Capturing the Leela legacy: A new biography on Captain Nair offers glimpses into the man, his methods and magic

We all knew him as the hotelier with great vision. But Bachi Karkaria’s biography ‘Capture The Dream: The Many Lives of Captain CP Krishnan Nair’ reveals just how much more there was to his rich personality.

A boy born to humble means in a small hamlet in Kerala’s Kannur rose to dizzying heights. Captain Chittarath Poovakkatt Krishnan Nair would have been 100 this February. By the time he passed away at age 92, he had bequeathed a rich legacy across the domains of textiles and hospitality and a whole lot more. In this biography published by Juggernaut on the occasion of his centenary, leading author and columnist Bachi Karkaria captures his eclectic personal and professional journey.

Empire building 101. Image: priya pathiyan.
Empire building 101. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

While reading the tome, Captain Nair comes across as an amalgamation of delightful contradictions. Was he a capitalist or socialist? Did he prefer the simple idyllic pleasures of rural Kerala, or did he like to live it up? Was his motto of ‘Nothing but the best’ the key to his success or did it contribute in some measure to setbacks? The simple answer is ‘all of the above’. Genius cannot be separated from seeming madness.

There were clearly no half-measures. Nair was a proud socialist who actively contributed to the freedom struggle and served the army with distinction. Married into a textile family, he deftly changed course to entrepreneurship. The hospitality business was built on this strong foundation. How Nair managed to wear multiple hats with such elan, is a tale straight out of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. AK Gopalan, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Jawaharlal Nehru, VP Menon, the Dalai Lama, and Morarji Desai were some luminaries that he associated with. The names of professional partners that became family are too many to mention.

Nair did not just mentor his sons Dinesh and Vivek — but also a host of colleagues into leaders in their own right. The runaway success of the ‘Bleeding Madras’ textile brand and Leela properties across India was indeed the result of inspired teamwork. Each of these manifestations of his never-ebbing passion came from a vision to orient brand India in a modern ethos. That he succeeded so spectacularly is in no small manner due to his almost intuitive zen for branding and marketing.

Nair did a lot more than fend for himself. He successfully lobbied for positive policy reforms in the textiles and hospitality industries that benefitted competitors as well. His proactivity also delivered development to his precious Kannur including a spanking new airport. He was also an accomplished horticulturist. Foreign plants found their way into Leela properties around remarkable Indian architecture.

It certainly wasn’t easy to achieve all this. Nair grappled with multiple challenges but refused to compromise on his vision. The approach bore rich dividends. But it carried its burdens too. All good things must end. So, in 2019 — five years after he passed into the ages — Canadian firm Brookfield Asset Management took over all Leela properties and the brand, leaving the prized Leela Mumbai with the Nair family.

Irrespective of these changes, the Leela brand remains the proud custodian of Captain Nair’s legacy. And the legacy of this man of parts echoes far beyond the brand.

Insight into the insights

We spoke to author Bachi Karkaria about how she went about putting together a book on such a celebrated and complex personality…

Veteran journalist bachi karkaria.
Veteran journalist Bachi Karkaria.

How long did it take you to conceptualise and research the biography?

Seven months, that was all the time I was given for the book to be ready in time for Captain Nair’s birth centenary on Feb 9, 2022. I worked at breakneck speed (even literally, ending up with a severe cervical problem!). The person commissioned by Captain Nair himself, well before his passing in 2014, didn’t deliver, so I was asked to save the situation.

After your extensive research, how would you assess Captain Nair? Communist or Capitalist? Developer of agrarian economies or high-end properties? Handlooms or high street fashion? Was he a man of parts or were there many Captain Nairs?

Captain Nair was all these, a man of many contradictory parts, and, at the end of the day, greater than the sum of his parts. As one of my chapters is titled, he was Tom Wolfe’s’ ‘A Man In Full’. Even more, he exemplified Kipling’s directive in ‘If’. He truly ‘filled the unforgiving moment with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run’ met ‘with Triumph and Disaster and treated those two impostors just the same’.

What according to you were his greatest triumphs and failures?

His greatest triumph was putting forward an image of India Shining, in an age unaided by post-liberalisation ease. He did this in the excellence he delivered as the largest exporter of ready-to-wear to the swankiest US labels. And his hotels showcased the country’s heritage along with the latest in luxury, service and systems. As for failures, that’s answered with your next question.

What, according to you, would Captain Nair have done differently if he had the benefit of hindsight?

I do believe he would have done nothing differently. Vaulting ambition may have been his downfall, but he would have remained steadfast in his resolve to ‘give the best of the best to my guests’.

How does Kannur view its son today… glitzy airport and all?

I can’t answer this question, other than to say that he must surely be a huge inspiration, getting to where he was from his obscure, low caste origins. He lived his mantra of nothing being Impossible if you have a strong sense of self-belief — and nerves of steel.

Please share some insights you gleaned about the hospitality industry as a whole while writing this book and the others that came before it.

One, PRS Oberoi told me when I was writing his father’s biography, Dare To Dream: ‘The hotel industry is like showbiz; you have to come up with a new act every time.’ That was in 1992. Twenty years later, Captain Nair was still pushing his people beyond the comfort zone of complacence, telling his Bengaluru GM, ‘We are so happy with what’s not broken that we never strive for the next level.’

Two, you can only succeed if you dream big, even to the point of madness.

Three, you cannot be in such an intimate service industry without being a genuinely hospitable, generous, compassionate 100 per cent people’s person yourself.

Four, the gossamer of memories is far more important to the guest than solid silver tureens.

And five, and finally, the industry is more cut-throat than the sharpest of its Japanese knives. Sparkling linen and dirty tricks are not mutually exclusive.

Inheritors of the legacy

We talked to Captain Nair’s sons, Vivek Nair (CEO, HLVL) and Dinesh Nair (Joint CEO, HLVL) about the biography and beyond…

The late captain nair flanked by both his sons.
The late Captain Nair flanked by both his sons.

Why was this the right time to plan a book on Captain Nair? What does his birth centenary mean to hoteliers today?

We were keen that the biography coincide with his 100th birth anniversary as it would be a befitting tribute for a man who had a multitude of achievements to his name. Celebrating Captain Nair’s centenary with a book is significant as it gives us an opportunity to highlight his contributions to the luxury hospitality business. He also raised the bar of excellence in the industry both within the country and internationally. The Leela Brand was rated ‘Best Brand in the World’ for two successive years in 2020 and 2021 in the annual Readers’ Award survey by Travel + Leisure, USA.

A father cannot choose among his many children but which among his hotel properties or business ventures do you think he would have been the proudest of? Why?

This would be a difficult choice to make as he gave his attention to all the hotels, but it may be prudent to say that he would be the proudest of The Leela Palace Bengaluru as this was the first palace hotel. He modelled it on the Mysore Palace as he had visited the palace in his younger days and was very impressed with its grandeur and architecture.

Regal interiors of the leela palace bengaluru, probably captain nair's favourite property. Image: courtesy the leela group.
Regal interiors of the Leela Palace Bengaluru, probably Captain Nair’s favourite property. Image: Courtesy The Leela Group.

How does Captain Nair’s (ancient India oriented in the future) legacy stack up vis-a-vis the Leela brand now in foreign hands? Are the new properties being planned with the aim of creating a similar ethos?

Captain Nair was an extraordinary man and a proud Indian. Although he did not have a training or any experience in the hospitality business, he was a firm believer in the ancient belief of ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ or ‘Guest is God’, which encompassed the gracious generosity of Indian hospitality. The hotels he built have always been a showcase for this belief and the resplendent culture of India.

Can we have a sense of Brookfield’s vision for the application of the Leela brand?

At the time when The Leela changed hands, Brookfield deeply respected The Leela and understood that a legacy built over decades on solid values is one that stands the test of time. This is the strength of The Leela where dedicated people have made the brand the paradigm it is today, driven by the quest of excellence. This is what the new ownership recognised and aimed to strengthen and sustain, a legacy built over decades on solid values. They had understood that this alone would stand the test of time.

What is your reading of the hospitality industry at the moment? What are some of the trends that you see playing out in the near to medium term?

The long-drawn pandemic has had a significant impact on the hospitality industry. Where keeping pace with business trends and understanding the changing needs of the customer in a competitive environment was always important, the scenario today needs a completely different perspective and approach. It is evident that there is a distinct shift in customer behaviour. Safety and hygiene are important factors driving customer acceptance. Hotels are obliged to implement policies to make people feel safe. There is also a bigger focus on F&B where many hotels have diverted to home take-away from their flagship restaurants. Contactless payments and deliveries are still the order of the day.

It will be interesting to see how the hospitality industry plays out in the long term but vacations closer to home, hotels with high standards of hygiene implementation and a slant to wellness and health offerings would be the popular trends.

Fact Sheet

Name: Capture The Dream: The Many Lives of Captain CP Krishnan Nair | Author: Bachi Karkaria | Publisher: Juggernaut | Category: Business/Biography | Pages: 253 | Type: Hardbound | Price: ₹ 799.

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