As HELLO! enters the stately Birla mansion, South Mumbai’s poshest address, Neerja Birla, the lady of the manor, graciously welcomes us into her world. An educationist, mental health advocate and Founder and Chairperson of the Aditya Birla Education Trust (ABET), Neerja is the wife of Kumar Mangalam Birla, one of the country’s premier industrialists. The couple have three beautiful children, (Ananyashree, 29, Aryaman, 26, and Advaitesha, 19), of whom we are about to meet the youngest.
Like her mother, Advaitesha is soft-spoken and passionate about making a difference in the world by bringing real change wherever it is possible. She has already proved herself with her impressive initiative, Ujaas, that has taken path breaking strides in educating people about menstrual health and hygiene, and her keen interest in mental health, for which she’s currently pursuing a degree in psychology in the UK.
The pair are warm and relaxed as they chat with us animatedly about a myriad of things, including Advaitesha’s exciting debut at the prestigious and exclusive Le Bal in Paris later this year, the objects of their passions, the life their family leads behind closed doors, and the true meaning of happiness.
HELLO!: Advaitesha, tell us about your early years and education. What are your current plans?
Advaitesha Birla: “I studied at the Aditya Birla World Academy in Mumbai, followed by IGCSE in the tenth grade, and then my A Levels. I’m currently studying in London, pursuing a degree in Psychology and Education Studies.”
H!: Tell us how your non-profit, Ujaas, began, and how it’s helped educate young women...
AB: “It all began by recognising that there’s still so much stigma around menstrual health, which is a very normal, biological process. You see it even in our own circles amid well-educated people. We conduct a lot of awareness sessions, primarily working in rural India at the grassroots level, educating young women, but not restricting it to them. Reaching out to their families, educating boys as well... that’s a big part of conquering the stigma. There’s a long way to go, but we’ve been working hard and have covered a lot of ground already.”
H!: Can you give us a little insight into your family life?
AB: “I’m extremely close to both my parents—we’re more like friends — I think my mum is my best friend (smiles). I have very different relationships with my two siblings; my brother and I have a very easy, fun relationship with a lot of silly banter. We’re always getting on each other’s nerves. He’s six-and-a-half years older and Ananya is nine-and-a-half years older than I am, so the age gap is a lot, but we’re all very close.”
H!: Your parents have allowed each of you to choose your own diverse paths in life and thrive—what’s it like having that freedom while still being responsible?
AB: “My parents have always told us to do what makes us happy as long as we’re responsible, and ready to put our heart and soul into it. They’ve been very supportive, whether it’s been cricket for my brother, music for my sister, or with me wanting to start my own initiative. The three of us are also very aware and recognise the responsibility we have, with regard to the family legacy and business, but it’s never been forcefully thrust upon us. That sense has intrinsically come to us and we all have a keen sense of business.”
H!: Are you more like your mum or dad?
AB: “I’m going to be very diplomatic and say I’m a little of both! (laughs). I think I’m like mum in terms of sensitivity; we’re quite emotional beings and very attuned to our feelings. I’m like my dad in the sense that we both love art, more in terms of architecture and interior design. Overall, I think I’ve inherited the very best of both my parents.”
H!: Is your mum your go-to person when you’re having a rough day?
AB: “For sure! Whether it’s a rough day or not, I always go to her!”
H!: What lessons have you learnt from your mum about the kind of woman you want to be?
AB: “I think I’ve learned how to be balanced from her, because she does so much in a day, and sometimes, I wonder how! Her quality of being there for people is something I look up to as well.”
H!: Congratulations on your upcoming debut at the prestigious Le Bal — what does participating in it mean to you?
AB: “Thank you! I feel honoured to be part of this and proud to represent my country. It’s happening at the end of November this year, and because it has a lot to do with fashion as well, it’s a great way to bring India to an international forum. I’m very excited about it!”
H!: Walk us through working with Sabyasachi for your gown—what did you have in mind while coming together to design it?
AB: “Firstly, going with Sabyasachi was a very obvious choice for me because he’s my favourite Indian designer, and I’ve always loved his work. Without revealing too much, I had something bold in mind—yet something that was also classy and chic. I really wanted Sabyasachi to weigh in and see what he would create for me, using his vision. I didn’t have a colour or silhouette in mind, I just wanted it to progress naturally. It’s still in the works but it’s going to be quite stunning.”
H!: You’re perennially busy with the Aditya Birla Education Trust and all it entails — how do you balance a professional life with being a wife and mother to three children?
Neerja Birla: “For the longest time, I was trying to get that balance, so to speak. In the last couple of years, I’ve realised that getting that ‘balance’ is a utopian concept. I believe that it’s more important to lead an integrated life because the personal and professional will intersect; it’s not possible to demarcate the two. I also like to travel a lot. Often, when I’m spending time with the kids, there’s work happening, and vice versa. It’s all constantly in motion!”
H!: The conversation around mental health has always been close to your heart...
NB: “We founded MPower (a holistic centre for mental healthcare and awareness) around seven years ago and at the time, with personal experiences, and with the schools I was running, I realised mental health was real and we were just not talking about it. One didn’t know where to go to seek help or treatment. I, myself, didn’t have the resources and thought that if I was finding it so difficult, I couldn’t imagine how tough it must be for everyone else. And so I felt it important to set up an organisation and start a movement to create awareness and education around mental health. That was the genesis of MPower.”
H!: As a community, we have come far in recognising problems and being able to openly discuss them... What, according to you, are the next steps for India?
NB: “A little bit of everything is still to be achieved because, like you rightly said, people are now ready to embrace and talk about it. But there’s a lot more that one needs to do. That means increasing education about mental health, because often, even when you are aware, the stigma runs so deep that people don’t want to talk about it. Even infrastructure- wise, I think there’s still a lot that needs to be done. But we’re on the right path, and I’m hopeful that if we continue on this journey, maybe not our generation, but the next one will surely see a change.
H!: How have you empowered your children to be such balanced, well-rounded people?
NB: “I would like to believe so! (laughs). I really believe in leading a balanced life. You don’t want to only be doing too much of one thing, because there’s going to be an imbalance in the other parts of your life. The kids have grown up seeing that, and I believe the best way to teach is to lead by example.”
H!: Your family isn’t a traditionally conservative Marwari one—you have allowed your children freedom to be authentic and pursue their own dreams...
NB: “There’s not too much of an age gap between my eldest two, Ananyashree and Aryaman, and when I was bringing them up, I realised it’s important to break away from these barriers. One has seen a lot of gender discrimination in the world, and I certainly didn’t want to bring up my kids around that kind of ecosystem. The best way to steer clear was to bring them up differently, so that they would have diverse opportunities and in turn, raise their own kids differently down the line. I’ve always wanted them to be independent, but now when they turn around and question me back, I wonder if it was so wise after all! (laughs)”
H!: How do you strike a balance between tradition and modernity?
NB: “There are certain rituals and events that are sacrosanct, whether it’s the Diwali puja, Holi puja or visiting the temple. We may not be very ritualistic, but we are God-loving and we all believe that there’s a stronger force we are dependent on... and that is very anchoring. Very often, if something is bothering one of the kids, they will listen to the Hanuman Chalisa or go visit the Mount Mary church, just to find that sense of peace.”
H!: Is there anything from your upbringing that you knew you wanted to do differently once you had your own family?
NB: “Probably raising my son and daughters in an egalitarian way. It never happened that the girls were playing with dolls and Aryaman could only play with trucks and cars. There were no gender-driven roles that were enforced, and I wanted it that way. I wanted to be able to offer them the same opportunities in life. There was a point where Aryaman was very fond of cooking and Ananyashree was playing football, so it was whatever each one wanted to do, really.”
H!: Can you tell us a little about this life away from work and the media — how do you all enjoy quality time together?
NB: “Most weekends, I end up playing a lot of games with the kids. We watch a movie, have a meal together or just sit and chat.”
H!: Since Advaitesha is the youngest, is she more pampered as the baby of the family? Tell us about the special bond you both share...
NB: “I don’t think she’s spoiled, but all three are pampered, there’s no question. Being the youngest, Advaitesha is around much more at this point, so we do spend a lot of time together. She and I are good friends, we’re travel buddies—we just went to Mykonos and Santorini. She’s a gentle soul, very giving and caring.”
H!: How have you watched Advaitesha grow up and come into her own?
NB: “She’s really blossomed and it’s been wonderful to watch her grow. She was always very fond of dressing up, wearing nail polish, being particular about what she was wearing, even when she was young—carrying a little bag too! In that sense it’s been a natural progression for her. We now share our clothes and everything else—well, except shoes, because we aren’t the same size!”
H!: What is the most important thing for you, as a mother?
NB: “Just to know that they’re excelling in whatever they choose to do. I’ve always told them that there are no shortcuts to success, it’s all hard work. The road to achievement is always under construction and if you want to embark on your own journey, it will have obstacles. That’s a part of life. Despite that, I think one really has to be at peace with oneself and for me, that’s most important; that whatever they choose to do, they find true purpose in life.
Photos: Keegan Crasto; Creative Direction: Avantikka Kilachand; Assisted By: Anushree Sardesai; Makeup: Sahitya Shetty; Hair: Sana Pathan; Styling: Toshia Kader
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s September 2023 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!