hour. The schools’ academic performances’ have been outstanding consistently, with cent per cent results and cent per cent marks scored by many in both core as well as allied subjects.
Born in 1934, Sudarshan Birla has breathed and lived business for six decades in India and abroad, having once commented, “Business runs in my blood”. In his school and college days when his friends would be playing football, cricket and other games at school, he, at the instance of his grandfather, had to don dhoti, long coat with a cap and travel to far-off Kesoram Cotton Mills in the outskirts of Kolkata. During his long tenure, not only did he familiarise himself with the nuts and bolts of business from elders but also saw the halcyon days of the Birlas under patriarch G D and later the division of the Birla business empire in the eighties, which marked the beginning of his innings together with his father Lakshmi Niwas Birla, and son Sidharth with several companies including Indian Plastics, Orient Carpet Manufacturers, Shree Digvijay Woolen Mills, Mysore Cements Ltd, Universal Electrics and Jiyajirao Cotton Mills. Apart from these, Sudarshan Birla has also taken active part in the promotion of Indian trade and commerce, having headed various chambers of commerce such as The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, Indian National Committee of International Chamber of Commerce, Indian Chamber of Commerce, Kolkata, and Chamber of Commerce of G-77 Countries of the United Nations, New York. These apart, he has also been a member of the Prime Minister’s National Integration Council.
True to the family tradition of the Birlas, Sudarshan Birla has no intention of resting on his laurels. Currently engaged in giving shape to yet another large world class English medium at Shri Ganganagar, also in Rajasthan, he still has miles to go.
Education is the metaphorical golden key that unlocks the door to not just freedom but all that is perceived to hold back mankind’s march to progress, and Sudarshan Birla has emerged as its indefatigable crusader. It’s been a long haul for him as a man, but age has not been able to dim his enthusiasm which amazingly continues to soar, quite aptly like the Minds on Wings mission of the Birla International School.