Here is a constantly edited list of famous people of India whom you should be familiar with as you engage here. If you have more suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.
If you are just beginning your Indian journey, make sure you know the basics…
Aamir Khan – One of the biggest names in Bollywood. Film star, producer, social activist. Best known for his compelling movies.
A.R. Rahman – Oscar-winning composer and the most popular name when it comes to contemporary Indian music.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan – Miss World 1994, prolific actress, model, married to Abhishek Bachchan
Amitabh Bachchan – One of Bollywood’s biggest names, and the dominant figure in films from the 1970s and 1980s. Still a large force in Indian cinema and advertising.
MS Dhoni – Indian Cricket team captain. Known as “Captain Cool” for his cool demeanor in big situations.
Jawaharlal Nehru – First Prime Minister of India and the dominant voice in Indian politics from Independence through his death in 1964 and beyond.
Manmohan Singh – Prime Minister of India from 2004-2014 with the Congress Party. Most well-known for his role in liberalizing the Indian economy in the 1990s.
Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi – The Father of the nation. The one Indian you hopefully already knew about. Not related to any of the other Gandhis on this list. Refer to him as “Gandhiji”.
Mukesh Ambani – Chairman of Reliance Industries, son of Dhirubhai Ambani. The richest man in India.
Narendra Modi – Prime Minister of India starting in 2014, former Chief Minister of Gujarat. He comes from the BJP party.
Rahul Gandhi – Son of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. Seen as an up and coming politician within the Congress Party.
Rajnikanth – The Superstar of South Indian films (particularly Tamil). He is beyond popular and is more of a cultural icon for the south.
Sri Sri Ravi Shakar – Spiritual leader of the well-known Art of Living foundation with a wide international audience. (See the Artists section for the sitarist named Ravi Shankar)
Ratan Tata – Chairman emeritus of the Tata Group. He led the Tata Group from 1991-2012.
Sachin Tendulkar – The most popular and decorated Indian cricketer ever. Known as the Little Master.
Shahrukh Khan – Arguably the most recognized face in the world. He is a Bollywood superstar and full-out entertainer. Also known as SRK.
Shashi Tharoor – Prominent author, diplomat, and politician.
Sonia Gandhi – Italian-born wife of the late Rajiv Gandhi, mother of Rahul Gandhi, and the current leader of the Congress Party.
Use these to go deeper into your India knowledge…
- Advani – Senior leader of the BJP political party.
- APJ Abdul Kalam – President of India from 2002-2007, but better known for his work as a scientist.
- Akhilesh Yadav – Current CM of Uttar Pradesh, youngest person ever to hold that position.
- Arvind Kejriwal – Recently elected Chief Minister of Delhi and leader of the new Aam Aadmi or “Common Man” party.
- Atal Bihari Vajpayee – Former Prime Minister of India, from the BJP Party.
- Indira Gandhi – Daughter of Nehru. Served as India’s Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977, and again from 1980 until she was assassinated in 1984.
- Lalu Prasad Yadav – Former Chief Minister of Bihar. Convicted of corruption charges and currently serving time in jail.
- Mamata Banerjee – Highly influential and powerful Chief Minister of West Bengal.
- Mayawati – Controversial former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
- Rajiv Gandhi – Sixth Prime Minister of India until his assassination in 1991. Son of Indira Gandhi and husband to Sonia Gandhi.
Freedom Fighters (those active while India was gaining its independence)
- BR Ambedkar – Primary author of the Indian constitution. A low-caste man who led movements against social discrimination. He inspired a mass conversion to Buddhism among many Dalits.
- Bhagat Singh – Indian revolutionary during the 1920s and 30s.
- Maulana Azad – Scholar and the first Minister of Education, and the most prominent Muslim to oppose the partition of Pakistan. Instrumental in setting up the first IITs.
- Sardar Patel – Major influence in the independence movement. He became the first Home Minister under Nehru.
- Anil Ambani – Younger son of Dhirubhai Ambani, brother of Mukesh Ambani. Chairman of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group which controls Reliance Telecom, Energy, and Capital.
- Cyrus Mistry – Current Chairman of the Tata Group since 2012.
- Dhirubhai Ambani – Founder of Reliance Industries, the second largest company in India.
- Indra Nooyi – Current CEO of PepsiCo and one of the world’s most powerful women.
- JRD Tata – Former Chairman of the Tata Group from 1938-1988. Founded Tata Motors, TCS, Tata Tea, Air India, Titan Industries, and Voltas.
- Jamsetji Tata – Founder of the Tata Group in the 1800s. Known as the Father of Indian Industry. He started Tata Steel, and the Taj group of hotels.
- KM Birla – Current Chairman of Aditya Birla, India’s third largest business conglomerate.
- Nandan Nilekani – Cofounder of Infosys and CEO from 2002-2007.
- Narayana Murthy – Founder of the IT giant Infosys, the first Indian company listed on the NASDAQ.
- Ramalinga Raju – Former Chairman of Satyam Computer Services. Stepped down after a massive accounting scandal which came to light in 2009.
- Vijay Govindarajan – Professor at Dartmouth. Most famous for his book Reverse Innovation
- Vinod Dham – Intel engineer known as the Father of the Pentium chip.
- Akbar – A Mughal emperor from the 1500s, considered the greatest ruler of the Mughal dynasty.
- Aryabhata – Brilliant and influential Indian mathematician and astronomer of the 5th century AD. Published his groundbreaking works when he was 23.
- Ashoka – Considered one of India’s greatest emperors. Reigned in the Maurya Dynasty during the 3rd century BC. Converted to Buddhism. His influence is seen in the Ashoka Chakra (on the Indian flag) and Ashoka Pillars.
- Chanakya (aka Kautilya) – Teacher and royal advisor during the 3rd century BC. He writings on economics are seen as a precursor to modern understandings.
- Abhishek Bachchan – One of the current leading men in Bollywood. Son of Amitabh Bachchan, husband of Aishwerya Rai Bachchan. He and Aishwerya make India’s most famous couple.
- Kamal Hassan – South Indian film actor who has acted in more than 200 films.
- Karena Kapoor – Currently one of the highest paid actresses in India. Married to Saif Ali Khan.
- Mani Ratnam – One of the leading film directors in Indian cinema.
- Priyanka Chopra – Indian actress, Miss World 2000, and now an internationally well-known singer.
- Saif Ali Khan – Bollywood actor with a ton of endorsements deals making his face very popular around the country.
- Satyajit Ray – One of India’s greatest film makers, best known for Pather Panchali.
- Salman Khan – Bollywood actor, known for his big body and commercially successful films.
- Ranbir Kapoor – Current Bollywood actor, known for his wit and charm.
- Sushmita Sen – Bollywood actress and Miss Universe 1994 (same year Aishwerya Rai was Miss World).
- Abinav Bindra – The first Indian to win an individual Olympic gold medal (2008 – Shooting).
- Baichung Bhutia – India’s most famous footballer.
- Harbhajan Singh – Long time Indian spin bowler (cricketer).
- Kapil Dev – Captain of the 1983 cricket team that won the World Cup.
- Leander Paes – Indian tennis star, career Grand Slam winner in doubles.
- Mahesh Bhupathi – Indian tennis star, career Grand Slam winner in mixed doubles.
- Mary Kom – Indian boxer and bronze medalist at the 2012 Olympics.
- Milkha Singh – Known as “The Flying Sikh”. The only Indian male to win a gold medal in the Commonwealth games (1958).
- Narain Karthikeyan – First Formula 1 driver from India.
- Saina Nehwal – Indian badminton star, bronze medalist in the 2012 Olympics, and held a world ranking of #2.
- Sania Mizra – Indian professional tennis star, held a singles ranking of #27.
- Sourav Ganguly – Indian cricketer and captain of the national team from 2000-2005.
- Sushil Kumar – Indian wrestler and silver medalist at the 2012 Olympics.
- Vijay Amritraj – Indian tennis player who peaked at a world singles ranking of No. 16
- Virat Kolhi – Current young Indian cricketer. Considered one of the top batsmen in the world.
- Vishwanathan Anand – Former World Chess Champion and India’s first Grandmaster.
Authors (There are dozens of brilliant authors, this is just a very small sample)
- Amartya Sen – Indian economist and Nobel laureate. Prolific author, now a professor at Harvard. See his books here.
- Amish Tripathi – Author of the recent hit Shiva Trilogy.
- Arundhati Roy – Author and political activist, most famous for The God of Small Things.
- Chetan Bhagat – Writes popular novels with themes about modern India. His book Five Point Someone was adapted to the movie 3 Idiots, starring Aamir Khan.
- Rabindranath Tagore – A Bengali poet and author. Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1913 for Literature, and the author of the Indian national anthem, Jana Gana Mana. Popularized the term “Mahatma” for Gandhiji. See his books here.
- Ruskin Bond – Author of over 300 titles, mainly children’s literature
- Salman Rushdie – British author whose novels are often set in India, most famous for Midnight’s Children.
Artists/Singers/Musicians (again, a very small undeveloped sample)
- MF Hussain – One of the most celebrated Indian painters of the modern era.
- MS Subbulakshmi – Widely praised carnatic vocalist known as the Nightingale of India.
- Ravi Shankar – Hindustani sitarist and perhaps the best known contemporary Indian musician. Known in the West for his friendship with George Harrison of the Beatles.
- Lord Buddha – Born in northern India near the Himalyas. Renowned sage and prolific teacher. He didn’t start Buddhism, but it was started based on his teachings.
- Guru Nanak – Founder of Sikkism, first of the Sikh gurus.
- J. Krishnamurthy – Philosopher with roots in the Theosophical Society, but who went on to write extensively about education and knowledge.
- Ramana Maharshi – Guru who mainly lived in very simple settings and taught through silence.
- Sai Baba – Hindu saint of the 19th and 20th century. His iconic picture features him sitting with a long face, one leg crossed over the other and his hand raised.
- Satya Sai Baba – Modern day guru who died in 2011. He claimed to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba. He had a large following among the upper-middle class.
- Mother Teresa – Albanian nun who moved to Calcutta to take care of the poorest of the poor.
- Swami Vivekananda – Hindu monk who was instrumental in bringing Hinduism to the world’s awareness and introducing key Hindu ideas to the West.