From handlooms to hotels by way of Gandhi and the Western Ghats – the story of the Leela Group is unconventional and more than a little charmed. Brian Noone met with the founder
Smiles come easily to Captain C P Krishnan Nair, even in the most august of circumstances. Take the 2010 award ceremony for the Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian honours. In the official photograph of the recipients, there is only one smile among the two dozen solemn faces – the prime minister and president included – and it belongs to Nair. It is not a grin, not a smirk, but a joyous, full-bodied smile.
That same smile, eyes glinting from behind round horn-rimmed spectacles, also manifests itself when he’s meeting those who are not heads of state. It’s a smile that’s well deserved, for the Kerala native has spent the last 25 years building a stable of highly regarded hotels stretching from his home state in the south all the way up to the recently opened property in Delhi’s diplomatic quarter. It’s a very impressive retirement project – which is not what the 89-year-old calls the hotels but is in effect what they have been.
Nair began his first career at the behest of his wife, Leela, whom he also credits with getting him into the hospitality business. A precocious and newly married army officer not long after partition, Nair says, “She kept asking me why I was saluting all the time. She said I should do something for myself.” His answer was to develop a textile empire, led by the popular “bleeding Madras” fabric in the 1960s, which spanned the globe.
It was a relatively conservative step in the 1980s for the Nairs to conceive and build the first Leela hotel on land they owned near the new international airport in Mumbai. It succeeded beyond all expectations, but now, nearly three decades later, Nair’s anecdotes tend more toward the personal than the professional. He speaks of a childhood where baby elephants were ubiquitous, of a week spent at Gandhi’s ashram as a teen (“I asked for his blessing and he told me to work”), of arranging the recent weddings at his Udaipur hotel for friends’ daughters, including a national newspaper mogul and the local Maharana. But his preferred topic of conversation is nature: he rhapsodises fondly on the beauty and necessity of trees in cities and especially on the flora and fauna of the Western Ghats in India’s southwest.
Surprisingly, his latest hotel, the Leela Palace New Delhi, is short on greenery, though it is long on nearly everything else. More than ten years in the making, the neo-Lutyens design features spacious rooms (the smallest is 46sq m), exquisite details throughout and pleasantly personal service. The top-floor infinity pool and two-storey, maze-like ESPA offer comfortable refuge, but the restaurants are the true highlight. The hotel is home to the first Asian outposts of two New York powerhouses, Le Cirque and Megu, as well as a dazzling, high-ceilinged Indian restaurant, boxy modern fusion café, and clubby dark wood bar with an encyclopaedic drinks list.
Nair speaks enthusiastically about the art interspersed across the property. He does not mention the price tag (reportedly $5 million), but focuses exclusively on the lasting quality. “The statue in back”, he beams, referring to a 3.2m Devi head placed prominently in the garden, “is made of gold, silver, copper, brass and bronze. It took the artist [Satish Gupta] a year to make, and it is strong – it can never be hurt by the rain, by the sun…by anything.”
Permanence, whether physical or metaphorical, is a strong word to use in the ever-shifting world of hostelry, but it is clear that at the very least Leela has now ascended to the highest ranks of the Indian hospitality firmament, not just with recent properties in Delhi and Udaipur but also with the upcoming opening in Chennai, which Nair says will be “the best hotel in South India”.
Though he isn’t a large man, there are a gravitas and a confidence in Nair’s comportment which enable him to make such declarations credibly. He speaks hopefully, too, about hotels on the horizon in Jaipur, Agra, the backwaters of Kerala, and perhaps beyond the borders. Yet the biggest news with the Leela group is that Nair will be stepping down as chairman soon, to be succeeded by his eldest son Vivek. The hotels have always been a family affair, and will continue to be, he insists, with grandchildren filling in roles as well – and Nair will remain close at hand to “witness” what his progeny will do. Gracious, Cornell-educated Vivek says he has learned from his father “to always question the norm and take on challenges head on”. There is little doubt that he and the next generations of Nairs have also learned how to smile.
Departures, Q3, 2011