Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair: The unlikely Indian hotelier

Veteran Indian journalist and columnist’s book Capture the Dream: The Many Lives of Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair is a fascinating insight into the life and times of the hotelier, who wore multiple hats during his long and distinguished career


Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Fri 15 Apr 2022, 2:06 PM

Bachi Karkaria is a veteran Indian journalist and columnist. Over the years, she has written several best-sellers, including Dare To Dream: A Life of M.S. Oberoi; Mumbai Masti, a richly illustrated book, in collaboration with designer Krsna Mehta, capturing the city’s quirky soul; The Cake That Walked, on Flurys, Kolkata’s iconic tea-room on Park Street; In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case that shook India. Her latest book Capture the Dream: The Many Lives of Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair, the founder of the successful Indian hotel chain — the Leela Group — that was named after his significant other.

Khaleej Times spoke with Karkaria about the amazing life and times of Captain Nair.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

What was the inspiration behind doing a biography of Captain CP Krishnan Nair, who passed away in 2014?

I had only known of Captain Nair as a remarkable hotelier, but after I watched an audio-visual (AV) presentation by his long-time friend Vijay Amritraj, I realised how many, equally remarkable earlier careers he had. The trajectory of a poor, low-caste Nair boy from an obscure Kannur hamlet in Kerala was astounding. He managed to impress the likes of the VP Menon, Pandit Nehru, and for starters, the Chirakkal Valiya Raja, who, so taken up by the self-assurance of this six-year-old, decided to pay for his entire education. He became the first Indian manufacturer of lace after his wife Leela encountered this exquisite fabric for the first time and told him ‘We must make it’; he promoted such cult fabrics of the 1960s and 1970s as Bleeding Madras and cheese cloth; was the biggest Indian exporter of ready-to-wear to the US, supplying to such storied labels as Gloria Vanderbilt, Liz Claiborne, Brooks Brothers and Tommy Hilfiger. Moreover, Captain Nair’s birth centenary was approaching on February 9, 2022, so that was a further incentive.

How did Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose influence Captain Nair?

Netaji had bedazzled the student activist Krishnan when he was taken to the Haripura Congress, in 1938, by his first hero, the communist leader AK Gopalan. You’ll have to read about the breast milk remedy when Bose was laid low by fever there. This early encounter grew to long-time admiration when, as a 20-something civilian wireless officer posted in Abbottabad (in modern-day Pakistan, then undivided British India), he was thrilled by Netaji’s stirring speeches on Radio Sholen broadcast from Singapore.

How did ‘Bleeding Madras’ cotton become a US sensation?

This is one of the most compelling stories, as much in the way he turned threat into opportunity, and you will have to read of all the strategy and happenstance that went into the making of the legend in the chapter, Let It Bleed.

What made Captain Nair make the transition from his textile business to the hospitality trade?

He was already at the top of his game, but his travels to America over the years had exposed him to the grandeur of such iconic hotels as the Waldorf Astoria. The unstoppable entrepreneur — and no less, nationalist — that he was, he knew that he simply had to create such ultra-luxury in India, or even better it. The proximity of his home and factory to the upcoming international airport at Mumbai’s Sahar was also a factor. He went on to create a deluxe space, which was the exact antithesis of the ‘quickie’ airport hotel. Its bars, restaurants and Cyclone discotheque made it a magnet for Bollywood since it was that much closer than the biggies of south Bombay.

Why do you think Captain Nair was an exception to the rule as a successful hotelier, switching to this career when he was already in his 60s?

Captain Nair was arguably the only hotelier who consciously promoted India every which way. He internalised the ancient tradition of ‘Guest is God’. He designed each of his hotels in the style of the past dynasties/empires of the region. He showcased not just past greatness through this, and the totally authentic local artefacts displayed, including the Mewar turbans worn by staff at The Leela Palace Udaipur, but also presented a future-ready country through state-of-the-art systems and services.

Do you agree that Captain Nair relished feuds and public battles? If so, why?

Not even someone as devil-may-care as Captain Nair would consciously invite the kind of battles that stymied every one of his hotels, but he certainly spared no punches in taking on his obstructors. He did so because he was a man obsessed with his mission to create and provide ‘the best of the best’. The ‘marathon man’ aptly embodied the mottos of the two athlete shoe giants: Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ and ‘Impossible Is Nothing’ by Adidas. You cannot discount the fact that he managed to get influential politicians on his side who worked as an effective counterforce. For example, Maharashtra strongman Vasant Dada Patil vis-a-vis A.R. Antulay who kept sitting on permissions for his first hotel.

How did his deal with Four Seasons go sour?

It really was a question of egos, and Captain Nair blunted that of Isadore Sharp. After all, he had created this spectacular 75-acre property in Goa, had even agreed to keep it closed for two years to remodel it expensively to the specifications of Four Seasons. So, he wanted co-branding, which was against the SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) of the global chain. The last straw was being told to get the new GM’s permission when he wanted to check in with Mrs. Leela Nair. So, the honeymoon ended before the knot was tied! By the way, among the several benefits for the entire hotel industry wrested by his older son Vivek, was getting the Government to allow foreign chains to come in with the more tempting ‘Operator’ status instead of mere sales agents. The Four Seasons tie-up prompted this, but ultimately this victory didn’t help the Nairs themselves.

Elaborate on Captain Nair’s zest for life.

Captain Nair lived king-size, whether it was in the extravagance of the meals he laid out for his guests, the generosity with which he invited people to stay for free, the flamboyance of his bespoke suits, which he loved shopping for, or even the aura of Guerlain’s Shalimar cologne and $480 (Dh1,763) for 50 millimetres (ml) of Orchidée Impériale face cream with which he pampered his skin every morning. The chapters A Man In Full, The Captain’s Table and Trailblazer In Parrot-Green Blazers spell this out. He never lost this exuberance even at 90 when he made his last trip to the US; his younger son, Dinesh was barely able to keep up with his pace as the father revelled in the bespoke stores and restaurants of his textile-empire days.

‘Dream’ is the common marker in both your biographies of two hospitality doyens, MS Oberoi, and Captain CP Krishnan Nair. Dare to Dream is the title of the former and Capture the Dream that of your current subject. Was it a conscious choice?

No and yes. The latter title was decided in a hurry because all concerned wanted the book out in time for the centenary. But, yes, it was a serendipitous connection. This book itself records the many parallels between these two hoteliers, with the Captain being no less a pioneer than the Rai Bahadur despite his coming on the scene 40-odd years later, when the Indian hospitality industry was well-entrenched.

Lastly, what will be Captain Nair’s legacy in the Indian hospitality industry?

The short answer to that is ‘unabashed, even over-the-top luxury, and the conscious, unrelenting, to-hell-with-obstacles determination to deliver the best of the best for guests and country. And how can we not marvel at his unique ‘green’ signature; no other hotelier past or present — arguably anywhere in the world — was such an obsessive gardener. He personally created the lyrical landscapes of all his properties, planted over a million trees yet knew every potted plant and its exact position in the sprawling grounds.

He brought back suitcases full of saplings and seeds from every trip abroad, even scaling a high wall in Peru to ask for cuttings of the flamboyant plumeria, which now emblazon all his softscapes in seven colours. The book spells out the long answer to your question, and thus, does justice to Captain Nair’s imprimatur on Indian hospitality. Not just that, I hope it also captures his story of making it big in modern India with passion, determination — and chutzpah.

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