Capt. Nair is the founder and chairman of The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts. He recaps his life’s tale, one of the country's most remarkable success stories, to Shonali Muthalaly
The entourage gathers force as we go deeper. Hoteliers in suits gravely open doors and summon lifts. We pass though gleaming corridor after corridor, under a train of chandeliers. In hushed silence. One set of doors. Another. And another. The final doors swing open with an intimidating swoosh.
Revealing 90-year-old Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair, smiling fondly, waving hello. Sweet old man? Well, yes. But also one of the country’s most remarkable success stories.
Capt. Nair is the founder and chairman of The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts. But his journey began in far more humble surroundings in the small town of Kannur, Kerala. “My mother was a farmer. Mostly paddy and coconut,” he says, after making sure everyone in the room has enough cushions. Yes, cushions. “Lean back. Be comfortable,” he says, expansively. Capt. Nair likes telling stories. We’re with him for four hours in all. We hear a previous interview took six. For a good reason. This is a man who has seen it all.
“I was one of eight children. My father was a Government official, making a salary of Rs. nine a month. So we didn’t have much money.” Studying in a school funded by the Maharaja of Chirakkal, Capt. Nair remembers the day he met the maharaja. “He came for school-day celebrations. I was 10 and it was the first time I saw a raja. I was so electrified by his presence I created a poem, got up and recited it.” Moved, the maharaja promised Capt. Nair a scholarship for life. “I got Rs. 1,000 right there.”
By the time he was in his teens he had joined forces with Communist leaders A.K. Gopalan and P. Krishna Pillai. “Kannur was the centre of big revolutionary action then, as part of the freedom struggle. They asked me to head the student movement. I would take 200 boys to agitate — and we would be in the forefront so they couldn’t attack us. We were 12, 13, 14 years old.”
When he decided to study in Madras, it was an ambitious move for a small-town boy. “I had no money, but the maharaja said, ‘Go ahead. I promised you a scholarship for life.’ He didn’t have immediate cash. So he took off a five carat diamond ring and said, ‘Go to Bapalal and tell him I bought it from him. Sell it back, and the money will be enough for two years.’ I got Rs. 5,000 from that ring — which was a lot of money at that time.”
Living in Chintadripet, Capt. Nair enjoyed wandering through Madras. “I used to walk on Marina beach. And eat at Buharis. And I loved the Irani restaurant on Mount Road. Oh that bun, butter, jam. It would melt in the mouth,” he says, his eyes gleaming.
His next stop, the army, where he was stationed in Abbottabad as a wireless officer in 1942. Capt. Nair later joined the Maratha Light Infantry. “We used to play football with the soldiers when I was in school. I knew they were valiant fighters!” He married Leela, the daughter of a handloom owner from Kannur. “I told my superior officers, ‘I’m going to quit. My wife is rich’!”
He finally did quit, determined to reorganise the textile industry in India. Capt. Nair eventually helped establish the All India Handloom Board. However, money was always in short supply. “We managed to access Pt. Nehru through Govind Ballabh Pant. I used jargon,” says Nair, mischievously, adding with assurance, “I said ‘modernise’, ‘industrialise’, showed him pictures of the new German frame looms, which could make 40 yards of fabric in the time it was taking to make eight.”
We next go down for tea. By the time we reach the lobby there are 20 people standing around us. A group of them solemnly follow us to the restaurant, and then nod respectfully as Capt. Nair points at the fishing hamlet outside the hotel, giving them directions to “give them some cakes, some cookies. Maybe paint their houses in bright colours. Make them your friends.” It’s a shrewd move. Winning supporters and improving the view in one quick stroke.
Over tea, he talks about Bleeding Madras, the fabric that made him, and this city famous. “In 1956, I showed an American exporter a fabric we created in Madras for South Africa. Worn by women on their wedding night, it was coloured with a mix of vegetable dyes — Indigo blue, turmeric, herbal concoctions.” The buyer ordered 10,000 yards. “Before I sold it to him I told him, ‘This material has to be hand washed with cold water. With every wash you get a new fabric, colours will run — but not go away’.”
The material was made into jackets and pants, and sold at Brooks Brothers in New York. When colours began to run, the exporter threatened to sue Capt. Nair “I told him, it is guaranteed to bleed. Didn’t you give washing instructions?” As it turns out, he hadn’t. Fascinated by the fabric, the editor of Seventeen Magazine wrote a story on Bleeding Madras and it became a rage. “Our first order was one million yards. For five years we shipped this material. It started being made all over Madras, then even in Andhra Pradesh.”
At the age of 65, in the mid-1980s Nair decided to change professions again. “We had four acres in front of our house, and we lived near the International airport. The taxi queues would come right up to our door. Then one day, Leela said, ‘Instead of just staring at the taxis, why don’t you just put a hotel there. We have the land, and the resources’.” Today his seven luxury hotels and palaces all carry the name of his wife.
Building luxury hotels is never easy. “You need to be filthy rich,” he says, rolling his eyes. “The Leela Palace, Udaipur took me 13 years to make. Delhi cost Rs. 2,000 crore.” Through it all, he says, “My eyes were on Chennai. I have fond memories of this city.” This month his new hotel, the Leela Palace Chennai will finally open. “It’s taken Rs. 1,200 crores and seven years. But now, I finally feel, I’ve come home.”