Well-known publisher, social worker, campaigner and connoisseur of art, Rekha Mody makes a strong case for a woman leader paving the way for change and empowerment.
Born in 1955 into the illustrious industrialist family of Padma Bhushan Rai Bahadur GM Modi and the late Dayawati Modi, in Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh, Rekha Mody grew up in a 100-member joint family that preferred boys and where girls had to make their own space. The youngest daughter of the Modis, she had five brothers and six sisters, with her elder sisters being almost 10 years older than her. She was fortunate to have had the support of her stepmother (her father’s second wife) who gave her the freedom to write, skate and participate in various curricular activities.
Although Dayawati Modi belonged to a poor background, she was a Karmayogini Sanyasini and a champion of women’s causes. She established schools and colleges in north India and received many prestigious awards during her lifetime for her social and cultural activities. Her pet project was the inauguration of a temple in Modinagar in 1968. Rekha Mody’s formative years were primarily influenced by social activities and the presence of spiritual leaders. Nonetheless, she had an innate love for spirituality and literature. “My mother encouraged me to carve my own niche. She would allow me to travel on my own to the hill stations for 2-3 months together,” she recalls. This aspect of her growing up years remained with Mody throughout her life. In Modinagar, she was educated in a school where the children of labourers studied. Her interactions with the children brought her close to the plight of the less privileged ones. During high school in Gwalior, she again studied with the tribal girls. All these influences collectively imbued in Mody a value system with social responsibility.
The welfare initiatives
After earning a Bachelor’s degree from Meerut University in the first division, Mody married late Padam Pat Mody, a Marwari gentleman, and they had two daughters Isha and Aditi. In 1978, Mody launched Genesis bookshop. “There was this small plot right next to our palatial house in Kolkata so I thought of putting it to good use. As such literature has been my first love,” she admits. This initiative took her closer to the world of books, publishing and literary agents. In 1986, she travelled to Germany along with other Indian writers for the Frankfurt Book Fair where India was the focus country. Eventually, she formed a literary agency called Garutman Private Limited that translated Indian literature from Indian regional languages to English and promoted them in India and other countries. So far, Garutman has published 10 books. Separate Journeys, a collection of short stories by women writers, was published in India, UK and USA. Now, a Hindi edition called Tereh Halafnaame has been released. Mody has also edited Quest for Roots in English—its Hindi version being Astitva ki Khoj—a book that consists of profiles of 300 women, starting from the Vedic period.
We all know how Mother Teresa was actively involved in charitable work in West Bengal. In 1984, Mody too floated the Divya Chaya Trust, a charitable trust that allowed children belonging to different faiths to retain their religion. Another one called Save a Child Trust based in London also got associated with Mody for some decades and supported thousands of children. Currently, the Trust has four community centres: one works towards breaking the digital gap; an old-age home cum tuition centre; a community centre in Delhi; and a school in Vrindavan. Mody gets the support of hundreds of women volunteers for various activities at the Trust.
For the love of art
In 1989, Mody converted her bookshop into an art gallery and three years later brought India’s first art auction house Sotheby’s to India. With a huge art collection with her, she started the Habiart Foundation with the aim to promote contemporary art and traditional craft. Habiart provided her with a platform to interact with artists and do non profit work in the art space. “Everything I do is interconnected, and everything in my life has been a big learning for me,” says Mody. Today, she looks back at the shift as a wise decision, one which marked a major change in her life. Some projects of the foundation have been Reliving Van Gogh, Hello Monalisa and Art Against Terror, a protest that was staged when Bamiyan Buddha idols in Afghanistan were broken, and one that went up to the Parliament and was invited to Davos. In 1994, Mody started the first FM radio station in Kolkata. The opportunity came about when BBC correspondent William Mark Tully and others were looking for a partner to introduce FM Radio. The one-member marketing office consisting of Om Puri’s wife, Nandita Puri, was based in Mumbai. Two years later, the station was auctioned and sold off to a media house.