Mumbai:C.P. Krishnan Nair joined India’s freedom struggle when he was a schoolboy, enlisted in the Indian army, became one of the pioneers of the handloom industry and exported textiles before going on to build a chain of luxury hotels that held its own against the Oberoi and Taj groups.
The multi-faceted Nair, founder-chairman of Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, passed away on Saturday at the age of 92 following a brief illness.
Nair’s life was a classic story of rags to riches, starting from his early education at a small elementary school in his native village in Kannur district of Kerala.
“My mother was a poor paddy farmer. My father was a government servant with a salary of Rs9 a month. I was one of eight children. Situations were quite bad then," he recalled in one interview.
A turning point was a visit to the school by the Maharaja of Chirakkal, who was impressed enough by a poem Nair wrote and recited in his honour to offer the boy a lifetime scholarship.
In his teens, Nair also came in touch with Communists leaders such as P. Krishna Pillai and A.K. Gopalan. Kannur was fertile land for the Communist movement.
At the age of 13, Nair joined the freedom movement. In 1942, he went to Bangalore to join the Indian Army. The recruiting officer was impressed with the confidence he exuded. Nair joined as wireless officer in Abbottabad, now in Pakistan.
He rose to the rank of a captain in the Maratha Light Infantry. He married industrialist A.K Nair’s daughter Leela during his army days. Later, his wife’s name became the brand name for the chain of hotels he went on to build.
In 1951, four years after India won independence, Nair resigned his commission and helped establish the All India Handloom Board, where he was instrumental in marketing hand-spun Indian yarn in the US.
His frequent business trips to Europe and America exposed him to international hotels like Adlon Kempinski, Dorchester Savoy, George Shanvk and Waldorf Astoria, inspiring his later venture into the hospitality sector.
In 1958, Nair set up a lace making unit in Mumbai and got the idea to set up a hotel when an international airport began to come up near his bungalow in Mumbai. He found that there were no good hotels around Andheri, a Mumbai suburb where the airport was coming up.
Nair set up Hotel Leelaventure Ltd in 1983 in Mumbai and started building a hotel after taking 6.5 acres of land on lease in Andheri, apart from four acres of land he owned.
The first Leela hotel was launched in Mumbai in 1987.
In a span of 25 years, Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts had expanded to eight luxury properties in New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Gurgaon, Udaipur, Goa, Chennai and Kovalam. New hotels are opening in Noida, Agra, Jaipur and Lake Ashtamudi in Kerala.
On 7 February, Nair stepped down as chairman of the group. His eldest son Vivek Nair was elevated to chairman and managing director and youngest son Dinesh Nair to co-chairman and managing director.
Nair is survived by his wife Leela, their sons Vivek and Dinesh, their wives and children.