Swings In Sarees: Meet Meherbai Tata, India's First Tennis Olympian

At the Paris Olympics in 1924, Lady Meherbai made history as the first woman from India to play mixed doubles tennis. She was also a pivotal figure in the Tata legacy in India.

Tanya Savkoor
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meherbai tata

Image: Tata Trusts

As the Summer Olympics in Paris is fast approaching, Indian athletes are bracing for an exciting and challenging journey. They are poised to represent the country and showcase their skills, talents and national pride on the global stage. As we celebrate these contemporary champions, let us also remember the pioneering figures who laid the foundation for Indians in sporting communities worldwide. One such influential figure is Lady Meherbai Tata, who was the first Indian woman to play mixed doubles tennis at the Olympics, a hundred years ago.


Lady Meherbai stepped onto the court in pristine white, just like the other players. However, what set her apart was that she showcased her sporting prowess in a traditional Parsi saree instead of skirt and tee. Meherbai Tata not only shattered gender barriers but also cultural stereotypes. 

Who Was Lady Meherbai Tata?

Meherbai was born on October 10, 1879, to Jerbai Bhabha and HJ Bhabha, the Inspector-General of Education of the State of Mysore. Belonging to a Parsi family, she inculcated a blend of different cultures including Western liberal ideas. Meherbai studied English and Latin after matriculation and went on to study science in college.

lady meherbai
Image: Tata Trusts

Jamshedji Tata visited the Bhabhas in Mysore and introduced Meherbai to his son, Dorabji. They shared many interests like sports and travelling. Meherbai and Dorabji got married on February 14, 1898. Meherbai got the title of Lady in 1910 when Dorabji was knighted for his contribution to industry.

The tennis aficionado had won the Triple Crown at the Western India Tennis Tournament; one of several awards.


Sentinel In Tata Legacy

Today, we cannot imagine an India without the prominence of the Tatas. However, one luminary, who played a pivotal role in safeguarding the legacy of this lineage in India, seems to be forgotten. She is Lady Meherbai Tata, a guardian angel who saved the Tata Group in time of need. 

Not only that, Meherbai shaped the future of the Tata Group. Through her philanthropic efforts, she made several contributions to the company. When the company was in crisis, Meherbai selflessly mortgaged her 245.35-carat Jubilee Diamond, a symbol of love from Dorabji, which was twice the size of the Kohinoor.

Fighting For Women

Lady Meherbai is not only known for her connection with the Tatas but also for her contributions to women's empowerment. She believed that India could only progress if women would get the same status in society as upper-class men. She championed women's education and equal rights.


Lady Meherbai, a member of the National Women’s Council and the All India Women’s Conference, vehemently fought for the Hindu Marriage Bill in 1927. In 1929, Meherbai's efforts led to the passing of the Child Marriage Act. Lady Meherbai also demanded equal political status for women in the proposed new Constitution.

Meherbai founded the Bombay Presidency Women’s Council and introduced India to the International Council of Women. She was also a member of the Red Cross Society, through which she raised voices for the rights of women, migrants, labourers, and other marginalised persons. 

On June 18, 1931, Lady Meherbai Tata passed away at a nursing home in Ruthin, North Wales, following a battle with leukaemia. Soon after her death, Dorabji bequeathed most of his personal wealth, which comprised substantial shareholdings in various Tata enterprises, land property, and his late wife’s jewellery.

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