In this era of easy money, private planes and conspicuous consumption, we sometimes forget what industrialists were like in the days before the economy opened up and every second businessmen became a millionaire. Younger people have been told that they were all crooks who survived by manipulating the licence-quota raj and bribing bureaucrats and politicians. Only after 1991, or so it is said, did the true entrepreneurial energy of India get unleashed and a new class of savvy, globally conscious businessmen emerge.
Postcard: The Doshis, known for their interest in the arts, on a holiday in Africa. Courtesy: Saryu Doshi
Like most generalizations, this has an element of truth in it but it is also an exaggeration in some respects. It ignores the fact that before independence there were business families who were deeply committed to the idea of creating an industrial infrastructure for India out of a sense of patriotism. And even after the licence raj took over, such families as the Sarabhais, the Tatas, the Godrejs and the Walchands managed to retain their values and refused to subscribe to the prevailing ethic of manipulation and bribery.
Of these families, the Tatas and the Godrejs flourish; the Sarabhais are better known for non-industrial activities and the Walchands are rarely thought of as a single entity any longer. Few people who read about Chakor Doshi, Sharayu Daftary or Ajit Gulabchand think of them as being part of the same family. And though Walchand Hirachand was one of the founders of Indian industry (with interests in shipping, aeroplane manufacturing and automobiles) he is hardly ever talked about today. Nor has the family done as well as it could have, at least partly because in the 1970s and 1980s, many of its members refused to play the bribes-and-manipulation game.
Also Read: Vir’s previous Lounge columns
I saw some of this up close because Vinod Doshi, who died this October, was one of my closest friends in Mumbai. I saw him during his triumphs and his tribulations and I always marvelled at his good humour, his integrity and his ability to never forget that there was a world outside business.
Vinod was the oldest son of Lalchand Hirachand (brother of Walchand) and my guess is he would not have been a businessman had he not been born into an industrial family. Right from the time he was in college, his real interest was in the arts and in theatre, in particular.
In those days, it was not so unusual for business people to care about the arts. In fact, one of the things that saddens me most about today’s hotshot millionaires is that not only do they do virtually no charity (shouldn’t some of these guys have set up the sort of institutions that the Tatas and Birlas did? It’s been long enough since they made their money), but the only interest they have in art or culture is as an investment.
In Vinod’s day, everything was different. His parents did not seek an alliance from another industrial family but let him marry his sister’s best friend. It helped, I suppose, that though his wife Saryu came from a professional family she was (and still is) extraordinarily beautiful. But she had no interest at all in business — art history was her thing.
Soon after Vinod and Saryu married, they turned their home into an open house for artists, playwrights and actors. Struggling directors moved in — the Doshis were always generous with their hospitality. Plays were performed on their terrace. Vinod extended financial support to theatre companies and many of the 20th century’s biggest Indian theatre stars benefited from his support during their lean periods.
Unusually for an industrial family, the Doshis did not mind that Saryu continued to study (including abroad) after she got married and Vinod backed her as she reached a level of scholarship (a doctorate, a stint as editor of Marg, etc.) that led to her being regarded as one of India’s leading art historians.
For some of this time, the businesses were not doing well (for instance, Premier Automobiles yielded no returns throughout the 1970s till Vinod turned it around in the 1980s). So the Doshis lived off capital. And their lifestyle was never ostentatious. But they never cut back on the things that really mattered to them: their support for the arts, their love of theatre and Saryu’s research trips for her career as an art historian.
I ate many meals at their house on Carmichael Road and met nearly everyone who mattered in the world of the arts. Sunday lunch could be with Rudolf Nureyev and Ravi Shankar. M.F. Husain might drop in for dinner. Girish Karnad, Satyadev Dubey or Shyam Benegal were near regulars. I met Govind Nihalani and Deepa Sahi there; Charles and Monica Correa; Jennifer and Shashi Kapoor — the list goes on and on.
I learnt to watch world cinema at their home on one of Mumbai’s earliest video players (the subject of a previous Lounge column) and I marvelled at Vinod’s ability to straddle two entirely separate worlds. In the days that I lived in Mumbai, Vinod faced many business challenges. In 1983 (I think) R.P. Goenka launched a hostile takeover bid for Premier. Though the Doshis fought him off, many people had initially regarded them as goners. They had problems too with a project for the space programme, mainly because the minister in question was a sleazeball and they did not know how to play the game and get around him.
None of it seemed to faze him. It was not that he did not value his businesses — he exulted in his many triumphs and was a leading light of first, the Confederation of Engineering Industry and then the Confederation of Indian Industry. It was more that money and success ultimately were just a means to an end for him; never important only for their own sake.
I know this can come across as snobbery, so I am reluctant to say it, but the truth is that India’s old business families had a far greater sense of balance in their lives. We may laugh now at their paternal style of capitalism and sneer at them for not being ruthlessly focused on profits.
But I’ll take them over the new breed any day. They were always conscious of being rich people in a poor country; always aware of the responsibilities that come with wealth; and eager to use their money to patronize the arts, promote education and give something back to society.
In Vinod’s passing, I’ve lost a dear friend. But it also marks a change of era. And the change is not one that I like.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org