Pathbreakers 2
“I am an organisation builder, and I want to bring that skill to my philanthropy”

Hemendra Kothari, who pioneered investment banking in India, has seen India’s financial sector evolve all the way from state control in the 1960s

Hemendra Kothari is one among the few in the Indian financial sector who has seen it all – from the earliest stages of state control in the late 1960s to free markets and the globally integrated eco-nomy of today. In between, he built the family brokerage business virtually from nothing to one of the best names in India. He soldiered through the frustrating 1970s, was one of the earliest to look abroad in the 1980s, stayed the course in the stagnant 1990s when many others fell by the wayside and was ready to reap the benefits once the Indian economy and markets took off after 2002. One of Kothari’s significant achievements has been to skilfully engage one of the largest financial firms in the world – Merrill Lynch – in a highly rewarding partnership in investment banking, broking and asset management. Now, it is his charities and the mission to save the tiger that are the new focus areas of his life

ML: We would like to start from the very beginning – you were born in Mumbai, weren’t you?

HK: Yes, born and brought up and also educated in Mumbai. I studied at Sydenham College. After my graduation my father advised me not to go to the stock exchange because it is not a very interesting place to be in.

ML: But wasn’t your family into stock-broking?

HK: Yes, my family has been in the stock exchange for nearly 140 years. In fact, when I entered the brokerage business, my family had been in it for over 100 years. My great grandfather was one of the founders of the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) and was involved in setting it up along with some others. It first started operating under a banyan tree and he was one of the first signatories to setting up the stock exchange association.

ML: What was his name?

HK: He was Purbhoodas Jeevandas Kothari. The stock exchange business wasn’t very attractive in 1967 when I completed my BCom. It was suggested that I must get trained for doing business. Textiles was big business those days. I had a friend called (late) Ashok Piramal whose family was in textiles. His father said, “Why don’t you come here and try your hand at this?” I joined Morarjee Mills and was there for a year. I went through the rut of going to work at 7.30am and learning spinning, weaving, processing and looking after sales. In less than a year, I was made assistant sales manager. Around then, the head of cotton purchase was appointed the CEO and the person who headed sales left for a better job. The CEO then asked me to takeover as the head of local sales, although I was relatively new to the business. I was only 22 then. But things went quite well. I used to work from 8am to 10pm. The job involved going to Mulji Jetha Market, learning what business was all about. It was a great experience and I thought if I am doing well in this, why can’t I do just as well in my own business in the stock market? So in 1969, I entered the stock market.

ML: Can we go back a little to your family background?

HK: Well, I was fortunate enough to come from a rich family; we always had money; but that doesn’t mean that the riches were liquid; they were in assets. My father was in the market, but he was never an active member. He usually operated on a no-profit no-loss basis. His income wasn’t generated from brokerage but from his personal investments. My father was a very liberal person and a philanthropist, like others in my family. My great grandfather started a boarding and lodging institution at Dadar (in central Mumbai) that allowed students from our native place to come to Mumbai for their college education. About 45 students could stay there and, apart from their food and accomodation, their tuition fees were taken care of. I won’t take names, but many famous people came out of that place. But now there is no need for such a place and we are looking at what to do next. My father also started a hospital in Mumbai.

ML: How many siblings do you have?

HK: We are two brothers and four sisters. My eldest sister is an art historian; she is a PhD and always got a first class first. The second one has passed away; my third sister is a doctor and settled in the US. My fourth sister is also a historian and a PhD, and then I; I was not as clever as them. My younger brother is an engineer and an MBA from the US. He worked in Germany, then came to India and, after spending a year or two in the stock market, started a chemical company called Alkyl Amines. I supported and helped in whatever way I could but he knew what he wanted to do; he didn’t want to be in the market. I studied at the New Era School in Mumbai.

ML: You were in Sydenham College and we believe you played cricket.

HK: Yes, I represented my college, made a lot of friends; I enjoyed cricket, although I wasn’t a great player. I was also the secretary of the students’ union. The objective then was to be active and be allowed to bunk classes. Deepak Parekh was my senior in college, but I knew him since my school days through a cousin of his. Nimesh Kampani (chairman of JM Financial) was in the cricket team, Shitin Desai (executive vice-chairman DSP Merrill Lynch – DSPML) was also there; Jimmy Billimoria, who went to Hindustan Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis), was also there. There were many others – some of whom I am in touch with. Apart from cricket, we played bridge, right until a fortnight before our exams. But the main thing that I remember about college is the long-lasting friendships that I made – many of them are not in business or industry but we still meet and remain good friends.

ML: Why did you get into textiles instead of getting into stock trading directly?

HK: Well, I was told that it didn’t have such a bright future. After I completed my BCom, I didn’t want to study further and wanted to get into business. At that time, somebody told my father, “Why don’t you partner us in a ball bearing company by investing a few lakh of rupees?” My father was willing to invest the money and asked me to take a look at the factory. But you know how much a fresh BCom graduate understands about factories; it looked exciting. I then met Gopikisan Piramal. He said, “Hemendra, you have only done your BCom but you seem to have a great deal of experience.” I said, “No, Sir, I have only just graduated.” Then he said, “But they are willing to take you as a partner; which means that whatever money you have will also go away.” That got into my head and I realised that they may be good people, but they wanted me only for the money. I had neither the experience nor the technical knowledge and was yet to prove myself. Mr Piramal then said, “Why don’t you come to the mill tomorrow and go to the spinning department?” So I started by spending half a day in the cotton mixing department and half a day in purchase; after a couple of months, it got very boring and I asked to be shifted to sales.

ML: When you were with Morarjee Mills and going through different departments, what was in your mind? What was your objective?

HK: I was a novice, but just by using common sense, one could make a lot of improvements; people generally have a mindset of their own and are reluctant to change. If you are enthusiastic and take the initiative, you can make a difference. I did that and I used to go and tell the chief executive about changes that we could and ought to make. He was very happy about what I was doing; I even argued with him about things. He encouraged me to do so and I have to thank him for that. After about six months, he asked, “What is happening? You are not telling me what is wrong anymore.” I said, “Well, everything is fine.” He said, “No, things are not fine, you have just got used to the bad things.” One has to work continuously at improving things – this is one of the lessons about doing business that I learnt there and never forgot.

ML: Then, in 1969, you came back and joined the firm?

HK: Yes, I joined stock-broking in 1969. One of the first things that happened then was that the government imposed a ban on forward trading. The traders went on strike and there was a lot of turmoil. There were very good people like Maganlal T Vora, Champaklal Devidas Dalal, Hasmukhlal Shah and Vasant Dalal who helped me learn the trading process. Our firm was among the 12 brokers empanelled by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), but since nobody had visited them for over a decade, they had removed us from the list. So I had to work hard at getting more outside business and persuade them to re-empanel us. That happened after three years of hard work and it was very important for us in order to get any part of the government securities business, especially for switch deals where RBI was directly involved, or to buy securities from the central bank. An understanding of fixed-income securities, debentures and bonds was important to the business. I never took too much risk because my capital was limited. So I did a lot of agency business. In 1970, I started the equity brokerage segment for institutional business.

ML: Who was actually in charge of the firm at that time?

HK: In 1969, when I joined DSP (DS Purbhoodas), I was not a partner. My father was the proprietor. Until I joined, he ran the firm on a no-profit-no-loss basis. After I came in, the profit jumped to Rs1.5 lakh annually; he was so excited about it that he made me a 50% partner. At that time, it was difficult to attract even a BCom to this business, forget about chartered accountants or management graduates. So from 1969-71, I had a tough time finding the right people – that was the time when banks were nationalised, forward trading was banned. It was a period of great upheaval in the market, but was also a great learning experience – the workload was relatively lower. The main trading institutions were Unit Trust of India (UTI), Life Insurance Corporation (LIC), General Insurance Corporation (which used to be known as Reinsurance Corporation) and New India Assurance which was headed by GS Patel; MJ Pherwani also used to be there. RS Bhatt was then the chairman of UTI. I used to manage quite a few stocks in which institutions were interested but without taking positions. They were, by and large, interested in 40-50 stocks. Those days, we had the open outcry system and the jobbers would inform you of the number of shares available in a particular scrip and I could make offers – that is how trading took place. It was a very exciting time because in a very short time – by 1972 – we were among the top two or three firms on the BSE.

The competition those days was Harkisondass Lakshmidass (which went spectacularly bust), Jamnadas Morarjee (a stock-broking firm headed by the late Mahendra Kampani) to some extent and a few other brokers. As a young guy, competing with established players was a big thrill for me.

In 1971, Grindlays Bank began what was called the first merchant banking office in India. Those days, getting an underwriting proposal of Rs five lakh was a tough job; moreover Grindlays liked to do most of the underwriting themselves and pass only a little to others. So there was a craze to blindly underwrite anything you were offered. Today, you first create demand through marketing and only underwrite for the period of risk – that is the way it is done the world over. Those days, it was blind underwriting for X amount at a fixed price. It was a high-risk business. When I did underwriting, I used to sub-underwrite my exposure. I didn’t want to take risks – it was not my cup of tea.

But specialised merchant banking businesses became a fashion and most brokerage firms started separate entities, mainly as a way to attract good people to join the business. In 1974, I asked Shitin Desai to join me, at that time he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do. We started the merchant banking firm with a capital of Rs five lakh. At the same time, in 1971-72, we began to act as a deposit-collecting agent for Indian companies. That was also a major business those days. We used to distribute the business to hundreds and thousands of brokers all over the country and collect a management commission from the company. We were selective about the kind of companies that we raised deposits for. We learnt some good lessons from GS Patel (former UTI chairman) in particular. He had a very high level of integrity and he always said, “You should be prepared for a CBI inquiry if you are doing business with me and you must be prepared for investigation. So when I give orders, I will myself order an inquiry into it.” That created a different kind of discipline in us, compared to what was going on in the market. In 1973-74, my father began to reduce his work at the firm. He was always interested in philanthropy and I will always cherish his thoughts and ideas.

The years 1975-76 were again tough, because the government ordered a freeze on dividends (and it caused the market to tumble). In 1975, when oil prices began to rise, I began to dream about overseas operations. I took the help of a very nice gentleman called Sorab Pochkhanawala at the Central Bank of India, in charge of international operations. With his references, I met about 40 banks in London, France, Germany and the Middle East over a 20-day period.

ML: What was the idea in meeting them?

HK: I wasn’t quite sure. I knew there would be a link someday and I just went and told all of them that I wanted to represent them in India. Of the 40 banks that I met, only two showed interest. One was Midland Bank and the other was Dresdner Bank. Midland Bank agreed to work on a transaction basis and gave us some offers to fund shipping, etc., but it didn’t quite work out. Those days, Rs50,000 or Rs100,000 was a big sum, especially when there were no emails, and telephone calls and faxes were expensive. So I began to feel that I was ignoring the real bread-and-butter business and wasting my time. Then, in 1978, Air India wanted funding and Dresdner Bank participated in the consortium; we represented Dresdner Bank and were short-listed, but someone else beat us. But that transaction helped build a friendship. Then, in 1981-82, I convinced them that it would reduce their costs if they let me represent them in India instead of having a branch here. In 1983, they finally agreed to let me represent them and that is how our international business started. My relationship with Merrill Lynch began around the same time, but the story actually goes back to 1975. I had joined the board of Kirloskar Cummins as one of its youngest directors.
ML: How old were you then?

HK: I was 27 or 28 and the average age on the board was close to 80 years. Just before me, Sharad Pawar’s brother who runs Sakal newspaper also joined the board; both of us reduced the average age of the board significantly. Soon I was on the boards of Kirloskar Pneumatic, Kirloskar Oils and Kirloskar Cummins. I had met the great SL Kirloskar (SLK) only once in my life, when I went to watch a Davis Cup tennis match. I met him there and spoke about my ideas on various aspects of finance. In a fortnight, I received a call requesting me to join the board. I was excited because Kirloskar was a big name those days and I learnt a lot from SLK. Those days, he used to say that the Planning Commission should be dismantled – it was a very radical idea. He was extremely enterprising and it was great to learn from him; he also encouraged everybody on the board to speak freely about things. I also came in contact with people like Neelkanth Kalyani (of Bharat Forge) and listening to him and others on the board was a great learning experience.

That was the time when I began to travel all over India to meet people and companies. Then, in 1978-79, we created or invented a product called ‘Working Capital Debentures’ for companies who needed funds. We created a formula whereby debentures could be issued against 20% of corporate assets. A lot of companies raised money on that basis in 1978. On the other hand, UTI was getting a lot of money from investors and was hungry for good-quality debt. That was a turning point for us in merchant banking and we started getting a lot of business from known and unknown companies from all over India and also from multinationals. We also started opening representative offices in other cities. So we now had the deposit business, we had debentures and we also went into initial public offerings (IPOs). My first IPO was a complete failure – that was in 1973.

ML: Which one was this? And why did it fail?

HK: It is not really worth talking about. It was a Rs nine lakh issue for a company called Bhopal Toughened Glass, which made glass for car windscreens. We had seen the factory, but it was a new company and there were management problems. So the issue failed. I had underwritten a portion of the issue and had to pay Rs50,000, which was a lot of money those days. It was an important lesson for us to do more research and not get into situations based on hearsay. We learnt to do ‘due diligence’ when the concept was not even known.

That is why, even when we began to do correspondent banking with Dresdner Bank, I insisted that our people be sent for training to Frankfurt. The money that we got from Dresdner was not much, but the advantage was that we got to learn the business. I myself went first – I was in Frankfurt for a month to understand different kinds of banking. Then came our tie-up with the French bank BFCE (Banque de Franaise Commerce Exterieur), which had a completely different way of working. They drive a hard bargain; moreover one part of the business – the export credit business – was an arm of the government. In 1984, we tied up with Merrill Lynch. The issue at that time was whether I could have tie-ups with many different people. But long before that, when I had been to New York in 1976 for a board meeting of Kirloskar Cummins, I wanted to meet the three best brokerage houses in the US. Those days, brokerage firms did what was known as merchant banking but it was more of a lending business. Investment banking, as we know it today, began only in the late 1970s.

So I met Goldman Sachs, who clearly said that they had no interest in India. I then met John M Hennessey of First Boston – who later became chairman – he said he was interested. He asked when I planned to be in London. I said, ‘tomorrow’; so he arranged a meeting with the head of Europe. I said, “Let’s shake hands and start working together” and we established an equation. I was also supposed to meet Merrill Lynch during that visit, but it did not happen because the person I was supposed to meet never bothered to turn up. I often remind them of how our relationship almost never happened (laughs).

We started doing business with First Boston, but in less than a year, it was in serious trouble overseas and the people who I had interacted with left – it later became Credit Suisse First Boston. So I wondered if I would have to spend a few hundred thousand rupees again to build new relationships – so I just kept quiet for two or three years after 1978. After 1982, I began to re-explore tie-ups because I believed that India would open up someday – or at least that is what I hoped would happen. In the early 1980s, I saw countries like Argentina and Brazil opening up; in the East, even countries like Thailand and Korea opened up and I thought India will have no choice but to follow suit.

ML: So you seem to have had a long wait before India began to open up, right?

HK: No, even India did open up a little for the government sector. In fact, we were involved in many firsts in this opening-up process. For instance, IDBI (Industrial Development Bank of India, was the largest development finance institution then) raised its first bonds in Germany. Around 1987, Swiss Banking Corporation (SBC) also came to me and I began to represent it in the capital market business. Later, SBC merged with Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS). A year or two after I started doing business with them, SBC also bought over Warburg and acquired an investment bank.

Meanwhile, I had kept in touch with Merrill Lynch and in 1984 they started showing some interest in a partnership – so we shook hands and decided to work on a transaction basis and develop a partnership, subject to all approvals. The first transaction we did was the India Fund. That was a turning point for me. The India Fund was conceived as a show of strength during the time of Indira Gandhi, but it took two years and was finally launched in 1986. We raised $150 million of government-guaranteed money at some ridiculous spread of 25 basis points. We didn’t make any money, but it was successful and we could prove that India could raise money abroad even when everybody was sceptical about whether we could pull it off. We then did other work for ONGC. By then we ourselves had done nearly 60 international transactions with various overseas partners.

ML: Was this India Fund meant for UTI?

HK: Yes; it was an Indian fund listed in London for 65 million pound sterling, which was raised to 75 million pound sterling. MJ Pherwani was then the chairman and it was a very successful fund. In 1987 we did a US fund called the India Growth Fund for UTI. That gave us a lot of exposure both to international markets and domestically. We had to explain the meaning of things like price-earnings multiples, the advantage in raising equity instead of debt as well as the concept of LIBOR – all that was a laborious exercise. We were told that there would be no tax advantage to starting the fund, so we had to work at getting around that too. We met SS Thakur at the RBI; he was a very wise man of high integrity who pointed out that we could do it because it would fall under the tax exemption treaties since UTI’s payouts are called dividends.  

As for the overseas investors, they wanted a lot of research – not merely on India’s economic situation but on individual companies. At that time, it was very difficult even for me to understand the need to spend such a large amount of money on researching individual companies for one India Fund. But we did it and became the first brokerage house to start corporate research and economic research. All this was a quick learning exercise for us.

India began to open up in 1991 and, in 1992, I started talking to Merrill Lynch about the partnership. In 1993, we signed a MoU and it took another year to sign the agreement on what we hoped to acheive. In 1995 they came to India.

ML: Did Merrill Lynch see business potential in India after economic liberalisation?

HK: No, in fact, they were not very keen and weren’t sure how to work out the valuation for our partnership. They signed up mainly because of my friendship and association with them. Then they had a difficult time deciding whether to take a minority stake or whether they should start something on their own. I explained to them that it makes no sense to start competing with each other after having worked together for so many years. I told them that a 40% stake works in India – not more than that.

My partnership lasted because I operated on the logic that as long as I have financial interest and a majority holding under the Companies Act, the number of board memberships did not matter. We also agreed that all decisions have to be unanimous – if one of us did not agree about something, we will not do it. As for the board memberships – at one time, they had more directors and at another time we had more directors; after a while we did not bother about the numbers. In the intervening years, I have seen four changes in the chairmanship, but I am still around – it is an institutional relationship.

Then, when the time was right, I took a decision about what I wanted to do and I sold my stake – except in the asset management company. I have two daughters and there is a 9-year gap between them. The younger one was at Wharton but she doesn’t want to be in finance and is studying fashion merchandising in New York. The older one was also at Wharton, then worked for two years at Merrill Lynch; she enjoyed it and even saved some money, but said she doesn’t want to be in investment banking ever and that it was not for her. She worked for a while in the fund management business and likes it. She then went off to Harvard for her MBA and has now returned. She was interested in fund management and anyway I didn’t want to sell that part of the business. So Merrill Lynch and I divided our economic interest, which was roughly 40:60 in fund management. Although I told them that I want to exit from DSP Merrill Lynch investment banking, they wanted me to retain a small stake of 10% since they think I add value and want me to stay on. In any case, I have too many friends here, as well as long-term employees and clients so I think it makes sense to continue as we are.

ML: You have just announced the tie-up with Blackrock, so you are not really dissociating yourself entirely, right?

HK: Well, the Blackrock tie-up is mainly an extension of the merger between Merrill Lynch and Blackrock overseas. But I had to negotiate on what they are going to give me – the training, the revenue sharing, etc. In this business, you don’t get anything unless you ask for it. But it is taking time because I want a long-term successful partnership; they are great guys and Larry Fink is one of the gurus of risk management. The deal took place in a nice way, my people wanted me to do the tie-up and, in any case, if you are able to partner with the best, then why not? I have not been spending much time on the fund management business because I have been too involved in investment banking, I now intend to spend a little more time there. I am not very keen on the where-to-invest aspect. I am more interested in returns, professional management, compliance and high ethical standards. I am not interested in being number one in performance – it is enough if we are in the top quartile and giving good returns on a continuous basis. Blackrock’s presence will help us raise money abroad. In any case, we are managing over $2.5 to $3 billion on a sub-advisory basis; we are also managing over Rs22,000 crore in India today and we can grow to four or five times that level. For me, the question is: do I want to continue doing this all my life? May be not. A very wise man, Christopher Reeves, who was the chairman of Merrill Lynch Europe, Middle East and Africa, and unfortunately passed away just two months ago, told me, “What do you want from life at 60? Think about it. Do you want more money?” I said, no. He said, “The question you must ask is what is driving you.” 

ML: So what do you plan to do next?

HK: What is driving me today is the desire to create something different. I have a professionally managed fund and I think I have done my bit for the long-term health of the business. So I may remain the chairman and continue to guide DSPML, but as far as my time is concerned, I will spend equal, if not more, time on philanthropy. I am setting up a foundation – which is already almost in place; only some legal formalities need to be completed. I am particularly keen on two things. We run a hospital called the DS Kothari Hospital, which is not managed well. We also have an institute that I talked about earlier, which offers boarding and lodging to 45 students. I want to develop that into a college. There is also a school at Nashik, where over 2,000 poor girls are getting free education. It is run by an NGO and was started with help from my father. I visited it six months ago and talked to them about expanding it to 3,000 students and starting another co-ed school there. I am also keen on environment conservation. When I travel for my interest in wildlife, I find that people cut forests and kill animals because they are so poor and do not have jobs. So I am looking at creating jobs for them. You cannot create industry there, so I want to start a skills-training centre and link it to the cities.

I also have a sanatorium at Deolali near Nashik. There are 18 blocks on nearly 10 acres of land; it was built for patients of tuberculosis to go there to recuperate. Today, that is not required, so I want to convert that into holiday homes with proper modern bungalows for middle-class people. We plan to charge only Rs6,500 per month for middle-class families to be able to go there for a vacation. I also want to create old-age homes, especially for people whose children are not in India. My wife wanted me to do it and I would love to develop it in her memory.

My idea in setting up a foundation is to create NGOs or help existing foundations to create sustainable models of working. I want to create the skill-training centres near the forest reserves. I enjoy going to the forests and you must give something back to what you enjoy. I am creating a nucleus of people to work on this without increasing administrative costs too much. But we will have a strong advisory board. I also don’t want to spread myself too thin, so I will focus on health, education and conservation. I have persuaded a former banker from Merrill Lynch, who wanted to start an NGO, to work for me. I am an organisation builder, and I want to bring that skill to my philanthropy and also work with other NGOs and corporates.

Giving is more difficult than earning; many people talk about giving, but it is not easy when you have worked hard to earn what you have. So I have earmarked Rs100 crore for specific projects and charities and have put this in my Will in case I am not able to do it in my lifetime or something happens to me suddenly.

ML: India has always had a tradition of giving; why do you think it has reduced or vanished in the past few decades?

HK: Well, I am now thinking aloud. If you look at our economic history, it is only in the past 10 years that people have started creating assets. They had no opportunities and were busy growing. In 1996-97, we again suffered a slow down – the real boom began only after 2000 and, for the past seven to eight years, we have seen real prosperity. So it will happen in India as well. The people who have made money are young and they are beginning to think about giving back to society. You have to touch their hearts at the right time. But the government also has to cooperate – especially in education. Politicians have turned it into a business – they must assist philanthropic investment in education by offering tax breaks.


“Morarji Desai was the only politician cross with me. Many others asked me why didn’t I do a cartoon on them”

RK Laxman, the cartoonist who gave India’s ‘common man’ a voice, recounts some unusual moments of a fascinating life

At the Times of India, RK Laxman was an enigmatic presence. He couldn’t be disturbed while at work and he chose who he would speak to. He would occasionally walk down the corridor, to sift through the rows of newspapers with his sharp eye for detail. He once beckoned Sucheta to see a picture on the front page of the Times of India. The caption read – report on page 3. Flipping to page 3, he pointed out that there was no report. Now, that is not unusual. But Laxman said, “Wait a minute, don’t give up so easily.” He opened the next day’s paper with a flourish and sure enough, the report was on page 3. “If you miss it once, you can always get it the next day,” he said with a wicked smile. Such eye for detail made him an excellent raconteur and mimic. He would regale colleagues with his imitations of politicians that he met around the world. Laxman never suffered fools gladly and does not suffer from any false modesty. When we asked who according to him is the best cartoonist, he answered, “I am.” Then added, “Every cartoonist thinks he is the best.” Laxman’s fondness for crows is only slightly less known than his Common Man. His fascination for black extends to his trademark attire of black trousers and white bushshirt and black ambassador car. Today, a stroke has affected him badly. But this reclusive genius recounted some unusual moments of a fascinating life for us

ML: You were born in Mysore?

RKL: Yes, I was born in Mysore. Ours was a big family and I was the youngest of five brothers and two sisters and they were all very talented. My father was the head master of a high school. In those days, that made him a very powerful and influential man; he was very stern about discipline and I was quite scared of him. I really loved my mother. She was always smiling and very cheerful; she was a great storyteller and would also read out mythological stories to us. My mother used to play tennis and she was a chess champion; nobody ever defeated her those days. She also played bridge and badminton. She was also a wonderful cook and, despite a number of servants, would love to experiment with a variety of recipes. But for all that, she didn’t know English. Even as a mother-in-law, she did not fit the traditional mould; she was just as friendly with her daughters-in-law and used to play cards with them.

ML: Were you also interested in sports as a child?

RKL: I used to play chess and tennis. Of course, every child plays cricket. I started what we called ‘The Rough & Tough & Jolly Team’; but that was when I was eleven (this team was immortalised by Laxman’s famous brother RK Narayan in the story called The Regal Cricket Team). I don’t like cricket. I stopped playing it as a boy; it is a boring and over-rated game. I prefer tennis.

ML: When did you know that you wanted to be a cartoonist?

RKL: No, I wanted to be an artist. I started drawing at a very young age and continued doing it through school and college. I failed in my SSC. Then I wanted to join the JJ School of Arts, but they wrote saying, “you show no talent, we can’t accept you.”

ML: Had they seen your drawings?

RKL: Yes, I had sent a couple of them with my application.

ML: What did you do after that rejection?

RKL: I went to the Maharaja College of Mysore and studied philosophy, economics and politics. I was very fond of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. I also began to cultivate my own talent. I used to go to the marketplace, sit there and draw all the people I used to see… bending down, carrying vegetables, doing everyday things… that helped me more than any school of arts. I was very fond of drawing even as a very young child of three. I used to draw on the floor, on the walls and around the house – fortunately parents were a lot more tolerant those days. I used to draw anything that caught my eye – from objects to people. Yesterday, somebody phoned and asked me ‘how does one become a cartoonist?’ I said, it is impossible to say how to become a cartoonist; you have to be born with the gift, just as you cannot tell someone how to sing. It has to come naturally. Similarly, the art of cartooning and drawing is inborn. It can be improved if you have the talent – for that you need a sense of humour, the talent to draw, and a sound education. If you don’t have all three, you can’t become a cartoonist.

ML: When did you start drawing for your brother’s stories?

RKL:  When my brother saw my drawings, he said why don’t you illustrate my stories? So I used to illustrate all his short stories for The Hindu from a very young age. Cartooning came from looking at things. There was My Magazine and another humour magazine in Kannada called Koravanji; they asked me to do some caricatures. That is how I started earning some money at a very young age. After a while, others also wanted my cartoons. This was while I was at Mysore.

When we were young, my father used to get a number of magazines such as Strand, Punch, Tit-bits, Bystander and others. I used to go through them and enjoyed the cartoons. I used to be very fond of Sir David Low, whose cartoons were published by The Hindu and The Evening Standard in India. He was a wonderful cartoonist and a very fine draftsman. For a long time, I used to think his surname was Cow, because of the way he signed his name. Later on in life, when I was sitting in my office in the Times of India, he just walked in. I was completely shocked. I told him…  I took it upon myself to show him around Mumbai.

He said, ‘why don’t you come to London’? I told my office that I wanted to go to London and they allowed me to go. I went there and continued to draw under the caption “Our Cartoonist Abroad” which was published in The Times of India. I took a flat which was very close to Piccadilly as well as the Times of India’s office in London. I used to walk down to the office every morning, work there, send my cartoon and return home. I travelled all over London, attended conferences of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Clement Atlee and Churchill were there and I met them. I also meet JB Priestley, TS Eliot and Bertrand Russell. I don’t think anybody else had done it then.

I used to meet Sir David Low at his house. This must have been in 1947 or so, but I can’t remember these things. I was in London for six months; on the way back, I travelled to Italy, France, Germany and Spain. After coming here, a leading UK newspaper offered me a job in London. I thought about it and refused. Nothing like India for cartooning and drawing! The politics here give you plenty of ideas and there is a variety of characters. Over there, you have these dull politicians going up and down in their grey suits.

After that, as luck would have it, I was invited to America as a guest. I travelled around the country and met a lot of people – but they were boring people. Then I was invited to Russia – I have no idea why they called me. Then, of all places, I was invited to China. I was among the first persons invited to China. I enjoyed my visit to China very much. It has a lot of variety and the people are really very nice. I walked on the Great Wall of China for five kilometres.  I really loved that place. I have travelled around the world, but I love India, our art, our culture… if anything, I have a problem with Indians. But I love the country.

ML: Going back a little, did you come to Mumbai immediately after your graduation?

RKL: No. Immediately after my graduation, I went to Delhi for a job. I applied to The Hindustan Times. I was told: ‘you are too young and inexperienced – out!’ I must have been under 20. After Delhi, I was passing through Bombay. I got off the train, got myself a room and stayed there for a couple of days. I was walking down Dalal Street and saw the big board of The Free Press Journal. The friend who was with me said, “that is the editor going inside.” I immediately went up to him and asked him for a job. He gave it to me. I was made to sit next to Bal Thackarey (Balasaheb Thackarey). He had a lot of talent, but he later became a politician and a propagandist for his party. Trying to promote an ideology tends to ruin the talent that you have.

I was there for a short while after Independence. I didn’t know that Thackarey was an Indian name, I thought it came from something like William Makepeace Thackarey. Then Sadanand (Swaminath Sadanand, was the legendary proprietor-editor of The Free Press Journal which played a major role in India’s freedom movement) started interfering with my work and saying ‘you can’t draw this and you can’t draw that, because they are my friends’ and that kind of thing. I couldn’t stand that and decided to walk out. There was a bus strike that day, so I literally walked to the Times of India opposite the Victoria Terminus and went up to the art director and asked to see him. His name was Walter Langhammer; he was a German. I said “I am Laxman and I am looking for a job.” He said, “Oh you are from The Free Press Journal; you show great talent.” He asked me to wait for a while, went out and came back with an appointment order. Since then, I have been with the Times of India -- for over 60 years. In fact, it is 50 years since the Common Man was created.

ML: How did the Common Man come about? How did you think about it? Did it happen only after you came to the Times?

RKL: Yes, only after I came to the Times. You see, there is so much variety among Indians – there are people with beards, turbans, moustaches – south Indians are different from north Indians, etc, etc. There is no single attribute that is common to all Indians.  So I created a mythical character in a striped coat, with a bushy moustache, a bald head with a white wisp of hair at the back, a bulbous nose on which is perched a pair of glasses, and he has thick black eyebrows permanently raised, expressing bewilderment. He stands for all Indians and goes through life without uttering a word, but watches with amusement the ironies, paradoxes and contradictions of the human situation.

ML: Your career has spanned every political leader from Pandit Nehru. What phase did you enjoy the most? Was it the Jawaharlal Nehru phase when there was a lot of idealism?

No, that was not interesting. A cartoonist enjoys not a great man but a ridiculous man. Or maybe someone like Morarji Desai and his various habits and idiosyncrasies. I used to go and meet Pandit Nehru and he really liked me. I was once given five minutes to meet him and he spent more than an hour with me. With Indira Gandhi, of course, I had problems during the Emergency.

ML: What happened?

I had drawn a cartoon of DK Barooah (who infamously said ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’) in a perambulator and she said, ‘this is very insulting.’ I said: ‘cartooning is the art of insult and ridicule.’ But she said, ‘no, you shouldn’t do it.’

ML: Did she call you to object to your cartoons?

No, I went to see her, because the Emergency affected my work. I went to tell her that I must have the freedom to draw what I want. But she said, ‘No, no, the law applies to everyone’. So I went away to Mauritius for a while. Then, we got the news that India was going to have elections. Indira was in a shaky position, so I came back. She lost and I got back to my work. Throughout the Emergency, there were no cartoons. After Indira, Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister and I enjoyed my freedom again. I found him very difficult to caricature, because he was so handsome. I then made his face more round and tilted his nose. Of course, I got plenty of inspiration for my cartoons from his actions. I later met him when he launched my book Brush with Politics. He said, “You make me look very fat.” I said, “I will look into the matter.” (laughs). That’s because he used to react to every issue saying, “I will look into the matter.”

I met Margaret Thatcher when she came to India. She started telling me how to draw cartoons. She said, “one must have this, one must have that, etc.” So I said, “You should have been a cartoonist rather than a prime minister.”

ML: Well, you have another political friend who started as a cartoonist. Are you still in touch with Bal Thackarey?

RKL: I used to be, until recently. Even when I got my stroke (in 2003), he had come here to see me. He presented me with this (pointing to a blue back support). But now I don’t meet too many people. President Abdul Kalam came and saw me when I had a stroke. I have known him for some time; he is a very nice man, I like him very much -- he is very cultured. He had even invited all of us to the Rashtrapati Bhavan when he was the President and we enjoyed that visit a lot.

ML: Which political leader gave you the best ideas for your cartoons?

RKL: HD Devegowda. He had the habit of falling asleep all the time and that gave plenty of opportunity. He once invited me to see him and fell asleep at that meeting also. Morarji Desai gave me a lot of ideas. I am anti-prohibition and he didn’t like it. He sent word through someone that he doesn’t like me poking fun at him and his ideas. He was unhappy with me as well as my cartoons. He was the only exception. All others were very fond of me. Many of them used to ask why I hadn’t depicted them in a cartoon. It became a kind of status symbol.

ML: What do you think of the cartooning and the media today?

RKL: I don’t see much talent today; people don’t want to apply themselves and there is no originality. It goes for the entire media. The film magazines and television have ruined the culture of the country; there is no political news in the papers anymore. All you get to read is some suicide or some murder – or cricket and films. Earlier, politics provided much of the material; today, there is no political news at all. Newspapers themselves have lost their relevance and there is no punch in editorials either.

ML: Your Common Man is the most enduring of your creations; what about the crows?

RKL: Yes, the Common Man is my favourite. He is….  There is a 10-foot statue of the Common Man at Symbiosis College at Pune (there is another on the promenade at Worli as well). Deccan Airways uses the Common Man as their mascot; they bought the rights from me.

I am also very fond of crows and have painted hundreds of them – singly and in groups. I have been fascinated with the crow from my childhood. I like its colours and how it contrasts with everything. It is a very intelligent bird and has tremendous character; in fact, the common crow is a very uncommon bird. (Laxman’s crows are a lot less known to the public, but those who know him know about his passion for drawing crows and to a lesser extent cats. Laxman’s crows are unique, because of the intelligence, personality, expression and character that he projects in every image of his favourite bird.) Lord Ganesha is another source of inspiration. Every one of my drawings is my favourite.

ML: You also created Gattu and other characters.

RKL: Yes, Asian Paints came to me and asked me to create a character. I created ‘Gattu’. For several decades, they used to have huge posters with Gattu, but they don’t use it any more. I also drew several wood land creatures such as Thama, the baby elephant and the little bird Gumchikki who was his best friend. My wife Kamala wrote stories about their adventures in the jungle. (While Laxman is completely vague about dates and has never worn a watch, his vivacious wife Kamala is very organised and maintains a daily diary. She has written several children’s stories and travelogues. “She remembers everything,” says Laxman.)

ML: What do you think is your most memorable moment?

RKL: It is the time when JRD Tata called to me to say that I had won the Magsaysay Award. (When we asked why this was more significant, he said, “It is an international recognition and I have no idea why they decided to give it to me.” At that time, Laxman was one of the rare Indians to receive the Magsaysay.)

ML: What has been the toughest situation you have faced?

When I was arrested and taken to Nashik. I wasn’t actually arrested, but I was taken away for having drawn a cartoon where a boy is trying to set fire to a motorcycle, while others have set fire to buses and trains. So somebody shouts, “What kind of Ram Bhakt are you, if you can’t even set fire to a motorcycle?” Someone in Nashik went to court saying that I had insulted Hinduism. So I was dragged to court and had to go to Nashik.  

ML: What happened to the case?

RKL: The hearing went on and on and on. The opposition lawyer kept saying how the cartoon was very insulting; the defence lawyer argued on my behalf in Marathi. Then the court adjourned and we went outside. People came up to me for autographs. A lady who was arguing against me also came over and took my autograph. I think everybody enjoys it when our mighty politicians are exposed in a comical and often ludicrous light. It is a vicarious thrill.  

ML: Did you ever require police protection? Wasn’t there something about a letter bomb once?

RKL: There have been threats; I don’t remember these things; they are mere trivialities in life. Someone would call and say they know where I go and would kill me. No, I don’t believe in police protection; people only do that for publicity and hype. Yes, there was something about a letter bomb, but nothing really happened. The security took care of it; I was told not to touch my mail.

ML: What is your routine these days?

RKL: I start my day around 8.30am and I finish my cartoon by around 3pm at which time they come and take it.

ML: Who are the editors that you enjoyed working with?

RKL: Sham Lal and (NJ) Nanporia. Their analysis and understanding was much better. Girilal Jain too was very good.

The Common Man

The Common Man has featured in the Times of India for 50 years. Originally, Laxman used to try and depict Indians from different regions – a Bengali, a Tamilian or a Punjabi, with typical regional traits as background characters -- and capture the ordinary Indian. Over time, these characters faded away and gradually the Common Man was born with his checked jacket, bulbous nose, and a wisp of white hair with a perpetually bewildered expression and forever silent.

Interestingly, the Common Man and his wife have neither aged nor changed over the past half century even as lifestyles and sartorial tastes have changed dramatically. But neither Laxman nor his fans would want it any other way. The Indian Postal Service featured the Common Man in a commemorative stamp released in 1988 to mark 150 years of The Times of India. A 10-feet high bronze statue of the Common Man has been erected at the Symbiosis Institute, Pune. Another bronze leans on the railing and looks out at the sea at the Worli promenade in Mumbai. He has also turned into a mascot for Air Deccan, India’s low-cost airline, since 2005.



ramchandran vishwanathan

2 years ago

An epitome of simple living & High Thinking . We will miss you Sir!!!

“I want to explain to the people how India can add to the world’s wealth through innovation”

Villoo Patell’s Avesthagen is advancing knowledge in cutting-edge fields like genomics, proteomics and metabolics

Villoo Morawala Patell’s youthful looks and exuberant personality hides formidable learning in complex and cutting-edge fields such as genomics, proteomics, sequencing and metabolics. From a five-person academic start-up working from a university laboratory in 1998, Avestha Gengraine Technologies Pvt Ltd (Avesthagen) is now 500-people strong, has spawned several affiliates and forged formidable research alliances in India and abroad. Patell calls Avesthagen a fully-integrated biotechnology and  bio-informatics company focusing on the convergence between food, pharmaceuticals and clinical genomics. Its partners include Bio Mérieux of France, Sequenom Inc of the US, Cipla, Godrej Agrovet, Nestle of Switzerland and IFU of Denmark. It has a portfolio of 55 patent applications and is working on a unique project called Avesthagenome to build a complete genetic database of the Parsis (a community which has a relatively pristine genetic structure due to inter-marriages) which will help establish the linkage between genes, disease and environmental factors and help predict diseases and develop new therapies and diagnostics

ML: Shall we start with where you were born and the early influences that shaped you?

I was born in Navsari, a small town in Gujarat where the Parsis first settled on arriving from Iran; it is also known as the place where Jamshetji Tata was born. The name Morawala comes from a village called Mora. My paternal grandparents, Dinshaw Morawala and Meherbai, came from Surat, but migrated along with several Parsi families when invited by the then Nizam of Hyderabad. My grandfather was the tax collector for Bidar district, now in Karnataka. The Morawala family is academically inclined and is into writing, art, sculpting and poetry.

My mother Daulat’s family is well known as the Borkhadi Kasads - a farming family for hundreds of years. My grandfather, Sohrabji Kasad, headed a joint family of seven brothers and two sisters. They continue to farm as a joint family operation at Borkhadi, a village near Navsari and grow mangoes,  tur daal and titoli. I feel proud that I have such a strong connection to our soil and roots in Navsari. It keeps me grounded. Starting this company was considered such a hare-brained idea that I had to find someone who believed in me to sign the documents as the second director. I could only think of my mother, so I said, “Come on mama, you have to help me start this company”. So she is the co-founder of Avesthagen. She was the first child and the only girl in a family of three brothers -- a largely male household. She was bright, elegant, spirited, rebellious and also a woman of principles. She has been a strong influence in my life as well as in the lives of my brother Mahiyar, a technical writer and my sister Baktawar who runs a small school. She taught us to respect all races, religions and the environment. We blended into the local cultures of Nizamabad and Navsari and yet kept our identity. At the age of six, I was sent off to St Ann’s High School, a boarding school in Secunderabad.

We came back home for holidays - to Nizamabad for Christmas and to Navsari during Diwali or summer. During the holidays at Nizamabad, we visited a lot of families who were in different businesses and I saw them very closely. We got on to our family-owned trucks and went for jatras around temples and Urs around dargahs of Sufi saints. What more could you want to imbibe of the real India!

ML: Nizamabad to Navsari… how did your parents meet?

It was an arranged marriage. Once she was married off, her uncles said she couldn’t study further. She was always an extremely well-dressed woman and always got what she wanted. When she married my father, who was 10 years older and came from Navsari, she found herself in a state where the purdah system was at its height. There were some tough moments; but my father has always treated her like a princess.

My father, Dara Morawala, was a businessman with a political bent of mind and also advised his friends on the stock market. After his father died at 33, my grandmother moved back to Surat with her five children. She brought them up with her three sisters who remained unmarried. At 18, my father went off to Bina in Madhya Pradesh and returned only when he was 32. His mother then sent him to Nizamabad to help his engineer uncle, Jehangir Nalawala who was into building movie houses, canals and cotton ginning mills. My father started as his assistant and later became a partner. My father, who is now 85, was always liberal in his thoughts and always encouraged me to go after my wildest dreams.

I am telling you all this because this mixed heritage, places and their influences have all gone into creating this emotion-driven company called Avesthagen. I live in the past, the present and the future and pull together all these factors - history, geography, science and cultures - in running Avesthagen. We stand for building a strong India whose people stand on their own feet in technology and new food, feed, pharma and fuel.

ML: Where does your interest in science and research come from?

I was a mischievous child, but I read a lot… I kept reading instead of cramming and had varied interests. I was a topper until class 7 after which my interests were so wide that, although I was a good student, I was not the kind who score 90% these days.

ML: Did you plan on doing research at that stage?

Not really. Between arts and science, I opted for science. What was the choice then? You went into arts, science or medicine. I wanted to study at the Armed Forces Medical College at Pune and I tried, but didn’t get in. So I went into the BSc stream. I was good at chemistry in which I won the general proficiency prize. I was also good at languages and writing. Then Hyderabad was getting too small for me and so I decided to do my masters at Sophia College in Mumbai in medical biochemistry. I had finished my BSc at 19 and my Masters by 22. I had fallen in love with Zareer Minoo Patell and got married within six months of doing my Masters at the age of 22. He was in Hyderabad; we used to write to each other everyday and he used to visit me in Mumbai. Zareer is a fitness instructor and a talented pianist, besides being extra-ordinarily good looking, liberal and giving me the freedom to be myself. I have been married for 29 years.

ML: You look very young to be married for 29 years.

: Yes. I look younger than what I am; it has been good socially; but at work it sometimes becomes a handicap. People tend to slot scientists into a certain phenotype and I break that perception.  Looking too young and behaving unconventionally in science is sometimes a problem; being unconventionally dressed is a problem; being a woman is a problem and thinking unconventionally is a problem. It has been quite a ride. There have been plenty of travails and it wasn’t easy at all, at times.   

ML: But you haven’t let any of that hold you back.

My family was a big supporter. My mother-in-law was Rashida Reporter; she is one of the first Indian women to get a PhD in inorganic chemistry in 1947, on a Nizam of Hyderabad scholarship at University College, London. At the same time, she was a staunch Parsi and came from a family of high priests (Dasturs). She encouraged me -- as did my parents and husband -- in all I did. I am very outgoing. I love to reach out to people and used to love to go out every single day. Then the girls were born. I had my first child at 25 and my second child at 27.

Soon after my marriage, I got a job at the International Crops Research Institute for Semi Arid Tropics (Icrisat) at Hyderabad. That was a good institution and I learnt a lot. My first boss was a Japanese, Dr Tetsuo Matsumoto, and he taught me the rigour of research. He taught me how to write notebooks and he used to say, “Viroo, learn to have discipline. No talking while working”. I worked with him for three years.

ML: Which year was this?

This was in the years 1979-81. Then I worked with an Australian scientist, Dr Peter Dart, during 1982-84 and then with a British scientist, Dr John Peacock and also with Dr Sivaramakrishnan. I worked with a lot of international scientists with enormous interest and passion. I did 10 years of research on drought tolerance in pigeonpea and groundnut, sorghum and millet. At around that time, I wanted to do molecular biology, but found no takers at Icrisat. And it is then that I realised that I needed to get a PhD if I had to make the next move. I also knew that I wanted to create something in the country and to make a difference to the world. But in order to do that, I needed that additional degree and I decided; that’s it, I must do it. When I announced it to my family, it became quite a topic because I had two kids aged six and eight years.  My mother-in-law said, “If you are going, remember that you are making a sacrifice and you must always aim for the top of the tree and no half measures”. So all four of us went together to France to University Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg.  

ML: Why France?

As I told you, I am a political creature. I read that the French system is always pro-mother and child. I needed a place that would protect my children and provide additional support. That was the time when the Berlin Wall was coming down. I reached France on October 1, 1989. I knew a smattering of French. I could read better than I could speak. But I learnt very fast. I also had a French scholarship and got admission into University Louis Pasteur. I was clear that my PhD topic had to be cutting-edge stuff. So I chose a subject that was so difficult that I didn’t realise what I had got myself into. It was fundamental science and not applied science, that had taken a huge leap and gone into the study of genomes in the 10 years that I had been working. My professor did not know I was married and a mother of two kids; when he got to know it, he was very apprehensive. However, we were able to dispel his misgivings.  

I took the family with me to France in January 1990 and it was a hard winter, a new subject, a new language. The girls had a tough time initially and got into arguments with their classmates because the French kids thought that all Indians were poor; they had to constantly defend themselves. But they also learnt a lot -- organisation, minimalism and focused learning. The PhD study was very difficult initially, because I was grappling with the next wave of research.

My Professor, Geraldine Bonard, was very tough; but when I look back, I am grateful that she turned me into a machine of scientific rigour and organisation. My husband Zareer returned to India after six months because his parents were old and needed him. My family offered to take the girls back, but I said, no, let them be with me, we will manage.  Since then, we three function like a trio.  

ML: When did you finish your PhD?

In 1993. But what happened was that, in 1992, I fell ill. The stress was showing up - managing two kids and my studies. I had a great set of friends who helped and the school also took care of the girls for a couple of hours after school. But I sent the girls back to Hyderabad six months before I finished. That was a big shock to them and for me too. But I had no option. I had to concentrate and finish my PhD. I presented my thesis in March 1993 which got a good rating. I returned in June 1993 and coming back was really tough. Everything had changed in India.  For a while I wondered what I was doing, because I had just come out of such an intensive PhD programme and was so academic by then. I went to meet Dr Anji Reddy (of  Dr Reddy’s Laboratories), then went to Icrisat, CCMB (Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology) and so on, for assignments. I went to various companies and told them “you have to get into biotechnology”. The industry people told me that they didn’t understand biotech and asked me to write a project for them. So I wrote two projects. One was called ‘Making Money with Biology’ for a seeds project for VST Industries. The other one was ‘From DNA to Drugs’ for Dr Reddy’s. It took me six months to write the projects, understand the environment, learn about India and get acclimatised. Luckily, Anil Epur of VST gave me a nice grant to run around the country and find out the status of agriculture and science.

ML: A lot of companies at that time were paying lip service to seeds, right?

Yes, that’s true. Anyway, I visited many institutes and companies and found that there was no real, breakthrough research going on anywhere. I also found that academics were fossilised and simply repeating the work they had done as post-doctoral research nearly 20 years ago. They were brilliant, but were unlikely to produce anything that was going to revolutionise or change the country. And industry did not want to do any R&D. I saw myself as the bridge between academia and industry. I can take academic research and put it into models that can be commercialised. With that in mind, I went back to VST for more research. I wanted to build an innovation lab. Anil Epur, who was more receptive, suggested we talk to Technology Development and Investment Corporation of India (TDICI). Anil came with me to TDICI. They asked, “where is the revenue in this?” I said, “there is going to be no revenue for three to five years. We are very clear about it.” We were saying, let us take technology, put an idea to it, do more science and put out genetically modified products that are, say, drought-tolerant, etc. By March 1994, I was a wreck. I had to get back into academia or decide that I didn’t want anything to do with it.

If you are an academic, you have to be in the stream of things. So I contacted Marc Van Montagu of University of Ghent, Belgium and asked, “do you have a scholarship for me for six to nine months?” He said, yes. I had a good PhD, so he gave me a fellowship and, in March 1994, I decided that Hyderabad was really not the place for me. I explained to my family that I needed to go to Bangalore. Meanwhile, Anji Reddy had put me in touch with the Tatas, mainly Freddie Mehta, Vijay Rai and others of Rallis. They gave me a project to help set up a biotech lab. I was interested but I had accepted Marc Van Montagu’s offer. He is the godfather of every new technology, winner of the Japan prize, inventor of GMO technology, etc. The first BT gene was from his lab, the agrobacterium GM technology was from his lab. So I said I have to go to his lab. So, while I agreed to set up the Rallis biotech lab, I said I would do it after doing this stint in Belgium for six months. They and my family again understood; and I put my girls in a boarding school (Bishop Cotton School) in Bangalore for the time I was away. They had fun there.

Now, I must tell you the difference between the two labs I worked in, abroad. Strasbourg was a fundamental research lab - very deep and profound. Marc’s lab was a fundamental-applied lab, which invented and converted the inventions into companies. The first company he spun out was based on the BT gene and agrobacterium transformation technology, which was called Plant Genetic Systems. It got sold for $800 million after making losses for 18 years! This was in 1994. Hoechst paid that kind of money to buy it and fold it into AgrEvo. This got merged with Rhone Poulenc’s Agro to become Aventis CropScience, which was later sold to Bayer. The second company being formed before my eyes was Keygene, which was exploring how you separate one genome from another, based on asymmetric fragment length polymorphism. There were 200 post-doctoral researchers like me in Ghent from all over the world.  

ML: A cauldron of ideas and processes…

Yes. That was a good turning point. That is where I got this model - that you have to first build an array of technologies, mix them continuously in a cauldron and when something matures, spin it off into companies.

ML: Isn’t it interesting that all this was happening in Europe and not in the US?

Yes. If you look back over all these years, the US model of science is really single-molecule dominated. There are only three big labs - there is Craig Venter’s lab that sequenced the whole human genome in three years; then there are a few others run by Leroy Hood and Lee Hartwell. Otherwise, there is no big lab in the US. There are great professors with students who work on single area projects.  

I felt you need the multiplicity that Marc’s lab had, to be innovative. So I came back to India in December 1994 and set up the lab for Rallis in three months flat for Rs one crore. It was essentially to put the BT gene into cauliflower.  But I was a misfit among the rest of the people there, because I was the only one who had worked out for myself what seemed like a fancy salary -- all of Rs30,000 -- in comparison. I found the environment too oppressive and left in three months. Anyway, I decided that as a biologist I don’t fit with the pesticide lobby. (Laughs heartily).

I had requested the Rallis management to give me semi-independence; and Freddie Mehta, who was the chairman, said, “Villoo, be patient, you are too young”, and I said I was not. I was 40 then. And besides, in science, there is nothing like young or old.  Rallis management sent a stern note to me saying either I stay with what I was doing or I could leave. We mutually decided to part ways. However, the Tatas didn’t really let me down; they have always been around for me.  

Several people, including Dr Richard Jefferson, told me that the right place for me was the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore where there are people who have come back from all around the world and were building a new institution with new thought processes. It was founded by Dr Obaid Siddiqui who had moved the Biological Sciences group away from TIFR. They were housed in the laboratories at Indian Institute of Science (IISc). I went and asked them, “do you have some space for me?” By then, it was becoming very clear what I wanted to do.

ML: Which is…

Act as a bridge between academia and industry, a Marc Van Montagu type-cauldron of research ideas.  

ML: Did you have ideas of specific products?

No. My degrees were in medical biochemistry for my MSc and molecular biology and genomics for my PhD. I had worked in agriculture - my education, work at Icrisat and also the work at Rallis. So, I wanted to do application of genomics to agriculture. I went to the NCBS and asked for some space and Dr K Vijay Raghavan, director of the institute was kind enough to give me two bench spots and said, “But we don’t have any funding for you”. I said, “I don’t want any funding”. I will write my projects and get grants.

Richard Jefferson and Dr Vijay Raghavan introduced me to folks at the Rockefeller Foundation and while I wrote for the grant, NCBS supported me with a Rs6,000 stipend as visiting scientists were being paid those days, for which I shall be eternally grateful.

ML: Amazing. In 1995, even journalists were being paid more than that...

Scientists are always underpaid. It’s reverse snobbery, we tend to look down on the overpaid. Anyway, I applied for the Rockefeller Foundation grant. They said what you are trying to do is ‘blue-sky research’, which they were initially reluctant to fund. I said you are trying to get scientists to return and so should support someone like me. They funded me around $300,000 in a total of four grants over four years - that supported my own salary, my team, some equipment and consumables, etc. Then they gave me an additional grant to go back to Montagu’s lab for three months every year. That was very helpful.  

The Rockefeller project started in October 1995. The space at NCBS was cramped but very exciting. I loved those four years and I cherish some great memories and have my best friends there. But it also meant that, in the same room, different people were working on fly genetics, human genetics, plant genetics and neurobiology. That was another insight for me - that you can create a biology lab working on multiple organisms. Montagu’s lab was a cauldron of technologies but was plant-based. Here, a gene found in a plant could be transferred to a rabbit. So finally, it was dawning on me how all organisms, whether bacteria or human being, were a permutation and combination of the same four basic nucleotides and 22 amino acids.  In fact, we were capable of cross-talk and reinventing each other for better or worse. By 1998, I had a group of 10 people working and NCBS said that they could not provide me additional space. They suggested that I find space at the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS).  

I went to see the vice-chancellor, Prof GK Veeresh, with an unripe pomegranate, plucked from the tree at the IISc campus. I gave it to him and told him “I have brought you this gift. I am like the unripe pomegranate. I need a place to be nurtured and grown, to become a multi-seeded fruit; and for that I need your help. Please give me some space”. He said, “It would be difficult because all decisions are deeply politicised; but I have an idea. We will make you Professor Emeritus, which is within my authority; and that will give you a lot of leeway”. So, I became a Professor Emeritus at 43 and got four rooms at the Crop Physiology Department, thanks to the efforts of Prof Uday Kumar. Sometime in 1998, I decided to start my own lab - a quasi-commercial, public-private type of venture.

ML: How did you get the idea?

I remember Monsanto had made a big presentation at IISc and offered Rs10 lakh each to the scientists to work on projects. I was present there. While I was listening to them, at some point I felt I could not swallow it any more. I felt it was somehow not right. I came back and told my colleague Sudhir that I think I am going to start my own company. He said, “you are on a grant which will soon run out. I think you should apply to them for a job.” I said “if you think I am going to go to Monsanto for a job, you don’t know me”. I used to go to Hyderabad every few months and on my next trip spoke to an auditor friend of mine, Percy Italia, about registering a company by the name of Gengraine Technologies - combination of genetics and grain on which I was researching. My work with Rockefeller was engineering a drought-tolerant grain of rice. I had filed a patent for that product. I wanted to register a ‘not-for-profit’ company and a ‘for-profit’ company; I was not sure which model would work. The clerk at the registrar’s office would not register Gengraine Technologies. He said what is this name, Genie grainie. I explained to him. He was not convinced. He told us to add a name before that, helpfully suggesting something like Sri Venkateswara. I impulsively said, “OK, add Avestha.” That’s how the company got its name. In short, Avesthagen. I incorporated the private limited company and the ‘not-for-profit’ foundation at the same time. My idea was to channel public grants into the foundation, develop technologies and commercialise them through the commercial company. But, in 1999, I knew it was too early for this idea. I was still at the University as an academic. When I approached various people for money and grants with my project ideas, the two-company model was trashed. The venture capitalists said, “what is this foundation attached here? we don’t fund such things”; while the research funding organisations said, “why do you have a commercial venture added here?”

I realised that this was not working out. In the meantime, by March 2000, I had raised about Rs1.5 crore from my relatives and friends from all over the world. My 33 original investors were an amazing mix of races and nationalities. There were four major investors - Koen Wentink, SR Gopalan, Khushroo Rustomji and Robert Mitchell. All of them advised to make it a pure private play. I resisted, saying that the foundation was part of my commitment to change. Meanwhile, something happened to push me to take that decision. I had managed to bring the Rice Genome Sequencing project from Japan with my efforts, but the Delhi academic politics took it over. I was very disappointed, but understood the issue. I was not perceived by research-funding agencies and research institutions as one of them. I was a misfit. So, I decided to change the two-company, private-public model in September 1999. I also decided to move out of the institutional framework of doing my work at NCBS and at UAS. I hired a small bungalow for Rs5,000 and made it my office. The finance controller of NCBS,  Mr Nair, retired and joined me. When Homi Bhaba started TIFR, he was an accountant with him. When TIFR started its balloon facility at Hyderabad, he was sent there. When NCBS was started, he went to Bangalore to set up the accounting systems. He put   Rs one lakh of his provident fund money into Avesthagen. When Godrej came in as investor, I arranged to buy him out for about Rs30 lakh. He is old but he is still with me.

So anyway, the labs remained in the two institutes and Mr Nair was the only occupant of the office because we would come and go. I then wrote a business plan with the core idea of using Indian bio-diversity to drive innovation through genomics and partnering with others to bring products to the market. The metaphor was a boat/yacht with three sails. The sails being food for medicine, seed for food and R&D partnering. Partnering for R&D and products was the idea from day one. Everybody found the model too ambitious. A few people helped me with the plan - a youngster called Hans Kapadia who was from MIT and  SR Gopalan, President, Wipro Finance, who helped me do the financial model. Everybody wanted me to create a service model - superimposition of IT on biotech. {break} 

ML: Bio-informatics was a hot thing in 1999-2000.

That, combined with wet lab R&D, was my model. I also made it clear that the service model in biotech will not be sustainable. It was against my grain. I will do products and long-term collaborations. It was difficult to get that across. I needed Rs2 crore to set up my own lab. By then, I was being wooed by private equity firms like ICICI Ventures, Indocean Chase and also Tata Industries. I used to hang out a lot with the fund managers; they all became my buddies and I learnt a lot from them about the financial markets and structuring.

In 2000, IL&FS Venture Capital offered a valuation of Rs150 a share and we were all very excited. But then the dotcom bust happened and the private equity guys were unnerved. They wanted to know all kinds of things and put in various conditions. We did not know how to handle those questions. We were too raw. Gopalan tried his best to help. While all these term sheets of private equity guys were flying around and I was wondering what to do, I happened to meet Ramesh Gelli of Global Trust Bank in June 2000 in Hyderabad. He said he liked my model and told one of his managers to give me Rs2 crore as an advance.

ML: Just like that? Without a collateral?

Yes, without any collateral. I had the term sheets of the PE firms with me. I showed them to Gelli and told him “when I get the money from them, I will return your Rs2 crore”. He said, “Let them come in, we will also join them at the same valuation”. I paid GTB an interest of 14% on the loan on the condition that they would convert the loan into equity later. I started building the lab in International Technology Park. By October 2000, IL&FS chickened out. I called Freddie Mehta and said “I have started the lab; now help me to get ahead”. He said, “Send me every paper under the sun for me to review”. We were talking to ICICI Ventures too at that time. The Tatas took just too long to decide and time was slipping away; so we took in ICICI Ventures as the lead and GTB and Tatas joined in to close the first round of financing of $1.8 million. Avesthagen began commercial operations on March 21, 2001 and the company was inaugurated by Dr  SM Krishna, then Chief Minister of Karnataka.

ML: Do you think Avesthagen is now on track to achieving your dreams?

The company is on track to achieve all expectations. It has four robust strategic business units, bio-pharmaceuticals, bio-agriculture, bio-nutrition and scientific innovation. The company has grown from strength to strength, has attracted financial investors of great credibility like Fidelity and New York Life,  strategic investors like BioMereiux, Danone and Limagrain, business houses like the Tatas, Godrej Industries and Cipla. The company has raised a total of 35 million euros, with the last round of 26 million euros raised at a great valuation, and has established Avesthagen as the global R&D biotech model of India. It has been a great success for a company that is only six years old. We have deep R&D roots that can spin out a continuous stream of products; we have many products in the pipeline for all the four business units. The strategic alliances with multi-billion dollar global leaders have given us confidence in our model and global credibility for what we do. We have attracted top global management to head our four units. For instance, Samaresh Parida, from Pepsi headquarters, US is joining as the president and CFO of the company and Russell Stamets is joining as the senior VP (Legal), IP and corporate affairs to prepare the company for the IPO. I believe by 2015, Avesthagen will be a 3 to 5 billion euro company.

ML: What changes do you foresee when you get listed?

I see good things. From day one, Avesthagen has been an over-audited company with its stellar board of the who’s who in the country and the world. For my listing, besides the mandatory FIIs, I will go to the public in small and mid-sized towns and educate the people on R&D platform companies and on the attractiveness of buying into them and investing in a new India of innovation. I want to explain to them  what makes companies like ours tick and how we will provide sustainable solutions to the world. And how India can add to the world’s wealth through innovation. I see a more public role for myself. I have very good managers and they will run the company on a day-to-day basis. As the vice-chairman and managing director, I will play a strategic role and bring new science projects like the recently initiated “The Avesthagenome Project” which will build a genealogical and medical database of the Parsis who are an inbred community, in order to establish linkage between genes, diseases and environmental factors, leading to predicting of diseases and help in the development of new therapies and diagnostics. I will also be involved in making new deals to help Avesthagen integrate worldwide and make it a global corporation.

ML: What next for you and the group?

: Now it is the push to get the products on to the market. We have almost seven subsidiaries and JVs, which are all product-led. We are also actively looking to acquire control over companies that add to creating full verticals in our four pipelines in manufacturing and product space. This is to accelerate our products to the market in the next couple of years.

We have just completed full hiring at the top level and we have acquired four companies since January 2007 - two seed companies, Swaghat and Ceekay, with our partner Limagrain and one 100% acquisition of a bionutritional manufacturing company Dhanvantari in Bangalore and a marketing company, Renaissance Herbals in the US. With these acquisitions, Avesthagen has 500 employees today, out of which 300 are in R&D. You will continue to hear from us. You have to work towards the tipping point and then growth explodes. My daughters Farah (25) and Sanaya (23) have registered for PhD at Cambridge in the same area of cell biology and biochemistry. We have long been a trio and, InshaAllah, there is scope in that for succession.


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