On Friday, September 8, Professor Mircea Raianu, from the University of Maryland’s history department, joined the University of Michigan’s Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS) to present his research on the Tata family, one of India’s most famed business families. 

Founded by Jamsetji Tata in 1868, the Tata group is a global enterprise and India’s largest conglomerate, comprised of 30 companies with products and services in more than 150 countries and operations across six continents. As of July 2023, Tata Group’s companies had a combined market capitalization (or market cap) of $300 billion.

“From one of many merchant families in the colonial port city of Bombay, making their fortunes in the cotton and opium trades, the Tata business group ascended to the commanding heights of the Indian national economy by the time of India’s independence in 1947,” says Raianu. “And they have remained at or near the top ever since, which is a very unique factor.”

Mircea Raianu's book, Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 2021), argues that private corporations like Tata played a crucial role in the development of Indian capitalism by assuming quasi-sovereign functions – at times acting like a state, at other times in direct opposition to state aims. Tata was both a “surrogate state” and a “state within a state,” wielding power over domains of its own: company towns, model villages, scientific laboratories, and universities. 

In its review of Raianu’s book, the Hindu, one of India’s largest newspapers, says, “Over six engrossing chapters, Raianu paints a veritable mindscape of a group that was sometimes consciously nationalistic and ‘swadeshi,’ while at other times outward looking and almost uniquely invested in science, technology and its own distinct brand of philanthropy. This is a history worth reading not for knowing all about the Tatas but to understand how global and domestic political winds tilted economic policy in India, especially in the early post-independence years.”

“When you look at Tata, we see an ability to adapt, survive, and engage across different political and economic regimes while preserving some degree of autonomy and balancing their proximity and distance to the state,” adds Raianu. “Never too close and yet never too far from the centers of power in India.” 

Raianu continues to work on a series of related journal articles, including studies of land and labor on the mineral frontier of eastern India and intellectual histories of Indian capitalism. He also writes about other subjects in science and medicine, literature, and the visual arts. His current book project examines transnational exchanges of heterodox economic thought from the 1940s to the 1970s, encompassing alternative forms of corporate organization and diverse technological and ecological imaginaries.

Mircea Raianu has a BA in history from the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in history from Harvard University. Please visit his University of Maryland faculty page for more information on his work.