Sumati Morarjee is also known as the first woman of Indian shipping. In the initial years of the 20th century, she set a precedent as the first woman in the world to head a pioneer organisation of shipowners – Indian National Shipowners Association (INSA). She helped establish a model for modern shipping companies offering the world not only business values but propagating Indian culture and heritage.
She was born into an affluent family of Mathuradas Goculdas and his wife, Premabai, in Bombay. She was initially named Jamuna, after the sacred river associated with Krishna in Vrindavan. At the age of 13, she was married to Shanti Kumar Morarjee, the only son of Narottam Morarjee, the founder of Scindia Steam Navigation Company, which later grew to be India’s largest shipping firm.
Narottam, fascinated by Jamuna’s keen intellect, fast learning skills and a thirst for knowledge, renamed her Sumati – a Sanskrit-derived word which translates as ‘a woman with superior wisdom’. Displaying deep interest in family’s business and often sharing her insights, she was fluent in English, Hindi and Marathi. She also took the onus as the lady of the household after her mother-in-law’s early demise.
She was included in the managing agency of the company in 1923 at age 20. For 69 years, she managed Scindia Steam Navigation (SSN), co-founded by her father-in-law, Narottam Morarjee and steered the company’s exemplary success. It was under her supervision that the company rose to a fleet of 43 shipping vessels totalling 552,000 tonnes of dead weight. She was also elected as Vice-President of World Shipping Federation, London in 1970. A year later, the Government of India officially honoured her contribution by conferring the Padma Vibhushan on her. Even today, Sumati Morarjee serves to be an inspiration for modern Indian women who brave all odds to don the CEO’s role in various domains.
Unknown to many, Sumati Morarjee had a substantial contribution in India’s freedom struggle. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi considered her a close aide and used to exchange regular correspondence with her. Sumati actively participated in the underground operations of the Indian freedom movement. Using her fleet, she helped to safely transport Sindhis from Pakistan to India during the partition unrest.
Post 1947, as Indian trade slowly evolved, ships played a crucial role in facilitating exports and imports. Sumati’s expertise and experience became instrumental in helping India’s trade relations and transport. In 1956, Sumati became the first woman to be elected President of the Indian National Steamship Owners’ Association (later Indian National Shipowners Association), an honour repeated in 1957, 1958 and in 1965. Making her the sole decision-maker over her ships.
She has also been chairperson of the Narottam Morarjee Institute of Shipping. Sumati’s passion for her venture surpassed all her other attributes, as evident from the fact that she regarded her ships as her ‘daughters’. In the early 1990s, when her company ran into debts, she tried her best to save her ships from being sold.
Sumati Morarjee passed away on 27 June 1998, leaving a trail of legacy. She was the ‘Mother of Indian shipping’ in the truest sense of the phrase, as her venture went beyond business purposes and effectively helped in propagating Indian culture across Europe and America.