When Ashwin Dani, vice-chairman and managing director (MD) of Asian Paints, enters B.K.S. Iyengar’s yoga institute in Pune, his corporate leader identity is left behind at the door, along with his slippers. The man whose global perspective made his company a market leader in 10 countries now embarks on a voyage that focuses only inwards.
At the institute, 89-year-old Guruji, Iyengar to the world, cited by Time Magazine in 2004 as one of the 100 most influential thinkers of this century, not only teaches his students yoga, but also ensures that constant practice polishes it into an elegant metaphor on how to live life.
Dani has been Guruji’s disciple for more than two decades and, as the master initiates his pupil into Bharadwajasana, a gentle spinal twist named after the ancient Indian sage Bharadwaja, Dani’s expression reveals that being wrung in two opposite directions at the same time can be quite blissful. Flexibility, as Guruji demonstrates wordlessly, is the art of flowing with unexpected contradictions.
On the face of it, the pursuit of yoga and business seems to be two entirely separate things. In his professional capacity, Dani is clearly an authority: He has helped Asian Paints grow into India’s largest paint company by value and market share. Ishwar Subramanian, MD of the Indian arm of Akzo Nobel Coatings, the world’s largest paint company, calls Dani “one of the pillars of the Indian paints industry”.
M.M. Sharma, a Fellow of the Royal Society, London, and a leading scientist in the field of chemical engineering, says: “In the 32 years I’ve known him, Ashwin bhai has grown the company through technological innovation, rural marketing and international acquisitions. He pioneered computerized colour matching in India. He was the first to bring plastic packaging for paint to India and to print on plastics. His antennae are always up, picking up new things.”
And, as Dani himself puts it: “I dream of paint, paint and paint.” One of the products that he dreamt up was melamine, the transparent coating for wood sold under the brand name, Apcolite. For 15 years, Dani says, it had a virtual monopoly in market share and, after 25 years, the formula still can’t be bettered. He recalls its beginnings: “Our executive director challenged me, saying, ‘Ashwin bhai, I like a lot of ice in my drink, but my moist glass ruins the French polish on my table. Can you find a solution?’ I took six months to develop a product that was fast-drying and water-resistant. It worked like a charm, and became a household word. Melamine now means Apcolite; it is my own baby.”
But life has its own blend of light and shade, as Dani goes on to reveal. In a span of three years beginning 1995, he underwent a bypass surgery, his oldest business partner separated from the company and a fire gutted one of their major plants.
Undeterred, Dani spearheaded a 50:50 joint venture between Asian Paints and PPG Industries, USA, the world’s leading automotive coatings’ manufacturer. Through all of this, Guruji’s tailor-made regimen of asanas infused Dani with health and positivity.
Among the many lessons learnt, Ina ben, his wife, also a yoga practitioner for decades, explains: “The first thing you have to learn is to leave your ego behind.” Dani says: “Guruji is a tough master. He would say, ‘You call yourself a technical director of India’s largest paint company, yoga ka technique to aata hi nahin.’ He said this once in front of Mr Marfatia, technical director of Goodlass Nerolac, my competitor. So, we learnt to be humble and laugh at ourselves.”
It was an obstinate slipped disc that no amount of physiotherapy could wish away that first brought Dani to Iyengar Yoga in 1980.
His doctor recommended Taraporewala, a student of Guruji. Dani still remembers that first lesson with incredulity: “Right away, I got 75% relief and never saw the physiotherapist again. I began to practise three-four asanas daily and began to reap the benefits.”
In those days, every weekend, Guruji would come to Mumbai on the Deccan Queen train from Pune; Dani and his wife enrolled in his classes. “I could see much therapeutic benefit and value in yoga,” says Dani. “My wife always said, when we buy our own property in Mumbai, we will create something permanent for yoga. So when we built our residential building, Home Villa, in 1998, the first thing we did was to create an Iyengar Yoga Centre on the first floor.”
Almost a decade later, the centre, with its heavily subsidized fees, has benefited hundreds of people. Dani laughs: “After we set it up, my wife said, there are lots of people who give money; we must give time also. She spends two hours daily teaching pregnant ladies at the centre. And I have given time, as past managing trustee, to Guruji’s Light on Yoga Trust.”
In this manner, Iyengar Yoga became a way of life in the Dani household. Every day, its members try to carve out at least an hour for its practice; Dani himself practises a minimum of three times a week. Often on a Sunday, as other families go on picnics or out to brunch, this family enjoys a group yoga session on their rooftop terrace overlooking the graceful laburnum trees that lend their name to the neighbourhood. Malav, one of Dani’s sons, even toyed with the idea of becoming a yoga instructor. He says: “Guruji is very practical—he advised me, you should be out there, creating jobs.” Malav is now an independent entrepreneur looking at new ventures.
Another professional, an IIT-qualified electrical engineer, Birju Mehta, took on the challenge of a dual career: As one of Guruji’s most experienced students, he conducts yoga therapy classes at Home Villa even as he works at Tata-VSNL as vice-president (networks). He says: “I have found yoga complements business life. Every time Guruji does an asana, he finds new ways of exploring it. From this, you can learn to be creative. You begin to question and observe changes that are often imperceptible to others, and you learn to apply this to business solutions as well.”
Amit Pawar, a Pune-based student of Guruji with a master’s degree in commerce, opted to become a full-time yoga instructor, teaching corporate leaders such as the Chhabrias of Finolex Cables and Rajiv Bajaj, MD, Bajaj Auto.
He says: “Once you experience Iyengar Yoga’s long-term benefits, no matter how busy you are, you will make time for it. There are no short cuts. Mr Bajaj won’t skip a day; if he is travelling, he will do it in his hotel room. As Guruji’s own practice at this age shows us, if we perform yoga like an art, the body is a beautiful and timeless instrument.”
As Dani finishes the session, his guru’s eyes gleam affectionately, even as he gruffly says: “His body is stiff, but he perseveres. See the change in him. Once upon a time, he was totally involved in making money, but today his mind is balanced between the material and the spiritual.”
And then, in a final twist, he says of the master of paints: “Ha! Look at the colour glowing in his face! Yoga has brought him harmony.”
Personal Space runs every alternate Friday and looks at the pursuits beyond work of some of India’s corporate leaders. Write to Sangitaa Advani at firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous Personal Space columns, log on to www.livemint.com
Name: Ashwin S. Dani
Title: Vice-chairman and managing director
Education: BSc (Hons), Institute of Science, University of Bombay
BSc (Tech) (Pigments, Paints & Varnishes)—U.D.C.T, University of Bombay
Master’s in Polymer Science from University of Akron, Akron, Ohio, USA
Diploma in Colour Science from Rensellaer Polytechnic, Troy, New York
Pursuits: Iyengar Yoga
Claim to fame: An innovator in the Indian paints industry, he has helped Asian Paints go global. Has also spread Iyengar Yoga among colleagues, peers and others. Is adviser to the Central Board of Trustees—Employees Provident Fund which manages the provident fund—of around three crore members (amounting to around Rs1,50,000 crore)