Of fashion, flying and filmmaking

Vijaypat Singhania has been a trendsetter in the corporate world, in the air and on ground. VASANTI SUNDARAM talks to him to find out what led him on his varied trips.


At the controls ... in the microlight in 1988.

At the controls ... in the microlight in 1988.  

"Give that to me, let me set it right for you," he said, taking my mangled micro-cassette that decided to get all "wound up" during the meeting. With studied patience and precision, he poised the loop on a pencil and flattened its creases, extricating the tape from extinction.

It wasn't certainly the first time that Dr. Vijaypat Singhania, Chairman Emeritus, Raymond, set right a twist or saved someone's day. He has been doing that all along, as the former executive chairman of Raymond until 2000, when he decided to hand over the reins of the empire to his son, Gautam Singhania, while he preferred to nestle in a non-executive position.

Business apart, Dr. Singhania has been an aviator for over four decades with a total flying experience of over 5,000 hours. He set a milestone in 1988 with the fastest solo flight in a microlight aircraft from the United Kingdom to India, a feat that found a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Six years later, in 1994, the Guinness Book sought him yet again when he won the first International Round of the World Air Race. Starting and ending in Montreal, Canada, he covered 34,000 kilometres in the 24-day odyssey, contested with 35 participants from 27 countries, and went on to win the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) Gold Medal, the most coveted award in aviation sports.

A philanthropist, keen photographer, and a zealous teacher, Dr. Vijaypat Singhania shares his views on fashion, flying, and filmmaking.

SOME are born great, others have greatness thrust upon them ... And you?

I am neither. I have always believed and preached that success comes merely by hard work, not by the silver spoon that you are born with, that could probably serve as an opportunity. But hard work is no longer what it used to mean 50 years ago. In this new age, hard work includes many more components, it means competence, intelligent hard work, dedicated hard work and goal oriented hard work.

How would you describe yourself?

I think I am what I am. I strongly believe in the BMI — the Body, Mind and Intellect — concept that comprises three stages. Usually, when an individual moves from one stage into the other, he leaves the previous stage behind. But, there are the others who claim to be in a higher stage than they are actually in, and tend to preach philosophy even while showing off their diamonds and the size of their gold watch. Personally, I'd prefer to impress people with my intellect rather than my assets.

A thought that has always stayed with you?

Of fashion, flying and filmmaking

I had a guru, Dr. K.S. Basu, who used to say, "If you have one rupee and your friend has another rupee and you exchange your money, then both of you are still left with one rupee each. But if you have an idea, and he has an idea, and you exchange that, then both of you are left with two ideas each, ideas only multiply". One of the most profound pieces of philosophy I ever have heard.

Oscar Wilde said, "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months". How would you define fashion?

I would presume it to mean "keeping up with the times, keeping up with the Joneses, or being ahead of everybody else". But that to me is not fashion, it's just a facade. Fashion to me is a state of mind more than a state of the body.

Raymond, your brand, symbolises fashion, and Raymond is all about clothing.

Personally, I have never been part of the "fashionable" set. I have always dressed simply, I don't believe that I depict fashion in any definable form in today's terms. Am I in fashion? I don't know.

This, in spite of being a key player in the textile and fashion industry?

I have never wished to be part of a trend, or a fashion scene. I think it's just adequate to be who you are, and not go beyond your personality parameters. By not being what you really are, you are being more hypocritical than stylish, and I wouldn't want to be that just to be reckoned as fashionable.

Comment on these universal truths. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.

There is nothing ethically wrong in being selfish. Every person should have the intelligence to govern or protect his own self-interest. Those who say that they are willing to sacrifice their self-interest to protect yours are either kidding you, themselves, or both. In an aircraft, when there is a need to use the oxygen mask, you are instructed to put it on yourself, before assisting your child. By that, you are not only protecting yourself, you are also empowering yourself with the capacity to protect your child.

If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies.

Although it is said that "success is relative", "more the success, more the relatives", I don't believe that success has anything to do with false friends, you don't earn enemies until you deserve them. I don't think I've ever had an enemy, I may have people who hate me for whatever reason, but none who would want to hurt me.

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you.

Honesty does not necessarily mean stupidity, and frankness does not mean the opposite of diplomacy. Personally, I have been quite weak in my diplomatic skills. Besides, if people have taken advantage of me, it's certainly not because of my naivete, but because I trust people easily, I've never been a cautious, analytical sort of person.

A Thai saying, "Experience is a comb that Nature gives man after he is bald."

It does not make sense to me that you have to lose everything to gain something. Experience and knowledge are cumulative, they do not replace each other. If experience replaces anything at all, it is stupidity, and ignorance. And if experience does replace or remove anything else, then I think it was never worth retaining in the first place.

A mistake most managers tend to make: To make the herd like you, you follow the herd and never break into personal success beyond the herd's success.

When my cousin, Gopalakrishna Singhania, took over as Raymond's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer under my father in 1956, Raymond was only producing blankets. In the early 1960s, when he wanted to move into suiting material, his Chief Sales Manager resigned, telling my father that his nephew had gone out of his mind, that suiting material were only made in England, and its production would never be possible in India. But my father took the risk, a risk that paid off. Today, Raymond is amongst the top suiting producers in the world.

Narayana Murthy of Infosys: Love your job, but never fall in love with your company, because you'll never know when your company stops loving you. Is that true?

I suppose what he is trying to say is not to lose your objectivity in the performance of your job, because if you lose objectivity, many of your decisions become subjective. Any form of attachment, towards your company or relationships can cloud your judgement, and then you run the risk of losing track of your goal. But, I don't see anything wrong in loving your organisation if you have spent a substantial portion of your life with it.

Have you ever been scared?

Taking the solo micro light flight from the U.K. to India was a great risk. Just a day or two before the tour I realised the enormity of the entire exercise. I was scared, not of engine failure or an emergency landing on land, but of drowning and being eaten by sharks. I even carried a shark repellent in my waistband. At the end of the trip, a reporter asked me how long I thought the shark repellent would have lasted. I replied probably 15 minutes. To which she said, "Did you think that the sharks couldn't have waited for those 15 minutes? Did you think you would be rescued in that time?" I was glad I had not met her before I took off, I would never have had the courage to go through with my mission.

What do you like imparting as a management guru?

I have been teaching the concept of the Life Curve. I tell my students that, in the formative years of a child, his receptive antennae are out, not his transmitters, so the child can only receive input. The first turn-around comes when he starts to receive as well as transmit, when the boy becomes man. The second turn-around comes when his transmitters are out, but his receivers are withdrawn, and he begins to claim that he knows it all. This turnaround is called senility. I have always believed that neither of these two turnarounds have anything to do with age.

Who is more senile then, the old or the young?

Needless over-confidence, and misplaced egos initiate rapid decay of the mind. It disheartens me to see young kids wearing Cartier watches and diamond bracelets when they are 10 or 20, when they look at older people and say, "You can't teach me anything, I have managed to acquire at 20 what you have not at 50!"

Dr. Singhania recently turned producer with his debut film, "Woh Tera Naam Tha".

"Venturing into the film industry was a risk that gave me much satisfaction, an understanding of the intricacies involved in the process. Nobody who sees this film can point a finger at me for portraying violence, abusive language, or offensive scenes. If people do need to say something, it would be about how conservative and old-fashioned V.P. Singhania has been to produce such a stupid, value-ridden movie in today's value-less times."

Foreseeing the future of the film industry, he remarks, "The current depressed business scenario will pass. The industry is being presently run by proprietorships, and only corporatisation will help ease the unsettled situation. Also, something needs to be done towards the issues of high level of entertainment taxes and ineffective anti-piracy policies if the industry is to survive."

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