A LIFE IN FULL

In­dus­tri­al­ist and art col­lec­tor, mu­seum owner and im­pre­sario, RA­JSHREE PA­THY’s in­flu­ence is felt in ever grow­ing spheres, says Nikhil Khanna

Harper's Bazaar (India) - - BAZAAR -

WHERE DOES ONE BE­GIN, as the song goes, or how in­deed do you solve a—well, not a prob­lem, but cer­tainly an enigma—like Ra­jshree Pa­thy? Chair­per­son and manag­ing direc­tor of the Ra­jshree Group of Com­pa­nies with in­ter­ests in sugar, green en­ergy, and bio-tech­nol­ogy, she is also the founder of the In­dia De­sign Fo­rum (IDF) that she be­gan in 2012, which has now grown into an event of global stature. She also pro­motes per­form­ing and con­tem­po­rary arts through the Con­tem­plate Art Gallery in Delhi and Coimbatore, as well as the Coimbatore Col­lege of Con­tem­po­rary Art. But what makes her a bur­nished A-lis­ter?

A Coimbatore na­tive and an agri­cul­tur­ist (her fam­ily set­tled in this lush, thickly-forested Ar­ca­dia 300 years ago), Pa­thy has never re­ally stopped. One of two daugh­ters of the leg­endary in­dus­tri­al­ist GS Varadaraj, she be­gan work­ing when rel­a­tively young. She was keen on ar­chi­tec­ture, but says “ar­chi­tec­ture school didn’t work out. My mother was not keen to send me to Mum­bai so young even though I was raised in a pro­foundly lib­eral home. So I be­gan, af­ter a com­merce de­gree, a travel agency. I liked travel and that, as they say, was that! I went off to Am­s­ter­dam to do an In­ter­na­tional Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion course and set sail. So much so, that even now, that very travel agency sets out my crazy sched­ule.” She mar­ried early and had two chil­dren (she’s also a very proud grand­mother, natch), and worked in auto re­tail, did a course in tex­tile manufacturing, and took over the fam­ily cot­ton gin­ning busi­ness. When her father asked her to set up a sugar mill, she agreed; two years later, he passed away. Ra­jshree Pa­thy, all of 31 at the time, forged ahead and de­signed new sugar fac­to­ries, junk­ing old, in­ef­fi­cient meth­ods and string­ing to­gether a new in­dus­try stan­dard: Com­put­erised, car­bon­credit com­pli­ant sugar manufacturing. “I had to raise money for the sugar plants, so I went to the ven­er­a­ble N Vaghul of ICICI Bank who de­murred in giv­ing this chit of a girl a loan.” She promised she would dou­ble his money in 12 months, which she cheer­fully went ahead and did, so de­ter­mined was she.

Along the way, she has trans­formed the lives of thou­sands of farm­ers, very of­ten ap­pear­ing in vil­lages in a jeep, set­ting up camp for weeks, clad in cot­ton, mega­phone in hand, ex­hort­ing them to pro­duce more. She finds this change very grat­i­fy­ing. In­stead of in­vest­ing in di­a­monds, she also be­gan a life­long pas­sion for art. Her first pur­chase—a Hu­sain—bought when she was all of 17, was paid for in small in­stal­ments to Sarla Daruwalla, a re­spected col­lec­tor. Pa­thy’s art col­lec­tion, over the years, is a fiercely in­tel­li­gent body of work with works by SH Raza, Ramesh­war Broota, Su­bodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Ji­tish Kal­lat and sev­eral more. Says Peter Nagy of Na­ture Morte, the Delhi-based gallery, “She is ex­tremely in­de­pen­dent, and very con­fi­dent; she does not look for ap­proval when she col­lects. In that, she’s a leader not a fol­lower. Even at IDF, she brings to­gether great syn­er­gies and ideas, and this is im­por­tant for In­dia.” Says Pa­thy: “De­sign is of­ten per­ceived to be re­lated just to lux­ury,” adding that she wanted in­stead to fo­cus on its other as­pects—in­dus­trial de­sign, in­no­va­tion, prod­uct de­sign, and think­ing. “Over its first two years, IDF has be­come a global plat­form for de­sign, en­abling creative think­ing and a build­ing of net­works.

I never thought it would be­come this big, and that’s very grat­i­fy­ing. To know that there is a world-class event with qual­ity speak­ers, a stel­lar pro­gramme with both young stu­dents and cor­po­rate prac­tion­eers, is very, very ex­cit­ing,” she says. Oth­ers con­cur. Atul Punj, Chair­man of Punj Lloyd, an early sup­porter of IDF, says, “Ra­jshree is a bun­dle of in­fec­tious en­ergy. Her achieve­ments, whether in busi­ness or in art, are only a small sample of what she is ac­tu­ally all about.” Yet an­other venture, Kama Ayurveda, was put to­gether fol­low­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with en­trepreneurs Vivek ‘Vicky’ Sahni, Vikram Goyal, and Dave Chang at her birth­day party in her Coimbatore home. She and her fam­ily have al­ways used Ayurveda (“it’s in our DNA,” she says), and what was once rou­tine soon spun out into an al­lur­ing busi­ness in 2001. In a jiffy, they put to­gether a con­tract and got go­ing. Kama is now the go-to skin­care and well­ness prod­uct for the cognoscenti.

Seated in a washed-out Nige­rian kaf­tan in her charm­ing L-shaped, low-slung bun­ga­low be­hind a for­est in the foothills of the Nil­giris in Coimbatore, Pa­thy is the an­tithe­sis of flash one some­times get from in­dus­tri­al­ists in Mum­bai and Delhi. She’s a woman who means sev­eral many things to sev­eral many peo­ple; a mother, an in­dus­tri­al­ist, a vig­or­ous eclec­tic­minded art col­lec­tor, an in­ter­na­tional jet-set­ter (she hates the phrase), a highly in­tel­li­gent, wel­lread woman, a lib­eral, a poly­glot (Tamil, Tel­ugu, English, French and some very dodgy Hindi), a de­sign afi­cionado, or a girl who some­times just sits around the house, hair piled on head, feet tucked un­der­neath her on a sofa, friends lit­tered across the room—her art dis­played, if in­deed one can call it so, with a qui­etude and el­e­gance. Each room opens into the other, liv­ing room to din­ing to bed in one seam­less flow. It’s very re­laxed and gen­uinely serene with­out pre­ten­sions. Din­ner is served— out­stand­ing South In­dian fare—on Michael Aram crock­ery, and she serves a de­li­cious, crisp Chardon­nay to ac­com­pany. Her eyes, bright, sparkling, di­rect­ing en­ergy, could well be what Brönte said about such eyes—the soul has an in­ter­preter, of­ten an un­con­scious but still a faith­ful in­ter­preter—in the eye.

It is this en­ergy and bound­less en­thu­si­asm that en­dears her to many. And when I ask what pro­pels her, I get, straight off the bat, the re­sponse, “Fair­ness, right­eous­ness, and change. I don’t look back and I don’t limit my­self—art, sugar, de­sign, fam­ily, friends—I like putting it all to­gether.” And with a flick of her kaf­tan, Ra­jshree Pa­thy wends her way to a wait­ing iPad. Life beck­ons.

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