K.R. Nagarajan tells the inspiring story of how he transformed the vesthi into a sartorial statement of prestige and power.
Many years ago, while still in his 20s, K.R. Nagarajan headed out for dinner with his business colleagues at a five-star hotel in Chennai. While his colleagues were dressed in suits, Nagarajan opted to wear a white shirt and dhoti. Nagarajan was stopped by the watchman from entering while his colleagues were let in. Another time, a receptionist demanded to verify his credentials before she would allow him into the boardroom.
Nagarajan could not forget this. Twelve years later, these memories gave birth to the ‘Salute Ramraj’ anthem. These advertisements had film stars, industrialists and other men of substance dressed in dhotis, alighting from shiny cars at five-star hotels, banks and other important places. They are smartly saluted by the security guard, the receptionist and even an elephant! This was Nagarajan’s way of saying that the dhoti is respectable.
Now, the white cotton shirt and dhoti, the signature of the Ramraj brand find themselves in prominent retail outlets and airports. Politicians and industrialists sport the white cotton shirt and a dhoti with pride and it has become an eminently recognisable brand all over Tamil Nadu.
After completing his SSLC in 1977, Nagarajan realised that he could not afford further education. “Going to college would have been very expensive, as I came from very modest means. So I decided to plunge straight into business and learn the tricks of the trade while working,” he says.
Nagarajan spent 18 months in a dhoti manufacturing firm in Andhra Pradesh to learn about the production and marketing side of things. He then started his own tiny office in 1983 in Tirupur, with one table and chair and called it Ramraj Khadi Traders.
Ramraj is a combination of his father, Ramaswamy, and his own name. Nagarajan sourced dhotis, and cycled from Avanashi to Tirupur every day to sell them.
Thirty years later, a silver Honda Accord is his mode of transport.
“I used to travel by bus, but the monthly fare of Rs. 20 was expensive,” he says. So he cycled 14 km to and fro. Back then, Tirupur was known more as a banian city, and there were no quality dhotis being sold in the market. People attending functions and going on long trips would often carry two dhotis with them, as one would end up getting torn.
By 1987, Ramraj Khadi Traders became Ramraj Cotton, as khadi was replaced by cotton. Nagarajan himself walked the talk, wearing dhotis with a white cotton shirt, much to the chagrin of his wife, children, nephews and nieces.
“My family would often ask me to change into a pant and shirt when we would go out for a movie or shopping,” he recalls. Now, his nephews themselves don a white shirt and veshti wherever they go. His elder daughter and son-in-law have introduced their own range of track pants, t-shirts, sports attire and ladies’ wear to further modernise the brand.
Ramraj Cotton now manufactures 2,500 different types of dhotis. They recently organised a fashion show where all models were dressed in the signature white shirt and dhoti at a popular hotel. In 2009, the Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America (FeTNA) in Atlanta had 700 men and women dressed in Ramraj dhotis, salwars and saris.
Plans are afoot to set up dealer outlets in North India, and also export the apparel in the near future. Ramraj will be opening its 39th outlet soon.
It is not just business and money that motivate Nagarajan. A disciple of Vethathiri Maharishi, he pays equal importance to peace of mind, ethics in business and family. Yoga, meditation and vegetarian food are a regular part of his life now.
He brings out a monthly magazine Venmai Ennangal, which focuses on contemporary social issues. The latest publication talks about teenagers and how they can cope with the distractions and uncertainties in their lives.
“My apparel depicts purity on the outside, and my attempt through this magazine is to bring about purity in the mindset of my shareholders as well. Money, a house and car give you happiness initially, but it is purity of character that will ensure you sail through the toughest of times,” he concludes.