J C Kumarappa was born at Tanjore on 4 January 1892. He belonged to a middle class, orthodox, Christian family of Tamil Nadu. His father, S D Cornelius, was at that time an officer in the Public Works Department of the government of Madras.
His mother, Esther Rajanayakam, was from a devout Christian stock of South India. She had read widely for her generation, especially in Tamil, but was not a learned woman according to the standards of university education. She lived a life of comparative simplicity in consonance with the tenets of Christ. Her piety, her compassion and love for neighbours were reflected in her actions and her eagerness to help those in distress. Her life and her behaviour made a lasting impression on Joseph's mind much more than any book on theology could have done.
As a child Joseph was fond of pets. His mother encouraged him to breed poultry. When she went to the market at the beginning of every month to get her monthly store, she would take the young lad with her to buy chicken-feed. During the month he would sell eggs and keep accounts. And at the end of the month his mother would ask him to find out what profit had been made out of the sale. This profit had to be made over to her for disbursing it on simple charities, like supporting some orphan child at school. Even when Joseph was a grown up man and was working as a Public Auditor, he had to send her 'tithes' out of his income, on the first of each month. This 'tithe' did not mean a mathematical one-tenth, but a kind of a liberal tax collected by the mother to meet the requirements of her charity budget! Besides some such personal contributions she also goaded her children to go around and collect from their friends too.
While the mother, in this way, contributed largely to the moral and spiritual upbringing, the father also laid a foundation of a good social living. He was a strict disciplinarian, punctual, systematic, and a man of few words. He put the children in the best school available and guided their studies at home. Although an affectionate father, he did not spare the rod when an occasion called for it. Thus, both parents played their part in what they thought -an essential home-training.
Joseph was a bright student at school. From childhood, because of his latent leanings, he was intended for the engineering profession but events led him to accountancy. In 1913 he went to London and qualified himself for an Incorporated Accountant. He lived and worked there for some years and when the First World War was over in 1919, he came back to India, on his mother's persistent request, and set up his practice in Bombay. In the beginning he worked with an English firm but in 1924 separated himself from that firm and started his own under the name of Cornelius and Davar.
In 1927, Joseph decided to go to the U.S.A. for respite, but after a month he joined Syracuse University and took his B.Sc. in Business Administration in 1928. Next year he went to Columbia University to study public finance. His Professor Dr ERA Seligman had seen a press report in The New York Times of a casual lecture which Joseph had delivered in a church on "Why then is India Poor?" Dr. Seligman was so much impressed by this report that he advised Joseph that his Master Degree essay should be on the 'causes of Indian poverty through public finance.' Responding to his Professor's advice Joseph changed his subject and the study of the proposed subject so convinced him of British injustice and exploitation that he became a nationalist. In this process of his change of heart, he took up the original Hindu surname of his family-Kumarappa.
Kumarappa's change in economic perception was gradual and sound. He started viewing it from different angles. In his formative days he was fed on capitalist and pro-imperialist philosophies by the educational institutions of Madras. The whole background of his heyday was city centred. This background got a boost up in England. The years of his training in his mother's lap and later at her knees had reinforced in him a moral approach towards humanity, but this was suppressed in the maddening rush and turmoil of London life.
The one and only redeeming spot in this horizon was, that the British in their business relationship, as a rule took care to see that an individual's pursuit did not mar the nation's good. One of the favourite slogans, which the accountant, to whom Kumarappa was articled, constantly repeated was: 'Never make a mistake which will make another man fall.' And in special application, his principal's wife always impressed upon him that in whatever one did, one must consider the social implication of one's action.
Whenever Kumarappa bought anything, she would invariably examine his purchases and offered her criticism. If he had bought anything shoddy, she would immediately say that by buying such defective things we harm ourselves, because we get inferior goods and at the same time we encourage production of undesirable goods by providing a market for them. The fault in such cases lies more with the consumer rather than the producer, for the producer only follows the lead given by the consumer. Besides, inferior goods tend to bring disrepute to the nation's manufacturers.
These and similar lessons helped Kumarappa change his perspective. At Columbia University he took a seminar, entitled 'The Economics of Enterprise.' The Professor of this subject was one Dr H J Davenport. He led a school of thought that no consideration other than individual profits should weigh in economics. The purpose of production, he held, was the increase of purchasing power. To Kumarappa this philosophy seemed wholly wrong, and he fought tooth and nail to assail it. The Professor was liberal enough to assign A-one his performance. And Kumarappa went ahead on his mo lines of thought.
From this time onwards, Kumarappa was pretty clear his mind that man is not merely a wealth-producing agent but essentially a member of the society with political, social, moral and spiritual responsibilities. With this conviction he lost interest in making money and wrote such essays which drew the attention of Mahatma Gandhi, who turned him in a constructive worker. The natural engineering talents of young Joseph bloomed to its full in national reconstruction engineering and the auditor in him developed into an audaciously fearless and unrelenting critic in later life.
In those early days when Kumarappa started working with Gandhi, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya complimented Gandhi for the wonderful training he had given to Kumarappa. In reply to the compliments Gandhi had said: 'I haven't trained Kumarappa, he came to me readymade.’
That readymade man came to India in 1929 and was anxious to see his study of Indian public finance published. A friend, C H Sopariwala advised him to contact Gandhi. Thereupon, Kumarappa sought a meeting with him. Pyarelal Gandhi's secretary, telephoned Kumarappa and informed him that he could see Gandhi in Sabarmati Ashram on a certain date. Accordingly, Kumarappa went to the Ashram and was horrified at the sight of the Guest Room. The Guest Room was devoid of all furniture except a charpai. Squatting toilet arrangements made him more eager to get away from it at the earliest moment. His appointment with Gandhi was at 2 p.m. He had ample time to loiter on the banks of Sabarmati. After spending his time here and there, he went to see Gandhi.
On the way up, he saw an old man, sitting under a tree on a neatly cleaned floor, spinning. Kumarappa leaned on his walking stick curiously watching the spinning process. The old man, after about five minutes, opened his toothless mouth and with a smile enquired if he was Kumarappa. It soon dawned upon the visitor that his questioner might not be anyone else than Mahatma Gandhi. In reply he also asked him if he was Gandhi. The old man nodded in affirmation; so Kumarappa promptly sat down on the floor regardless of the crease of his silken trousers. Finding him uncomfortable in his sitting posture, someone brought a chair from the house, but he declined to avail of the courtesy, saying that since Gandhi was seated on the floor he would not like to take the chair.
At the outset Gandhi told Kumarappa that he was interested in the essay written by him and that he wished to publish it, in a series of articles in his weekly magazine the Young India. He also enquired if Kumarappa would undertake a rural survey for him in Gujarat. Kumarappa raised the difficulty of language, but Gandhi quickly brushed it aside, saying that he would place the professors of economics of Gujarat Vidyapith with all their students at Kumarappa's disposal to help him with the survey. He also suggested that he should go and see the Vice-Chancellor of the Gujarat, Vidyapith, Kaka Kalelkar, the person who had come up with a chair for him.
In the afternoon he went to see Kaka Kalelkar. Seeing Kumarappa dressed in the fashionable western style, Kaka Saheb did not feel that Kumarappa would fit into the sort of work Gandhi wanted him to do. Kaka saheb, also, felt that his ignorance of Gujarati language would be a major handicap. So he did not encourage him, quite unintentionally. Kumarappa in a huff returned to Bombay, even without taking leave of Gandhi. From Bombay he wrote to Gandhi that he would be glad to help him with any work, but that Kaka Saheb did not think that he would be of any use. By return of post Kumarappa received a letter from Kaka Saheb saying that he would be most happy if Kumarappa accepted the work that Gandhi wanted him to do.
While Kumarappa started his work, Gandhi set on foot upon his Dandi March. During the course of Gandhi's march Kumarappa's articles on 'Public Finance And Our Poverty' began to appear in Young India. Gandhi wanted them to be put together in the form of a pamphlet and Kumarappa desired that it should bear a foreword from Gandhi. To discuss the matter he invited Kumarappa to meet him at Karadi, where he was camping then.
In his own 'efficient' way Kumarappa had prepared a foreword for him, took it all type-written and ready for him to sign! Gandhi looked at it, smiled and put it aside saying: 'My foreword will be mine and will not be written by Kumarappa.' He said, that he had called him not so much to discuss the writing of the foreword, but to ask if he would regularly write for Young India, incase he and Mahadev Desai were arrested by the Government. Kumarappa told him that he knew 'auditing dusty ledgers' and never ventured to write as a journalist. In reply Gandhi said, 'As regards your qualifications to write, I as editor of the paper have to sit on judgement and not you. It is I that invite you to write for this paper.' Kumarappa in fact, did write for the paper and ultimately landed in jail, not to return to practice as an auditor in Bombay. If at all he went there after his release from the prison, it was to buy his first Khadi dress from Bombay.
In 1930, according to the wishes of Gandhi, Kumarappa took up a detailed economic survey of Matar taluka in Kheda district. In 1931 he experienced his first jail-life in Ahmedabad, when he was sentenced to one year and six months rigorous imprisonment. In March 1931 he came out of jail after the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. At the Karachi Congress, in the same year, Kumarappa was chosen as the convener of a select Committee to go into the details of the financial obligation between Great Britain and India up to that time. When Gandhi, Mahadev Desai and others went to England for the Round Table Conference, Kumarappa had to assume editorship of Young India. This again led him to jail for a second time for his pungent writings inYoung India. This time he was sentenced to two years and six months' rigorous imprisonment.
On his release from jail, a different type of work was waiting for him. In the disaster that swept Bihar owing to the earthquake in 1934, relief work on a large-scale had to be administered. Finding Dr Rajendra Prasad overburdened with that work Gandhi asked Jamnalal Bajaj to go and help him. Jamnalalji, in turn, requested the help of Kumarappa as Financial Adviser. Kumarappa was immediately informed to proceed to Patna. He did his work so well as to earn laurels from Dr Rajendra Prasad who said that Kumarappa's meticulous accounting had really saved the honour of Bihar. From this experience of the relief work, Kumarappa wrote a pamphlet named Organization and Accounts of Relief Work.
Kumarappa was a strict disciplinarian. In Bihar he laid down that three annas would be allowed as the maximum food expense to a relief worker per day. A common kitchen was organised and managed within the prescribed limit.
He made similar rules for the use of motor cars. Once, Gandhi came to Patna to attend a committee meeting of the Relief Fund. His retinue was accustomed to food articles like milk, fruits and vegetables. This went beyond the three anna limit. Kumarappa explained to Mahadevbhai his difficulty in paying these expenses out of the Relief Funds. He also told Mahadev Desai that it will be helpful, if he could make arrangements on his own to get petrol for Gandhi's motor car. The matter reached Gandhi's ears. He called Kumarappa and said that he had come exclusively for the committee's work and wanted to know the grounds on which he refused meeting with his bills. Kumarappa explained the austerity rules he had made to maintain uniformity in spending money obtained as donation from the people and was not in favour of making exceptions. Gandhi got his point. He asked Mahadevbhai not to present the bills to the committee.
On one occasion Gandhi wired to Kumarappa that he was coming to Patna to consult him. He arrived at Patna about 10 p.m. one evening, and asked Rajendra Babu to inform Kumarappa. Rajen Babu told him that there was a difference of a few annas in the Relief Committee's accounts. The Auditors had failed to locate the error. The annual meeting was scheduled on the following day, so Kumarappa had shut himself up in a room, with two young men. He seemed determined to work all night until the error is traced. When he worked like that, he was like a lion and no one could dare disturb him. Gandhi said, 'All right! leave him alone. I shall see him in the morning.' Next day Gandhi saw him and asked for an appointment. Kumarappa replied, not today, but perhaps tomorrow." Gandhi said, "But I am going away tonight to Wardha." Kumarappa told him that in that case he would have to go away without seeing him. Gandhi said, "1 had come all the way from Benaras and you won't give me time?" Kumarappa replied, "But you had not taken an appointment with me. If I were free I would go all the way to Timbuctoo to see you but I am frightfully busy today with the Relief Committee's annual meeting." Gandhi instructed Mahadevbhai to leave the papers for Kumarappa's perusal. After a fortnight Kumarappa went to Wardha to discuss that matter with Gandhi. This quality had won him the pet name 'Colonel Sahib' in Gandhi's inner circle.
There are many incidents where even big personalities and public leaders were made to conform to the common rule. His daily life was tuned to time and all appointments had to be previously fixed. Strange though it may seem, but even his sisters and brothers were allocated particular time for meeting, whenever they came to see him! There was not a single minute which he could call his own.
On 27 October 1934, the Indian National Congress, passed a resolution to set up an All India Village Industries Association. Kumarappa was made Secretary of the new, association. He was to work under the advice and guidance of Gandhi. Kumarappa read this news in the daily papers in Patna. As his previous consent was not obtained, Kumarappa was perplexed and wrote to Gandhi. In reply to his letter Gandhi, 'I see I made a mistake in not getting your consent... But what is to be done now?... Please, begin the work forgetting the omission of formalities.'
Later, meeting Gandhi, Kumarappa asked, 'Where are the funds and where are the workers?' Then Gandhi laughed and said, 'As for funds, don't bother. You will get whatever is needed. And for workers start yourself as number
In compliance with the resolution of the Congress, Kumarappa plunged into the work of organising and undertook tours throughout the country. Maganwadi in Wardha became the headquarters of All India Village Industries Association and their functions fell into five parts: research, production, training, extension and organisation, arid propaganda and publication. All these items of work were taken up in and from Maganwadi. A village Industries Laboratory and a Village Industries Museum were established.
Soon after the setting-up of this organisation, Gandhi wrote in 1934, 'The-Central Board of AIVIA will not be a board of administration, but only a watch tower for the whole of India giving guidance. We want to avoid centralisation of administration, we want centralisation of thought, ideas and scientific knowledge.'
Through this medium of AIVIA Kumarappa had shown that the Constructive Programme devised under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi, if fully implemented, could give all that Communism was assuring the common man plus to give something more of great value. The Constructive Programme was capable of leading to a human society wherein the values of justice and the values of non-violence were obviously existing. The Village Industries movement had stood for a desirable social ideal. It had become the embodiment of the economics of decentralization, of self-sufficiency and of lasting peace.
When Kumarappa found that the policy of Indian National Congress in regard to big industries was not very dear, Kumarappa raised the matter with Dr Rajendra Prasad, the then President of the Congress, and sought a clear direction from him.
Then came the question of reorganising of the educational system. The concept was named as Nai Talim. A committee, headed by Dr Zakir Husain, was formed for the proposed reorganisation. Kumarappa served on this committee as a member. In support of Basic Education, Kumarappa propounded his theory of work in two parts: the hard repetitive labour, and the pleasure enjoyment of results.
In 1937 the National Planning Committee was formed. On Jawaharlal Nehru's request Gandhi asked Kumarappa to work on it; but after some time he felt that his time was ill spent, so he resigned from the Planning Committee.
Thereafter, the Central Provinces' Government constituted an Industrial Survey Committee under the chairmanship of Kumarappa. Kumarappa assumed this task to show how a national programme for our country's upliftment should be chalked out. Later on he was to take up several such assignments and do his job with mathematical accuracy and perfection. After a similar survey of the North West Frontier Province, Kumarappa received a letter from Sir Mirza Ismail, in which he said, 'I should like to compliment you on the very lucid manner in which you have dealt with the various questions relating to the industrial development of the Province. You have approached the whole problem in a direct matter-of-fact and eminently practical way.'
In 1942, Kumarappa was again incarcerated for his article, 'Stone For Bread.' He used his seclusion in reading and writing and came out with two books,Practice and Precepts of Jesus, and The Economy of Permanence. When he was released in 1945 he sent these manuscripts to Gandhi. He had not asked for a foreword for either of them. But to his surprise, Gandhi wrote forewords for both these books. He had addressed Kumarappa as D.D., D.V.I. Here D.D meant Doctor of Divinity, and D.V.I. stood for Doctor of Village Industries.
When Kumarappa later met Gandhi, he asked why Gandhi started conferring doctorates on whomsoever he pleased? Gandhi, with a good humoured laugh, said, “Why should you question my authority to confer a doctorate or to coin degrees? Am I not the Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith?"
Kumarappa had a clear grasp of what Gandhi wanted to do for rural upliftment. So whenever Kumarappa came forward for rural betterment, they generally met with Gandhi's approval.
In 1946 he formulated an elaborate scheme for rural upliftment. The principles underlying the scheme were self-reliance, self-sufficiency in food and gainful use of the vast resources of human power. In pursuance of this ideal, he declined an offer for minister ship and the membership of the Congress Working Committee.
In 1948, when Gandhi was assassinated, Kumarappa was so shocked that he lost vision of both his eyes. Fortunately he regained his sight after a couple of days.
Soon after the death of Mahatma Gandhi, Kumarappa was called to Delhi by Dr. Rajendra Prasad. It was for consultations in connection with the creation of a Gandhi Memorial Fund. Kumarappa was invited to take charge of this work.
Kumarappa explained to his colleagues that the idea of raising monetary funds was out of place at that time. India had a popular Government and if it so desires it could implement any scheme for Gandhi's memorial. Kumarappa suggested that the Gandhi Memorial Fund should be a unique organization. Therefore the greatest fund that could be raised was a fund of human personality in which men of devotion and detachment should be collected to work for the nation, emanating the light that characterized Gandhi. What is needed for this was an army of men and women imbued with the ideals of non-violence and truth, as taught and expounded by Gandhi, to go forth into the world, expressing these doctrines, not merely by words, but by their deeds.
He suggested finding one lakh such souls for the fund. To administer this human fund Kumarappa wanted three donors namely, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur. He suggested that these three donors should relinquish their respective offices and devote themselves fully to this cause. He expected Nehru to go to the youth in colleges and universities and collect young men. Similarly Rajkumari was supposed to collect women-folk and Sardar Patel was to concentrate on organizing institutions like Vidyapiths designed to train for political statesmanship.
These ideas, however, did not find favour with any of them. So Kumarappa returned a disappointed man leaving behind Kripalani to look after the money bag only!
In the post-independence period, Kumarappa traveled on various missions to countries like England, the Soviet Union, Germany, China and Japan. But he had over-exerted himself to the national cause. He was not keeping well now. He, therefore, retired from active public work and settled down in Gandhi Niketan in Madurai district.
Vinoba Bhave, while on his Bhoodan march went to see Kumarappa in 1956. Kumarappa took Vinobaji into his hut. In the hut was a picture of Mahatma Gandhi. When Vinoba looked at the picture with affection and concentration, Kumarappa broke the silence and said, 'He is my master' and pointing at another one he said, 'And here is my master's master'. That picture was of a poor farmer.
On 30 January 1960 a lady came to see Kumarappa. While taking his leave, she told Kumarappa that she had planned to go and attend the death anniversary meeting of Gandhi. Kumarappa promptly said, "I shall also attend that meeting." The lady was perplexed. How would Kumarappa attend the meeting in such a state of health!
The same evening Kumarappa breathed his last and merged with the soul of his Master.