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
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.