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

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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    “We are so used to saying: Sarkar kya kar rahi hai? The time has come to stop saying mai-baap to everybody” — Shubha Mudgal

    Shubha Mudgal is among those rare classical singers who understands the need to constantly adapt and use modern technology

    Shubha Mudgal is one of the most popular and versatile Hindustani classical singers of the newer generation and has won recognition for her grasp over medieval, Vaishnava and Sufi poetry. But this charming and multi-faceted performer is a true pathbreaker because of her courage to experiment with various forms of music and her willingness to speak fearlessly about the hypocrisy attached to the patronage of classical arts. She is also very passionate about getting financial independence for musicians through copyright control, legally air-tight contracts, proper royalty payments and insurance. She has set up Underscore Records along with her husband, tabla exponent Aneesh Pradhan, to use modern technology to achieve her ideals. Shubha is among those rare classical singers who understands the need to constantly adapt and use modern technology to nurture traditional arts and knowledge

    ML: You were born and brought up at Allahabad. What were your early musical influences?

    I spent the first 22 years of my life in Allahabad. I come from an academic family; my parents taught English Literature at Allahabad University, but there was a strong passion for the Arts, particularly Hindustani classical music. There was a healthy respect for all forms of Art. It was just considered enriching to be involved in the Arts.

    ML: Did you do different things before you chose to study music?

    It is one of my horrible secrets (smiles). As a four year old, I started learning Kathak. I learnt in the ‘Jaipur Gharana’ style. I did it fairly seriously for over a decade and I started performing a little. As part of the study of Kathak, you are supposed to learn aspects of ‘abhinaya’ and actually study singing. I could hold a tune, like many people do; but I had no idea of the grammar, the vocabulary or the music. At best, I could learn a song and sing it sort of tunefully. I realised my inadequacy when I started learning ‘thumri’ as part of my study of Kathak. My mother suggested that it would be a good idea to learn music.

    ML: How old were you then?

    My formal lessons in vocal music started when I was around 16. I was lucky to come into contact with some really wonderful teachers. For about a year, I was learning from a fine vocalist called Kamala Bose, who also taught at the intermediate college where I was studying. She suggested to my parents that I should be taken to her guru, Pandit Ramashray Jha, who was the Head of the Department of Music at the Allahabad University. He was a very well-known scholar and composer. So we made this pilgrimage to meet him and I think were granted an audience only because my parents were also teaching at the same university. He was very kind, but said that he can’t teach somebody who is just a beginner: “Let her learn for a while and then bring her back to me”. So I went back to learning from Kamala Bose and also sought admission to my undergraduate course. Around then, there was one of these talent contests for freshers. I swaggered on to the stage and stopped short. Pandit Ramashray Jha was one of the judges and I quavered out the bhajan that I had been taught. I don’t remember what the result of that contest was but, a couple of days later, the door bell rang and I, singing the latest Hindi film song, opened the door and found him standing there. He had come to say that he would teach me.

    It was an informal way of teaching where you were told to come on a certain day; there was no fixed curriculum or fixed time for the class… where you could end up with a three-hour class or you could be sitting in a corner and listening to music being taught. That went on for several years. At the same time, I was also studying. I did BA and MA in music. So it was a full day of music.

    ML: When did music start becoming a career for you?

    Shortly after I graduated, my mother said, “What is the need for you to do what everyone else is doing when it is obvious that what you really love best is music? Why don’t you take a year off and decide what you want to do? Otherwise, music will remain, at best, a very serious hobby. But if you really want to do music, you need to concentrate your energies. It has to be a passion”. So the idea was to study it seriously and I think that really helped. I didn’t take a year to decide -- I took a month. It was quite interesting for a mother to make this offer to a daughter 25 years ago, especially since I don’t come from a family of musicians. Let me give you some background.

    My maternal grandmother was born in 1900 and she was also very found of Hindustani classical music but she was not allowed to learn it. Her father thought that it was not the correct thing for a respectable girl to be doing. So he got her a piano teacher but not a Hindustani music teacher. Only when she became independent and started working, she decided to try and learn Hindustani music. She had three daughters, the eldest of whom is my mother. She encouraged all three to learn music, dance and get involved with amateur theatre, but only as a hobby, not as a full-time career. And then comes my mother, who tells me to take a year off and decide whether I want to take up music full time! I think the position of women in Indian music is really illustrated in these responses to whether or not you want your children to become full-time musicians.

    ML: But there was MS Subbulakshmi and Gangubai Hangal already. Did their musical background help them?

    Because they were respectable meant that you could learn, but the whole idea of a woman taking up music full-time and also making it a profession was difficult. But both my parents gave me their unconditional support to studying music. I am sure my mother also went through her anxieties about me travelling on my own, especially 25 years ago. Even today, North India is not among the safest places for women and I was going from one place to the other for my performances. It was a fantastic suggestion my mother made about my career; at the same time, there was never any pressure to perform. Today, I meet a lot of young kids -- brilliant, superbly talented and poised - they have everything, but I hate the over-enthusiastic parents. They are a problem. They don’t give the kids a chance to study. For them, visibility is everything. They feel that their child must become an ‘Indian Idol’ or a pop star instantly.

    ML: Tell us about the process of breaking into the professional arena. Was it tough?

    I got my MA degree, but you actually start performing only when your guru gives his ‘ijazzat’ or permission to do so. It started with little things like concerts in Allahabad, which were often arranged by my guru. There would be this gaggle of young men and women learning from him who would all turn up to listen and suddenly he would turn around and tell one of us “tum tanpure pe baith jao”. So I would hop on the stage behind him, or another well-known performer. Sometimes, people we hadn’t heard in Allahabad would perform; you would be playing the tanpura and suddenly he would tell the performer, you can ask her to sing a line a two, if you want. Often, you didn’t know the person’s repertoire. At other times, while the crowd is collecting before a performance you are asked to sing for 10-15 minutes as a way of encouraging a naya kalakar (new artist). I think it was a part of the training -- to listen carefully, assimilate, be alert and see how you can use what you know on the spur of the moment. After this, I slowly started receiving invitations to perform and began to feature in festivals for promising young artists.

    ML: Was your guru encouraging about you performing professionally?

    Yes, extremely and he is a hard task master. I had my moments of complaining at home and saying I am not going because my singing was trashed. The guru-shishya parampara (teacher-pupil relationship) is very interesting and highly complex. Unfortunately, it is only the unquestioning obedience that is spoken about. But there are always moments that are difficult, when you start taking your own decisions. It is like with parents. There are times when you don’t agree with your parents too. It is something like that.    

    ML: What were your aspirations at that time, especially since the Gwalior gharana has an extremely rich lineage and tradition?

    I had no idea whether I would really become a professional performer or not. I had no idea how much I would learn; but I knew that music gave me the greatest pleasure and the more I got involved in learning it, the more it became an obsession. I would hear a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan or a Begum Akhtar for hours. The fluency, the ease with which Begum Akthar or Siddheswariji or Bade Ghulam Ali saab sang… if I tried to copy it, I would be a mess. Their daring, their ability to stay within a certain paradigm and also create an original utterance, a very unique utterance… that can’t happen all the time. They are the real originals and happen only once in a lifetime. I have constantly been experimenting in my own way. Rather than hear a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and say I can’t do it, I felt I need to explore the voice to see how a big voice like his could also be so fluid and flexible -- at one level, it is enormously majestic and really powerful and, at the same time, it’s so pliant. So how did he do it? How do you listen to your own voice and study it? How do you try not to imitate, but take inspiration from all of those wonderful people? It is this that fascinated me.

    ML: At what stage did you decide that you wanted to experiment with different kinds of singing?

    All musicians experiment with their instruments, their voice, their music or their repertoire. I have done nothing very special. But I grew up in this atmosphere, which allowed me access to various kinds of music. I wasn’t ever told that this is good music or that is bad. I think that made a difference. My father bought me my first Beatles LP. He would also compile his favourite Kishore Kumar songs for us. So the idea of high art and low art was never subscribed to.

    Then the people I learnt from -- virtually all of them, barring Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, who was a disciple of Pandit Vinayak Rao Patwardhan -- all the others have learnt from more than one person. In fact, I remember my guru, Pandit Ramashray Jha, used to say,  “Hamne bahattar guru se seekha hai”. He did not mean that he literally learnt from 72 gurus. What he meant was that he had learnt from diverse sources and he was trying to acknowledge that. So there was my family background, plus my gurus and their own inclination to learn from various people -- it was only natural I would end up experimenting. Also, I listened to everything, including all the film hits. In fact, in college, the challenge was if I could learn all the songs in one go, my friends would pay for my ticket. So I had a good aural memory. Personally, it was not a conscious decision that I am going to experiment; it just seemed natural.

    ML: What challenges did you face in breaking into the professional singing arena? Was it difficult as a woman?

    The challenges are different for men and women. There are so many women today in Hindustani classical music, especially from the first or second generation of musicians. One reason could be that women are still not considered the main bread-winners. I am sure this is a controversial statement, but look at the number of male musicians who have had to take up other careers until they could take voluntary retirement or had tucked away a little packet for themselves before turning to full-time music careers. You often hear women artists say, “It is okay that it is not very paying, because I don’t run my home with the money I earn from music”. Some do film work; others have set up studios which are their main source of income. Then it becomes okay to turn magnanimous and talk about ‘art for art’s sake’. For those who depend on their earnings as musicians, it is not possible to become so magnanimous. So, they are branded commercial.

    ML: You also have strong views about the art vs. commerce debate.

    The whole idea of glory in poverty for the artist is a strange thing that I have come across in this country. When you take the local train to come to your concert and come running in, tired and carrying your tanpuras - then you are great. But the moment you roll up in your car, you are not so good. The moment you ask for something, you are commercial. Your expertise and time is not valued. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations lists organisations that impart training in music and the arts. All of them say they are not for profit. Yet, the buildings are huge; they are built on public land and managed through a public trust. They are little personal fiefdoms of those who set them up and the original purpose and vision is lost. I am not generalising -- there is lovely work going on in a lot of places -- but buildings that were set up with the purpose of teaching music are now being rented to multinational companies. The excuse is that we can’t make ends meet, we need the rent. At the same time, look at the salaries offered to teachers in institutions dedicated to teaching music. Until 10 years ago, I used to be offered such positions - Rs1500 for teaching all six days of the week and accommodation from where one could be thrown out in the middle of the night. In some situations, teachers are made to sign for money they are not getting. There are no medical benefits. The idea of a gurukul is that it is my home - big, small, hut, palace or whatever -- it is the gurukul. You come and be a part of my family. We are all teaching our students in our two-room flats. Sometimes, you need to make the students stay with you and it is not comfortable; but that is the concept of the gurukul. We share what we have. What is the need for building designer gurukuls, which are not open to anybody? I think these are really big problems. I will have to look for cultural asylum in another country for having said so (laughs).

    ML: We are glad you are speaking out about it.

    It is a major problem; public money cannot be used for old age pension schemes, but that is what these are becoming. Everyone wants an institution and is looking for government land and subsidies in one way or the other. But the lot of the musicians is not changing. The teacher in your institution is not benefiting. We cannot be hypocritical all the time; we need to find ways and means of ensuring that music is not a philanthropic effort. You have to accept that art and artists cannot exist on love and fresh air alone.

    ML: So you moved away from Allahabad to Delhi to pursue your career in music?

    As I said, I was already doing full-time music in Allahabad. I had started singing in concerts such as Kal ke Kalakar, I had performed at the Sur Shringar concert, the Lucknow mahotsav, Taj mahotsav, Gwalior Tansen Samaroh, etc. Again, my parents felt that being somebody who was born and brought up in Allahabad and living in the university area didn’t allow me to know my own standing with my contemporaries and that it was necessary for me to test myself outside. The idea was to learn, but I also got married to a person in Delhi. That marriage did not work out. I was married for eight years and I have a son who is 23. In the 1990s, I started living on my own. I really started from scratch as I had never earned a living myself. Also, I had been taught to be independent by my parents, so from the age of 15 or 16, I was doing small jobs.  My mother insisted that my first tanpura should be bought with my own money. I earned a little money as a casual announcer on Vividh Bharati at the Allahabad station. From that money, I bought my first Miraj tanpura, selected by my guru for me. That is how it all started, but I never really supported myself until then.

    ML: At what stage does a musician feel that he or she has arrived? Did you feel it at all?

    I am worried about this sounding like very correct copy… but I have to say it. All of what I do gives me a kind of high. But if you just put on the recording of one of the old greats, you really know where you stand. I am very clear about my imperfections.

    ML: Another thing that you seem to be very passionate about is musicians’ rights, the anti-piracy battle and now the insurance for musicians. Can you tell us about that part of your persona?

    For years, I have been fascinated by technology. I am a gadget freak. I love using technology. I also felt the need for an artist to stop looking for support from conventional sources. We are so used to saying: “Sarkar kya kar rahi hai”? (What is the government doing for us?). The time has come to stop saying mai-baap to everybody - whether it is a raja, jagirdar, sarkar or corporate. I appreciate whatever support is given, but I cannot be in this position forever. It is high time we decide how, with limited resources, we can do something on our own. We don’t need fancy offices at Nariman Point any more. We can have offices that exist entirely on our laptop. Why not take advantage of technology and find a way to work around these things. That is how Aneesh (she is now married to Aneesh Pradhan, a highly regarded tabla player) and I started Underscore Records in 2003.

    I keep saying to myself that I am a musician; it is what makes my world go around -- and I don’t want to be bogged down with administrative work or worry about filing returns and all that. So I felt that the only way I could manage that is through the Internet. I am not being over ambitious about distribution. My expectations weren’t big and we have managed to support ourselves for the last three to four years with a very small team that is working professionally - not because someone who is a music lover decides to be magnanimous and makes a website for us. These are all very highly qualified professionals who work with us, but yes we told them that we don’t have unlimited resources.

    ML: Tell us how Underscore Records works.     

    Underscore tries to work for artists’ rights and for standardising agreements; we also do some advocacy on anti-piracy, etc. Artists are hesitant to approach a lawyer for drafting or vetting agreements; so we, at Underscore, work with a lawyer who has been wonderful and very supportive even though we are unable to pay her full professional fees. We spend time with her, email back and forth with a lot of questions and work out standard contracts on a variety of issues.

    More importantly, we felt musicians needed to be able to create and record their work on their own terms and conditions and not on those imposed on them by somebody else. Why should an artist who wants to record the ‘nom tom aalap’ be told, “okay, we have great respect for you, so give us the recording and we will publicise it and give you 5% of the sales and that too not at the MRP (maximum retail price) but with the dealer commission removed”? So you get something like Rs2 per Compact Disk (CD) and are then told that they sold 300 CDs in a year! This happens very often. You are told, ‘why don’t you play a classical song from Hindi movies? It sells’. That is told to a person who has spent 30 years learning music. Artists are forever saying they have no option but to compromise. That really upsets me. Of course, this kind of short-sightedness exists even in the world of popular music. There is wonderful work going on all over India. In Delhi, I know of so many bands writing interesting original songs. They don’t speak fluent Hindi; they speak a kind of Punjabi-Hindi but when they go to a record label, they are told that there are very few people listening to English songs, so record it in Hindi. That is crazy. If Indian writing in English can be such a success, why can’t Indian song writing in English be a success? Why don’t we at least give it a shot?

    ML: How will Underscore be different?

    Underscore is really about a lot of little things coming together. The first is to encourage artists to produce and publish independently. Since record companies are asking musicians to invest in the recording themselves and paying a royalty that is only part of the MRP, isn’t it better to at least own the distribution rights? Once you have given the album to them, they have the distribution rights and copyright in perpetuity -- not just in India, but worldwide. Your album may not even be available at Bandra but you give away worldwide rights. Or, your CDs won’t be available in London when you go to perform there and you are asked to carry them with you. Sometimes, they will magnanimously give you 300 CDs at a discount and ask you to sell them there. So you actually carry your 300 CDs illegally in your baggage when you should be exporting them. We want to help professionalise things. We are saying: if you produce the music, we would be happy to distribute it for you on a non-exclusive basis. Underscore helps artists to record their work without taking a service charge and, once the album is professionally produced, we put it on Underscore Records and we ask the artist to decide the price in Indian rupees and US dollars. The musician gets 80% of every sale. We get 20% of the sales and it is sustaining us. We don’t keep large stocks; we don’t have warehousing facilities. Today, it is feasible for me to order 2,000 CDs at one time. If I want to produce two to three albums in a year, which is not very unreasonable, I have 4,000 CDs sitting at my home and all of us are living in small places. So we have worked out alliances with manufacturers for producing small runs. It is very encouraging for an artist to do 200 CDs and be sold out in a month. We can see the enthusiasm on their faces when they come back and want to do more.

    ML: The distribution is entirely through the website?

    We do it through the site, but if the artists own the rights, if they want to give it to, say, Times Music, it is their property and they are free to do it.  Some labels have also allowed us to distribute their music. For example, we distribute Music Today albums as well. We would like it to make Underscore a hub for anything related to music. We have 75 albums on the site; we started with two. We have over 30 to 40 artists. And every other week something or the other is added on. For instance, we have a good section on books that are connected with Indian music. We speak with the publishers and ask them for distribution, if they are not easily available. A lot of very good books on music are also produced independently. For instance, the compositions of Jagannathbua Purohit were published by his students in Satara and they are not available in any bookstore. But we managed to get that and made it available on our site. We would like to make research papers downloadable. I would like to create on the Net, a huge amount of research work -- a bit like the wikipedia for Indian music. Part of it would have a subscription fee, but the idea is to have large collections available. We are still trying to work out ways of making it happen. We also try to keep musicians in touch with other avenues, like say Satellite Radio which looks at diversity and has a dedicated 24-hour frequency for Hindustani classical music, Karnatak music, Fusion, Rock music or even old film songs.

    Isn’t it interesting today that you can hear music in any space; so the means of dissemination of music no longer remain in a cassette or a CD. You can download it even on your mobile phone but the kind of music you can hear is of only one kind or just one or two kinds. The means of dissemination are becoming diverse but music itself is getting homogenised.

    ML: So what next? You have had the courage to do different things and break traditions, bringing with it your share of flak as well of accolades. Will you keep exploring different paths?

    : (Laughs). Yes, I do experiment and I really enjoy that very much. A lot of people thought that I am getting too much attention on television, etc, and some were even irritated that I was completely unabashed about it. But it is a fact that I enjoy it, you know. I am happy I have had a chance to work with different kinds of artists -- film-makers, theatre people and dancers from all over the world. That apart, I dream of the day when musicians will have a huge collective voice.

    Unfortunately, we are all into our individual careers. It will be possible to address many issues when we work as a collective. We have seen wonderful things that happen when artists work together. Among classical musicians, there was the Kalakar Mandal in the 1950s, which made a big protest against All India Radio, which was a monopoly. I think it is not impossible if ways can be worked out to maintain transparency and discipline. There are bound to be some conflicts, but conflicts happen everywhere and have to be handled and resolved.

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    Abhijit Gosavi

    6 years ago

    Wow, what a comprehensive interview, and I'm guessing a very eloquent interviewee! Indian classical music needs wonderful singers like these!

    “The future of healthcare is not in nice interiors but in higher standards of patient care” — Dr Ramakant Panda

    Dr Ramakant Panda narrates his inspirational story of ascent to the league of the world’s top heart surgeons

    Dr Ramakant Panda’s name comes up very high on any list of the world’s top heart surgeons who perform high-risk surgeries. Coming from a village in Orissa, Dr Panda was a topper at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, but dejected by favouritism, he decided to go abroad. Good for him and for India because Dr Panda went on to do his Fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic, US, where he was trained by the pioneer of bypass surgery, Dr Floyd D Loop. Dr Panda has done over 10,000 bypass surgeries, making him one of the most prolific surgeons in the world. More importantly, he has performed more than 1,500 high-risk surgeries which have offered new life to many patients who were considered ‘inoperable’. He is the first in India to have introduced beating heart surgery, as well as ‘off-pump’ bypass surgery. His failure rate is just 0.5% against a world average of 2%. But being the top heart surgeon is not what makes him stand apart. It is his integrity, passion and humanism. One unique honour he has received was the prestigious Rashtriya Samman from the Income Tax department, for being one of the highest taxpayers between 1994-95 and 1998-99. Unlike many top doctors, Dr Panda refuses to be paid in cash. The same integrity and zeal has gone into setting up of the Asian Heart Institute in Mumbai, probably India’s best heart hospital. Here is his inspirational story

    ML: Could you tell us about your education and family background?

    I was born in Orissa in a place called Jaspur. My parents were landowners. I spent my early childhood with my grandfather who was a freedom fighter. He was the headmaster of a school and a strict disciplinarian. For several years, my elder brother, a cousin, and I lived with my grandfather. I was with him till he died; I was then in the fifth standard. After that, I returned to live with my parents. My grandfather’s discipline had a tremendous impact on me. He loved us; at the same time, he was very strict. He used to insist that we wash our dishes after meals and wash our own clothes.

    ML: Where did you study?

    Initially, at my grandfather’s school. After his death, I came back to my village and had to walk around 7-8 kilometres each way to school and back. My three brothers, my sister and I, all went to the same school. All of us used to stand first in our class. After high school, I went to BJD College.

    ML: Did you know by then that you wanted to be a doctor?

    RP: I had some interest, since one of my uncles is an ENT surgeon. Then, one of my cousins got married to a doctor; that had some impact on me. I clearly remember one incident that made me aspire to become a heart surgeon. In 1969, LIFE magazine had done a cover feature on Dr Denton A. Cooley (president and surgeon-in-chief, who founded the Texas Heart Institute), one of the all-time great heart surgeons, who had done the first heart transplant in the US. My uncle had brought a copy of the magazine, which had a big picture of Dr Cooley. That is when I had the dream of becoming a heart surgeon.

    I studied for two years at BJD College and then went to SCV Medical College; I was the university topper in both places. It is at Cuttack Medical College that I began thinking of becoming a heart surgeon. The actual drive to become a heart surgeon came in the third year when clinical postings began; my first clinical posting was in the cardiology department. I was fascinated with heart surgery. I was always among the top five in the class at the medical college. For a year after that, I did my post-graduation from Burhampur Medical College, which is near Cuttack. I then appeared for the all-India entrance test to get into the AIIMS at New Delhi (All India Institute of Medical Sciences). I did my post-graduation in surgery and heart-surgery there between1980 and 1985. That is where the real grinding took place. I was always a hard-working student, but the actual drive to excel and do better in life happened at AIIMS. Those were among the toughest five years of my life, but they were also the formative years, which made me work hard. I often work about 18 hours a day. Actually, I used to work 18 hours a day on an average; now I have cut down to 14-16 hours a day. It was a really tough time for me.

    ML: Tough because of the hard work, or even otherwise?

    RP: Yes, even otherwise. I would rather not talk about it, except to say that there was a lot of bias. But that made me resolve that I wanted to do something and show people what I can do. So indirectly, it helped me.

    ML: Is that when you decided to go to Cleveland?

    RP: That was when I decided to go out of the country to get more training. In those days, in India, there were only four or five hospitals in the whole country doing heart surgery and they operated as a close-knit group. So if your boss was not happy with you, you were gone, because everybody knew one another. So there wasn’t much opportunity. I knew then that I had to go to some good place outside India and come back. So I gave those two qualifying exams for the US: it was called USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Examination) those days. It was getting tougher and tougher for doctors to go to the US, but I passed both the exams and began to search for institutes which offered the specialisation I was looking for. One of the consultants at AIIMS helped me get an appointment with Dr Dudley Johnson. Those days, Cleveland Clinic was the best in cardiac care. Luckily, a friend of mine went and spoke to the chief of cardiology about me and they took me in. So I went to Cleveland in 1986. Initially, I was under a culture shock. But that is where my whole life changed. In six months, I became the pet of my boss, so much so that even now we have a father-son relationship. His name was Dr Floyd D. Loop (chairman and CEO of Cleveland Clinic from 1989 to 2004). If you ask me, he was one of the founding fathers of bypass surgery. Within six to 12 months, I was fairly close to him and that is where I learnt all my surgical and technical skills.

    ML: Cleveland Clinic is among the best in the world, isn’t it?

    RP: Today, it is the best. For the last 15 years, it is rated as the best in the world. It is a very tough place; it requires you to be extremely hard working but with zero bias. If you are good and you are hard working, it is immediately recognised. That made a big difference to me. Within a year, I was doing the maximum number of surgeries as a resident – they never give so many surgeries to a resident doctor – to the extent that when I left, my boss wrote that I was the best resident doctor they ever trained in that place. I almost wanted to settle down there; at the same time, I also wanted to come back to India.

    ML: When was that?

    RP: This was in 1992. The reason I wanted to settle there was that I was also involved in a heart transplant programme. We used to go at night to harvest hearts from the small village and town hospitals. That is when my concept of a hospital underwent a complete change. Those days, AIIMS was the best hospital in India, but I saw that there was simply no comparison in the infrastructure and facilities that even small-town hospitals and community hospitals in the US had – they were far better than ours. So I thought I could come back and build that type of a hospital here. At that time, I had a staff position at Cleveland Clinic as a consultant which was one of the most sought after positions those days. But one day, while I was operating with Dr Loop, I told him that I wanted to go back to India. He said, “What?” He was stunned and wasn’t happy with my decision at all. I said, “Yes, I want to go back and start a small heart hospital and I want you to help me.” Those days, Cleveland Clinic was expanding very rapidly under him. He said, “Why don’t you go to one of these hospitals and develop a cardiac surgery programme?” But I told him that I wanted to go back and, after six years, I returned.

    At that time, I wanted to do transplant surgery programmes. There is a place called Hairfields in London. There was a surgeon called Dr. Magdi Yacoub… he is also absolutely one of the all-time great cardiac surgeons. I spent around nine months to a year with him to learn about heart transplants. I came back in 1993.

    ML: When you decided to return to India, did you know which city you would come back to?

    RP: I just wanted to set up a heart hospital; that was my dream – my aim was to do it in Delhi. I knew people there. In those days, there was only Escorts Hospital and AIIMS; Batra Hospital had started but it wasn’t doing well and Modi Hospital was supposed to come up. Once I decided to return, I started coming to India on short trips from 1990 onwards. The first time I came here, I thought ‘no way I want to come back’. Then I introspected and decided that I did want to return, so I’d better start acclimatising myself. I came to India eight times in the next two years.

    ML: Were you married by then?

    RP: Yes, I got married in 1986 and both my children were born in the US. At Cleveland Clinic, our work routine was 40 hours of work; go home to sleep for eight hours and come back work again for 40 hours – this went on for three years. You earned money, but you got up at 4.30am; by 5am / 5.15am, you left for the hospital; at 5.30am, your morning round starts; 5.30am to 7.00am, you take your ICU round. The previous night’s team hands over charge to you. By 7.00 O’clock, if you are assigned to the operation theatre, the whole day you are in there; otherwise you have 60 patients to see – even at one minute per patient, it takes an hour. There was absolutely no time to eat; you often got time to eat only at 2pm.

    ML: Why was it such a punishing schedule?

    RP: You got used to it. Part of the reason is they wanted to keep the number of trainees to the minimum and give you that kind of intensive training. For instance, whatever I learnt in three years at AIIMS, I learnt in six months at Cleveland. So you go through a punishing schedule but you basically do a 10-year training in two to three years. When you leave Cleveland, you are one of the best. I think this was the best period of my life. My hard work was recognised and I was the most popular doctor there. Even now, people remember me and if I need anything, they will always help me without hesitation.

    The work culture at London was very different. I came back from there in nine months because it was just like the Indian government hospitals. Nobody came before 9am; I was the only guy there at 6.30-7.00am. Nobody was discharged quickly from the ICU and there were long waiting lists. I tried to push the standards and get them to handle more cases, but it only made me a lot of enemies. So I thought: this is not the right place for me, I must get out.

    When I returned, my first stop obviously was Delhi, but no opening was available there. Bangalore was the next option because my sister was there. Honestly, Mumbai was not on my radar; but that was the best thing that happened to me. So I went all over the place – I went to Apollo (Hospital) and that is another story; it is one of those experiences that taught me not to trust certain types.

    ML: What happened at Apollo Hospital?

    I had signed an agreement to join Apollo Hospital at Hyderabad. I did some cases at Apollo, Chennai, and I went back to resign my job at Cleveland and wind up. A week before I was to leave, I received a phone call saying ‘we want to delay your appointment’. So I called up Apollo chairman’s daughter – Mrs Sangita Reddy – and she said, ‘we think you will be better at the Apollo Hospital coming up at New Delhi.’ I said, “I am ready to go to India, I have sold off everything and I have bought a ticket; and, at the last minute, you are saying wait for two years, how do I trust you?”  I decided it was not the right place for me.

    Some time later, I was passing through Mumbai on my way back to the US. That’s when one of my patients, Dr PV Mehta, a gynaecologist at Jaslok Hospital and his wife also a eminent doctor – took me out for dinner. When they heard about my plans, they said, ‘why don’t you consider Mumbai?’ They insisted that I meet them at Jaslok the next day, although I was flying out. They were showing me around, and I met Dr AV Mehta. When he came to know that I was from Cleveland and was looking for an opening in India, he said: ‘you are joining us here’. He took me to the chairman, Mr Mathuradas, and that is how the whole thing started rolling.

    ML: At that stage, when you were looking to be attached to a hospital, why did you not consider Escorts with Dr Naresh Trehan?

    RP: At that time, I had a dream but no money. So I had to join some hospital whether it was at Bangalore, Delhi or Mumbai.  Yes, I know Naresh, but I also knew I would not be able to grow there. So in 1993 I started practising at Jaslok and, after a few months, at Breach Candy Hospital. My experience at Cleveland helped, because the technology and expertise was 10 years ahead of other places. I started doing the most risky cases. My first five or six cases were those of patients that nobody wanted to touch. All of them survived and that created an impression; there has been no looking back since. One case I remember was that of a senior IAS officer – he is still alive. He had a major cardiac arrest and his heart stopped beating for 20 minutes. He needed an angioplasty and most of the other surgeons refused. At that time, I had just come back from the US and had no case. So when the family asked me, I said I will take the case provided you don’t sue me. He was saved and I remember I was by their side for almost two months. A few cases like that established my reputation.

    I was still looking for a place, since my dream was this hospital. My NRI friend and I started looking for a plot, even though I had no money, no car and no place to stay. I have probably looked at every single piece of land in Mumbai -- from Cuffe Parade to Panvel -- you name it and I have seen it. If I found a good location, the title was not clear; and I was getting frustrated. I used to talk to my boss at Cleveland and he said, ‘why are you rotting there, why don’t you come back?’ I told him, ‘I will try for a few more years and if I still don’t get what I want, I will come back (to the US)’. Meanwhile, my career had zoomed professionally.

    I almost finalised a place near INORBIT Mall. But one of my very close friends, Mr M.R. Chandurkar, chairman of IPCA Laboratories, said: ‘nothing doing, we will find you a better place’. Then we got to know about a plot of land at the Bandra-Kurla Complex under the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA), which was soon advertised.

    ML: This was during the first round of auctions and not very expensive?

    RP: It was not very expensive and nobody wanted to come here, since it was not a residential area. My friends said I was mad, but I said, I am not looking at the present; I am looking 10 years ahead. Believe it or not, I didn’t have even Rs30 lakh, out of the Rs60 lakh that we had to pay as a deposit. So we begged and borrowed from friends and put up the money.  

    ML: You also gave a lot of thought to the capital structure and hospital design, didn’t you?

    RP: Yes, that model and thought process came from the Cleveland Clinic. My entire infrastructure and management technique came from the Cleveland Hospital. I also got involved in helping others to get some experience in hospital design and architecture. I read a lot; my cupboard is full of books on hospital architecture, design, layout of the ICCU (intensive cardiac care unit) and the OT (operation theatre). In fact, I now know more about OT and ICCU design than anybody else in the country. The owner of Lilavati Hospital is a good friend of mine, so I helped design their entire first floor. I was also involved with designing seven or eight other hospitals around the country, including Medicity in Hyderabad. I basically incorporated whatever I saw in Cleveland over here. For instance, the doctors’ consulting room, the operation theatre and the ICCU have to be as close to one another as possible because, in an emergency, you need to attend to a patient within seconds. In India, you will find that the doctor’s office is on one floor, the OT is on another floor and the ICCU is on some other floor; you lose patients before the doctor can reach them. In my hospital, the OT and CathLab are only 15 feet away. I can transfer a patient from one to the other in 10 seconds and it can make the difference between life and death. I learnt a lot from other people’s problems.

    ML: What kind of problems?

    RP: For instance, about raising finances. We decided to have at least 80% of the money in place before starting the construction. I delayed the project by six months to get the finances and spent a lot of time with the architects and consultants, designing and planning everything on paper. My brief to them was: you can break a wall 10 times on paper. But, once you build, I am not going to allow any breakage.

    ML: How did you organise the funding?

    RP: A lot of my family members and friends chipped in; they are all equity holders. And yes, I raised money from relatives of my patients and colleagues. I also looked for a bank loan, which was very tough to come by then. Healthcare was considered a useless industry those days and the Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI) had lost Rs1,800 crore. I went to IDBI; luckily I had happened to operate on one Mr MS Verma who was then the chairman of the State Bank of India. We became close friends and I requested him to help me – he also happens to be our chairman now. So Mr Verma spoke to the IDBI chairman Mr GP Gupta. I clearly remember that five of us had gone to meet them and one of the directors said “you guys don’t know sand from cement; how are going to complete this hospital project in 18 months?” He said it would take five years to complete. Mr Verma pushed the case with Mr Gupta and they agreed to give me the loan. While the negotiation was going on, I happened to operate on the then Bank of India chairman, KV Krishnamurthy. He had already undergone two bypass surgeries and everybody had said he was inoperable. I agreed to do the surgery. It took 16 to 18 hours and he came out of it successfully and is doing well. He said, ‘doctor, what can I do for you’? I told him about my dream and that no bank was willing to lend money to a hospital and that I had no collateral. He single-handedly took up my case and convinced the board to give me money. He also roped in Mr Leeladhar (then chairman of Union Bank of India). I decided not to borrow from IDBI but to go to BOI instead; I had a good rapport with them and they would be a little merciful, if we had repayment problems. That is how we started construction. I had a very strict schedule with all my contractors – they were eligible for a bonus if the work was done before time and had to pay a penalty for every day of delay. I had a target of 18 months to complete the project. It was a really crazy schedule; I was working for almost 22 hours a day, seven days a week, and I was sleeping for only two hours a day.

    ML: The work on the hospital started in 2003?

    RP: No, the work started in May 2001. I had a target of completing the work in 18 months and was driving everybody nuts. Luckily, my brother-in-law was the president of ABB (in charge of Far East) in Singapore. He had come back to start his own manufacturing firm for exports. But 9/11 (New York bombing) happened and everything was in a state of flux for a while. So I said, ‘why don’t you come over and help me?’ That was a great help; he also worked 14 to 16 hours a day. I would have finished the project in 14 months except that the air-conditioning experts goofed up and forced us to re-do a lot of work. We finally finished in 19 months and started paying the banks one and a half years in advance.

    ML: How big was the project?

    RP: When MMRDA allotted the land, they gave all the available plots to others and the remaining one was given to the hospital. It had a zigzag shape and we could not have constructed a hospital. The police had an equally bad plot of land adjacent to ours. So I went to the Mumbai police commissioner M.N. Singh and said, ‘your land is just as bad; can we merge it and divide it so that we have better plots?’ He agreed. Mr Ajit Warty was the MMRDA commissioner then; he was extremely helpful and agreed to let us merge the plots and re-do the boundaries. I initially met Mr Warty to apply for the land. He laughed at my wanting a plot, but when I then told him about my dream, he said, “Doctor, go home and rest. When the plot is advertised, make sure you are the highest bidder”. We did that and got the land.

    ML: Didn’t MMRDA have reservation for a hospital in their plans?

    RP: Yes, but nobody wanted to come here, so there were only 10 or 12 bidders. My plan was to construct on a smaller scale because I did not have that kind of money; and then do the second phase after 10 years. That was not possible, so we decided to complete the entire civil work; we also reduced the project cost from Rs112 crore to Rs95 crore. We put our own money into the construction first and also did a lot of tax management. We took the bank loan only at the end so as to reduce our interest burden; and also so that they would have no reservations about lending us money.

    ML: Who was advising you on financial matters?

    RP: Nobody. Our inauguration was also novel; we called three religious heads – the Kanchi Shankaracharya, the Archbishop and a Muslim leader. My boss from Cleveland, Dr Loop, flew down from the US and inaugurated the Asian Heart Hospital.

    I must tell you another interesting episode. When we were planning the construction, our interior designers and architects kept comparing what I was doing with Jaslok and Lilavati. Finally, I got really mad and said I am trying to build a modern hospital. I then took a team of them to the US and showed them what the hospitals there look like. We went to Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland Clinic and I sought permission to let them take over 5,000 pictures. I also had a minimum brief – there was to be no black, brown or grey colour in this Hospital.

    There is another interesting story on design. HOSMAC was our local hospital architect. During design phase, I talked to my boss Dr Loop. He got in one of the best from Cornell, NBBJ – the largest firm of hospital architects in the US. Cleveland Clinic had done more than $5 billion worth of business with them. Their chief architect told me ‘your boss has asked me to help you; I have no choice’. Over the next five days, they whetted my plans and gave a lot of suggestions.  

    As I said, I have gone into the minutest details of the hospital. On the quality side, I put in strict protocols and gathered a core team of people who were hard-working and totally dedicated. I have a surgical team that is very good. My anaesthetist is the best in town; my intensivist, Dr D’silva, is probably the best in the country -- and their hallmark is that, like me, they work 14 to 16 hours a day.

    ML: How do you manage to keep people enthused and retain them?

    RP: Yes, it is tough, especially in Mumbai. The Indian mindset is not used to working in world-class conditions and that’s the reason why the turnover rate (attrition) is pretty high here. But my core group, which is the basic structure on which my hospital depends, is there. Within six months of commencement, we were doing the toughest procedures. But the turnover rate is high. Once people get the Asian Heart brand name, they are paid twice or thrice the salary, since there is a tremendous shortage of trained people. But my core group has not changed. They are loyal to me.

    ML: Tell us a little about your work in surgery. We learn that you have the safest hands in operations with the highest success rate.

    RP: Yes, my surgical failure rate, on an average, in the last seven or eight years is 0.5%, while the US average is 2% to 3%. I still spend around 10-12 hours out of my 16-18-hour working day on my clinical practice. That is close to my heart. I still do the highest number of most difficult cases around the country and I don’t want to give that up. I have done over 10,000 operations till date; even tomorrow, I have six to eight heart operations. It is only on weekends that I catch up with research and other work.

    ML: What are the major differences between the US and India as far as the work is concerned?

    RP: The major difference here is that patients have tremendous respect for you; in the US, it is like I have paid you money, you have to do your job. The patients’ expectation level in India is very low and their appreciation is what can make you go on for 16 hours. The problem is the work culture. Bringing people to their highest standards and getting them to keep at it day in and day out is very tough. They are not used to it. Half the staff is from the slums; so training them to be very clean and courteous for half the day and then sending them back to a totally different reality is difficult. So we have constant training and supervision.

    ML: Collectively, how much stake do the doctors hold in Asian Heart Hospital?

    RP: All the senior doctors have a stake; collectively, we hold around 70%. I made sure that doctors hold more than 50% because, if it is a question of choosing between quality and cost, we will choose quality; a pure businessman is not going to like that. If a doctor comes tomorrow and wants certain equipment because it is important, I would immediately say yes; while if it is a management decision, they will ask for a business plan and repayment ability, etc. We don’t compromise on quality issues. That’s why ours is the only hospital in the country that has both ISO certification and JCI (Joint Commission International) certification – no other hospital has both. I have insisted on certification right from the beginning. You have standard processes for everything in industry; but a hospital, which is one industry where you are dealing with human lives, has no standardisation. I am among the first in India to push for standardisation in the whole industry. JCIR is for standardisation of the care processes; it is a tough US-based accreditation. ISO mostly looks after the back-of-the-house processes. Then we went for an NIAHO (National Institute for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations) accreditation, another accreditation which is basically a combination of both ISO and JCI standards.

    ML: In terms of medical techniques, how do you keep up with developments?

    RP: In terms of medical equipment and technology, the competition among the good hospitals is such that everybody gets it immediately. Even techniques -- what you learn today, everybody knows tomorrow morning. The difference between a good hospital and an average hospital lies in how it uses the technology to provide better services and that is where we score better than any other hospital. No other hospital in the country can match our workspace, our ICCU care, our inspections or appraisals. That is where, I think, very strong systems and processes and a core group of doctors to deliver results on the surgical side and the intensive care side have made a difference.

    ML: What next, any expansion plans?

    RP: Yes, we had planned the second phase in 10 years but we are now doing it in five. We are going to add another 150 beds; after that, we have other expansion plans. We have already identified four places for expansion in the next two years -- one of them will definitely be my home town Bhubaneshwar, where we have already got the land from the Orissa government. I will start construction by December 2007. My long-term dream is to start a medical college in the next 10 years; again with quality as the focus.

    ML: There is a lot of talk of medical tourism; do you see that developing in a big way?

    RP: Right now, we are catering to people from the Middle East and the NRI population from around the world. Getting people from the USA is a little tough mainly because of the distance. Travel for 18 hours is tough and perception about India is also an issue but it is changing rapidly. If we can target the 30% of the population that is not insured in the US, if we can tap those, it may work.

    ML: What about the NHS backlog in the UK? Can’t we get those patients?

    RP: I was part of the Prime Minister’s delegation that went to the UK last October. We were told it is a sensitive issue: don’t even raise it in this forum. The problem is the European Union law that says that no patient can travel more than four hours for treatment. So India gets excluded. We still get a few patients. Last year, we got 10 patients, of whom six were Indians. These aren’t big numbers. In the US, the insurers are offering substantially lower health insurance premium and other financial incentives for those willing to be treated outside -- in countries like India, Thailand or Singapore. They pay the airfare and cash allowance. What people forget is that Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are far ahead of us in terms of infrastructure. There is a hospital in Thailand, called Bumrungrad Hospital, which treated 65,000 Americans last year. A single hospital gets more patients from overseas than all of India; and the infrastructure, hospitality and customer service is really unbelievable. It will take some time for India to catch up with them. I take some credit that, with Asian Heart Institute, I am somewhat closer to them.

    ML: Do you have plans to go public and get listed?

    RP: Yes, somewhere down the line; but right now, we want to expand and finish paying off our Rs65 crore loan.

    ML: How much will it cost to set up a new hospital today?

    It depends. I will not spend so much on interiors. The basic thumb rule for hospital beds is Rs30 to Rs40 lakh per bed. If you are doing a 100-bed hospital, it should ideally be Rs30 crore or a maximum Rs40 crore; beyond that, breakeven becomes tough. But I never looked at economics while building Asian Heart – this is my dream project, which I have built from my heart. Otherwise, do you think I would have had an office like this? Lots of people tell me there is wastage in terms of space. But I say two things: I did it from my heart and I did not look at economics. Besides, I have seen every hospital in Mumbai. Once you are successful and have the money, you want to provide ambience and services, but you have construction restraints and cannot do anything about it. So, I wanted flexibility right from the start.

    ML: How much was your cost per bed here?

    RP: Very high, around Rs80 lakh. Normally, this would not have been viable; the reason it worked is that my partners and I already had a successful practice in Mumbai and could transfer that here immediately. We have 80% occupancy.

    ML: Can you tell us about your Bhubaneshwar project?

    RP: My father came here three years ago. He said I will give you some advice. I asked what? He said, “Are you going to take all the money when you go up (die)? You are not from here (Mumbai); why don’t you do something for Bhubaneshwar?” I said okay, I will do something, and I approached the chief minister (Naveen Patnaik). He was very helpful; he is going out of the way to help me. I have got half of the land now, the other half was under litigation, but I will get it by December.

    ML: You have an unusual honour among doctors for being among the highest taxpayers…

    RP: : It is a funny thing; I always took my fees in cheque, even in 1996 when it was not usual. So my first CA asked me, ‘Doctor, what is your cash income?’ I told him this is all the income I have; there is no cash income. He told me that nobody would believe it and that I should better start taking cash because the income-tax officials won’t believe it either and will claim that you earn thrice as much. I said, ‘okay let them come and check my house, if they want to rip up my sofa to look for cash, I don’t mind.’ That’s when I had come back to India; and, from day one, I have been taking only cheque payments and the tax authorities gave me the highest taxpayer award in 1996.

    ML: Tell us about your plans for a medical college?

    RP:  I would love to do it in Mumbai – the city has given me so much. I never imagined that I will land up in Mumbai. In retrospect, I don’t think I could have achieved what I have, had I not been in Mumbai. What I like about this place is that it doesn’t matter where you come from; it is what you do that counts.

    ML: When you are expanding, how will you ensure the highest standards?

    RP: I am creating a core team that will fly down for critically ill patients. But that is never more than 10%. Over 80% of the work is routine and that can be handled by local doctors. I have given up attending to the day-to-day administration. I am no longer the CEO. I just have a weekly management meeting. I have also created a quality team that continuously monitors quality in all sections and gives me a report. We have a management council where we have taken six managers who, between them, take all key decisions. So everything is decentralised and I plan to follow this model everywhere. The future of healthcare is not in nice interiors or in new concepts in hospital design but in higher standards of patient care. Those are the areas, I think, I have contributed to.

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    4 years ago

    I just happened to send him a mail asking a few queries on my sister condition. After sometime I got a call from this Great Man, he explained me all the queries I had.
    Thank you sir.


    4 years ago

    I would like to thank him, I just dropped a mail informing him about my sister condition and I get a call on my cell and the great person was online. Spent sometime explaining my sister condition.

    shalini shah

    5 years ago

    it is very sad to know that the promising doctor of yesterday has turned totally into a businessman of tomorrow.....now what he cares about is business only, patients' interest are no more the priority now....
    to know more please go to the below link...

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