Rendezvous with HAL's first employee

Rendezvous with HAL's first employee

Rendezvous with HAL's first employee

At a time when India did not have even a cycle manufacturing company, it sounds incredible that an Aircraft company was established in Bengaluru.

With the creation of Hindustan Aircrafts Limited (which is now known as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited — HAL) in December 1940, the exciting new chapter of Indian Aviation opened up in the country. I had a rendezvous with the history of this company while researching for my novel Yad Vashem, for which I needed to visualise a 1940s Bengaluru.

On a late afternoon in the year 2006, scouting through the narrow lanes of Sampangiram Nagar, I reached an ancient- looking building with winding stairs — Babboor Giddanna Choultri to meet M S Gurappa, HAL’s first employee. Time stood still as the Choultri, built in 1930, had remained the same.

If I had expected an old man of 86, I was wrong. Here was  Gurappa climbing the flight of stairs to his studio, Swarna Kamala, on the second floor sprightly. He was a busy artist even at that age and narrated the fascinating story of how he became HAL’s first employee. Gurappa was born in 1921. His father Mysore Shankarappa, was a weaver and his mother, N Sankamma, a teacher.

On December 20, 1940, there was a meeting called at Kumara Krupa Government Guest House to discuss the Aircraft Factory Agreement. Sir M Vishveshwaraya, Seth Walchand Hirachand, William Douglas Pawley, the director of the Harlow Aircraft Company of America, and D Subba Rao, an engineer from Mysore (now Mysuru), were present.

The Attorney General from America, George Sellett, the legal advisor to Douglas Pawley, had brought the draft of the handwritten agreement. After it had been read and discussed, the only thing that was required to be done was to type the agreement on stamp paper. At that time, Bengaluru had only one typing institute called The City Institute of Commerce in Chikpete.

Subba Rao rushed to the Commerce Institute. He met the owner and the teacher, Lakshminarayana, at the Institute and explained that an aircraft factory would be started in Bengaluru and a 70-page agreement needed to be typed urgently. Since Lakshminarayana couldn’t close the Institute to type it, he instead suggested Gurappa, who had passed junior typing and was to take the senior typing exam.

He then went in Subba Rao’s car to show Gurappa’s house in Sampige Halli (Sampangirama Nagar). Gurappa was brought to Kumara Krupa to type the agreement. Upon arriving, Gurappa was asked to type a rough draft of the agreement on a white sheet by George Sellett. Satisfied that he was able to do it without committing a single mistake, he began writing it on stamp paper. It took him three days to type it out. The agreement pertained to the formation of HAL.

A few days later, Subba Rao offered Gurappa a job as a typist. However, Gurappa was reluctant as he wanted to finish his degree. On the insistence of Subba Rao, Gurappa was convinced to join and that is how he became the first employee of the aircraft company, which at that time was located on Cunningham Road. It later shifted to ‘Eventide’, an European bungalow at Konena Agrahara on Domlur Road.

Gurappa showed me his photo as an HAL employee. He used to wear a khadi jubba and a white dhoti but shifted to wearing a pant and suit when his American boss asked him to. He proudly displayed the circular badge of HAL pinned to his coat. Gurappa worked with HAL till 1946 after which he took to reflective art and illuminated paintings. Gurappa passed away a few months after I had met him with my novel in 2007. His works adorn the walls of temples, monasteries and restaurants across India and abroad.