Cultural activist, philanthropist and businessman Ranvir Shah tells Shonali Muthalaly that multi-tasking lies at the core of his identity

One world is tough enough. Ranvir Shah inhabits three.

He’s an industrious businessman, heading a successful garment export business. He’s a zealous philanthropist, organising — amongst other things — the city’s annual Citizen’s Run. However, the world he’s best known for is the third: the world of creative cultural activism.

Today he’s a familiar — and popular — face on the city’s social circuit. However, his worlds weren’t always this harmoniously intertwined. “When I came to Chennai in 1980, I used to lock myself in the bathroom and cry.” He adds, “In Mumbai I went to Cathedral (The Cathedral and John Connon School), which was the most snobbish school ever.” Settling down with a steaming ginger coffee in his sprawling home, he adds with a laugh, “Of course I was the poorest boy in class.”

This is Shah’s most charming feature, really: his unpredictability. One minute he’s a la-di-dah socialite, the next he slams right back to earth. His home’s an extension of his character. A concoction of designer dreams, it’s packed with the obligatory hefty stone sculptures, pretty antiques and striking paintings. Yet, it decisively veers away from being a showcase. His art collection is strewn about, part of the fabric of his everyday life: The family dog is tethered to a stone sculpture, an antique statue acts as a paper weight, an embroidered wall-hanging doubles up as a curtain. Shah seems to submerge himself in art, simply because it makes him happy. It makes it easier to understand why he has gone to such great lengths to engage with it with regularity.

Making it big

“My father was in the readymade garment business. When we moved to Chennai we operated from a rented house with just 10 pedal machines. By the mid-1990s it had become a successful business with 10 factories,” he says adding that he, however, never wanted to join it. “Getting into the business was not a choice. It was a mix of happenstance and being co-opted. I wanted to be a mime,” he shrugs, adding that his father reeled him in with an unusual bargain. “Rs. 500 a month.” More importantly, he said, ‘I’ll let you use my car from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.”

However, Ranvir’s love affair with Chennai really began when he stumbled into the city’s theatre scene in the mid-1980s by first working backstage, and then slowly getting more and more involved with the city’s cultural landscape. “My father and his business partner always said you can’t ride two horses at the same time.” Often he almost believed them. “It has been exceedingly difficult for the last 15-20 years.”

Along the way he discovered the person he calls his greatest source of strength: his wife Nandi. “Sharan (Apparao) was dying to fix me up. She said she knew the perfect person — gujju gujju types.” There was much crossing of wires and a disastrous first date. “I forgot! I was practising for a play. Sharan had gone Scottish dancing. There were no cell phones then. By the time I realised and rushed to the venue she was gone.” Fortunately she agreed to meet him again. “Then, on New Year’s Eve we got married.”

However, his compartmentalised life got tougher. “In 1989, I had my first nervous breakdown. I still remember I was checking packed shirts at work, and suddenly I felt an overwhelming urge to collapse. To sit in a corner and burst into tears. So I went home and did exactly that. I was ill for a week.”

Shah resigned himself to working at his export business. However, after his two sons Pratham, Prasan and daughter Prakriti were born; it was time for his next epiphany. “It was 1998 and my driver had a massive cardiac arrest. In 20 minutes he was dead. It was shattering… That night, I just cracked up. I had never seen death in the face. He was the same age as me. I was talking to my wife, and I said that you never know when one of us will go.”

This was when they decided it was time to stop playing safe. The Prakriti Foundation was born with a lecture in Shah’s house by a Canadian scholar on Tanjore dance. Over the years it’s gone on to host festivals on subjects ranging from Hindustani classical music to Shakespeare. In 1998, Shah along with dancer Anita Ratnam launched The Other Festival to celebrate art forms that pop culture tends to sideline. (Today he runs it as The Park’s New Festival.)

“We had a tough time getting audiences. Once we had a total of seven people at Museum Theatre — we just didn’t know where to hide our faces… With The Other Festival I realised that if I didn’t have the training of my business world I wouldn’t be able to run the festival…” he says, adding thoughtfully that perhaps all the heartbreak was worth it in the end. “Maybe that was the life I had to have to be able to do what I do now… I find that I have reached a stage when I can make an idea a reality. The ability to make a dream come true is fabulously satisfying.”

A large part of this satisfaction comes from his work with NGOs. There’s Pratham Hospice Trust, a free palliative care ward. “Next I want to start Prasan — a centre for well-being, where alternative methods of healing are available at minimal cost.”

This could explain why Shah’s core philosophy is searching for identity. “Who we are is never a fixed address.”

As for his self-appointed role as cultural custodian? “People call me a patron of the arts. An impresario, I find the terms offensive. They signify that you’re wealthy and doing it for your ego. I call myself a cultural catalyst. I like putting elements together in a crucible of discourse to create an interesting alchemy. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. You have to deal with the crap,” he says, rolling his eyes.

It’s not about changing the world. “I’ve never been into this legacy crap. The legacy I leave my children is that they need to do the things they love doing — so they don’t go through the angst that I did.”

As for his different personas, they’re finally coming together. “Some people do one thing and do it fabulously all their life. Some people like a multiplicity of things,” he says, adding “I used to worry, ‘if I do too much, am I a Jack of All Trades?’ I’ve realised that it’s multiple personalities that I like to inhabit.”