Philanthropist and respected jeweller, Surendra Manilal Mehta, passed away peacefully at his residence in Chennai on 8 February 2019 at the age of 96 years. The eldest son of Late Rao Saheb Manilalbhai Bhaichandbhai Mehta, who rose in his career as a government servant to eventually become Vazir Riyasat e Palanpur, Surendrabhai moved to Chennai in 1939 and was involved with the family businesses, as well as a number of religious and charitable associations there for over eight decades.
Born on 14 June 1923 in Palanpur as the eldest of five siblings, Surendrabhai had his schooling in various parts of the Gujarat state wherever his father served. He was brought up in princely style with an emphasis on the teachings of Jainism, Ahimsa and sports. Early influences in his life were his father’s sister, Acharya Tarabai Mahasatiji and Kalidasbhai Jhaveri, his maternal grandfather a close aid of Mahatma Gandhi.
Due to the unfortunate passing away of his uncles in Chennai, Surendra Mehta left Ferguson College, Pune, and moved to Madras in 1939 to assist and, later, manage the joint family firm, Bapalal & Co. Along with his brother Harindra he transformed it into a trusted jewellery retail house. He further extended its business interests to include Barton’s in Bangalore and coffee estates in the Shevaroy Hills in Salem District. He later founded Mehta Jewellery with his brother Naresh and sons Tushaar and Abhay. Renowned as an expert in spotting doshams in diamonds, he was the jeweller to most of Chennai’s prominent families.
Few are aware that Surendrabhai, as he was fondly known, was a survivor of tuberculosis in his 20s which resulted in the removal of one lung under very difficult circumstances. Despite this, he continued to lead an active life and, until three years ago, would rarely miss his evening walk along Marina beach. Simply clad in his khadi dhoti-kurta and donning his trademark Gandhi cap, Surendrabhai was a philanthropist and social activist. His unwavering faith in Ahimsa, Satya, Astheya and Aparigraha — the primary tenets of the Jaina creed — was central to his life. He epitomised Gandhian activism in a ‘modern’ world by putting the abstract concepts and ideals of Jainism into practice.
In a logical extension of his faith, he worked untiringly for the cause of non-violence, compassion and vegetarianism and fought many a spirited battle for laws that will ensure the humane treatment of animals. Warm and generous in his ways, compassion, simplicity and humility were the hallmarks of Surendrabhai’s remarkable life. They set him apart as a living example of how a practising Jain should endeavour to live.
The late former President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam, in a speech at Surendrabhai’s 90th birthday, pointed out that while several people have achieved one or two outstanding goals in their lifetimes, Surendrabhai’s contributions in six different spheres were exemplary.
1). Vegetarianism: As one of the earliest members of the Indian Vegetarian Congress, since 1959, he worked in close association with Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundale, Jayantilal Mankar and P. V. Gajapatiraju. He served as the first Indian President of the International Vegetarian Union (founded in Germany in 1908) for three consecutive terms from 1991 to 1997.
2). Ahimsa: He was Chairman Emeritus of Karuna Club International which he founded to inculcate kindness and compassion in children. He was the Chairman and Founder Director of the Ahimsaa Research Foundation to promote non-violence.
3). Jainism: He was instrumental in establishing and supporting the Research Foundation for Jainology and was a founder of the Department of Jainology, University of Madras. He was awarded The Jain Ratna award for his contribution to Jainisn by the late Prime Minister Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2001.
4). Organic Farming: Passionate about this cause, which epitomized all his principles, Mr. Mehta was a staunch proponent and advocate of organic farming well before the concept became as popular as it is today.
5). Jain community: His is a name that will always be associated with the Jain community in this city. He anchored its presence through the creation of Shri Gujarati Shwetambar Sthanakwasi Jain Association on Ritherdon Road, Vepery, which houses not only the meditation and lecture halls of the Jain Samaj but also boarding facilities for visiting Jain ascetics, besides a dispensary and OP facilities offering the latest in health care to anyone in need. He remained its president for over 30 years until his passing.
6). Shankar Netralaya: He was a trustee and staunch supporter of the famous eye-hospital set up by Dr. S. S. Badrinath. He was a member of the governing body of Sankara Netralaya.
Surendrabhai was married to late Sushilaben Mehta. He had two sons, Tushaarbhai (Deceased in 2005) and Abhaybhai and one daughter, Trishlaben A.Vaishnav.
He is survived by son Abhaybhai and his wife Niyatiben Mehta, daughter-in-law Vaidehiben Tushaar Mehta, daughter Trishlaben and her husband Amitbhai Vaishnav, his grandchildren Tuhin, Rohan, Farah – Dharambhai, Rhea - Vinodbhai, Akshay and Dhruv, his greatgrandchildren Arjun and Dhrishti, brother Nareshbhai Mehta and his wife Rakshabhen and sisters-in-law Savitaben Harindrabhai Mehta and Ranjanben Kumarbhai Mehta.
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