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The Business Of Being KALYANI CHAWLA

Text by Sourish Bhattacharyya and Photograph by Anushka Nadia Menon

Published: Volume 14, Issue 6, November, 2006

She is Dior's brand ambassador in India and her society brethren are curious about her contribution to the building of an international image for the label - especially, with her history of turbulent personal relationships, relatively low profile businesses and flamboyant party etiquette. Sourish Bhattacharyya sets out on a discovery of sorts...

As you enter the busy precincts of Kalyani Chawla's new factory in Noida-the sprawling entrepreneurial hub on the eastern fringes of Delhi-dodging malarial pools and other remnants of municipal maladministration, you can't help but be curious about how she pigeonholes her life. She starts her day being a doting mother - getting her daughter, Tahira ready for school - then slips into an exporter's routine, battling deadlines while worrying about the sad state of the road in front of her factory, then returns home to complete sundry domestic chores and finally she goes out to party with friends. In between all this, she has the time to be Dior's brand ambassador, an honour she shares with Princess Beatrix of Spain. The job is not about flashing her earthy good looks, but about helping the luxury brand's custodians strategise for India. Yet, the dominant image is that of a twice-married single mother flitting from one party to another.

"I have been through emotional turmoil. I have survived it only because of the support of my parents," says the feisty, 'thoroughbred Bengali', earlier married to Vishal Chawla of Ravissant fame. Looking dazzling even in her work clothes - form-fitting jeans and white Burberry shirt - Chawla takes a break to sign cheques. It is like any other working day for her, starting at 10 a.m. and winding down only at 7.30 in the evening. "I have been through a financial crisis. I couldn't pay my workers for two months," she says. "I chose not to moan and groan because I'd rather die than be pitied. I'm not looking for public sympathy. People's preconceived notions about me are inconsequential. I am not here to win a popularity poll. I wouldn't change a thing about my life if I had a choice. I wouldn't be me if I had not experienced this myriad and sometimes bizarre life."

Today, her priorities are Tahira's future and her own financial independence, not a false sense of security. "I have learnt one thing in life. No matter how comfortable you are today, you can't tell where you'll be tomorrow," she says, and she should know.

Overnight, her private life became public fodder. In a city where women confront brawn with brain and threaten the men with their intelligence and their mothers with their independence, Chawla became the object of insatiable curiosity, occasionally finding herself caught in the middle of high society drama - flying wine glasses, choice epithets and hostile wives.

"I get along better with men because I can talk business with them," she says, brushing aside the gossip. "I can't be like their wives and talk about my last holiday, or my last piece of jewellery. "It was tough for Delhi's 'cliquish' lot to accept the fact that someone - a rank outsider at that - who'd been 'spurned' by one of their kind, could actually bounce back as Dior's Brand Ambassador. "I am like the crazy ball," she declares. "The harder you chuck me, the higher I bounce!"

The job ("which is not about wearing Galliano and throwing parties") came to her after prolonged interviews in Delhi and Paris. It was Payal Jauhar, the LVMH marketing consultant for India, who got Regis Rimbert, GM, Middle East-India, Christian Dior to have a chat with Chawla.

"I am like a sponge. My association with Ravissant had given me a good idea of luxury retail in India. I have done stints with Gaultier and Celine, and I know how French brands work. Regis was pretty much amazed by my knowledge and our coffee discussion extended into lunch, and then came the offer to fly to Paris for another series of interviews. It was a big deal and I just couldn't give it up - it meant advising Dior on marketing, image management and expansion plans," says the woman who makes bags for Harrods and Zara, and embroidered shoe-uppers for Jimmy Choo.

Does working with Dior mean forfeiting the right to wear anything else? "I wear Dior in India and Indian designers abroad," she says. "I have a quirky side to me and it shows in my clothes. It explains why I am a great fan of John Galliano." Her favourites are Jean Paul Gaultier, Sophia Kokolaski, Commes des Garcon and Issey Miyake. Among Indian designers, she swears by Namrata Joshipura, Manish Arora, Varun Bahl and Tarun Tahiliani.

Chawla inherited her entrepreneurial genes from her paternal grandfather and father, whose three factories near Kolkata and Delhi produce batteries designed for heavy-duty use by ships and submarines. It is this side of her that keeps asserting itself. Chawla moved to Chennai for her B.Com. studies, did a stint with publisher, Maneck Davar's Gentleman magazine as marketing representative and correspondent and switched over to the business of crafting corporate leather accessories. It was back to Kolkata after some years. She opened a boutique stacked with Tanjore art and bric-a-brac from Chennai at her family's mansion in the tony Lower Circular Road neighbourhood ("it was my grandfather's way of getting me back to the city"). But Kolkata couldn't hold her back. She moved to Delhi - following the break-up of her marriage to hotelier, Sanjeev Tyagi - and met Vishal Chawla.

"We started designing jewellery together for export," she reminisces. We also made recycled paper bags - Tarun Tahiliani bought all of them. Then we received an inquiry from an Italian company for 1,800 crochet bags in three colours. Finally, we made our first actual sale - we wrote to Harrods and got a tiny order for 150 bags. It was not a business that could sustain me and I almost gave it up. Then, suddenly, one day everybody started asking for bags and belts," says Chawla, taking a break to inquire about a consignment of bags she is carrying with her to Europe. As her business with Vishal took shape, so did what looked like a fairy tale marriage. Against stiff opposition from Vishal's family, they got married in 1998, and at a time when Delhi was just warming up to the idea of Page 3, they became its poster couple.

On her maternal side, life was very different. "The two sides of my extended family are as different as malpua (my maternal grandmother's favourite) and chicken sandwiches (my paternal grandmother would order them for high tea from Saturday Club)," says Chawla. Gunada Majumdar, her maternal grandfather, was a freedom fighter and an important Congress leader at whose house the Nepali Congress was born.

In her elegantly understated office, Chawla keeps two framed photos in a corner that you would most likely miss if they weren't pointed out to you. One is of Gunada Majumdar, sporting a Gandhi cap, with Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. And the other is of Chawla with Prince Charles at a party hosted by Jaipur's royal family. The Prince was tickled by Chawla's calling card, which just says 'Kalyani Chawla'.

"There was a point in my life when I felt very exposed," she says. "I'm paranoid about doing anything that will embarrass Tahira. She's the centre of my life. I go to parties only if they are private and out of bounds for the media, and only after Tahira goes to sleep." The Page 3 image is very different from the reality. Having grown up in one house with "four generations under one roof," she feels strongly about family ties.

And whenever Kalyani can't be around Tahira, Vishal pitches in. "One day she fell ill and I was badly stuck at work," says Chawla. "Vishal spent the entire day with her, working on his mobile and laptop. He's a wonderful father. No break-up is without acrimony or pain, but Vishal and I remain the best of friends." In spite of a very public divorce that family friend Parmeshwar Godrej helped make amicable.

Chawla, who later took to Art of Living courses, on the advice of Bindiya Jain, (media baron Vineet Jain's ex-wife), says, "Sri Sri Ravi Shankar came into my life and just cleaned it up. I practice Sudarshan Kriya every day after dropping my daughter off to school.... I am God-fearing but not obsessive about religion. I'm greatly interested in the Japanese Buddhist monk, Nichiren Daishonin's teachings based on the Lotus Sutra."

The other big stabilising factor in her life is her mother, Alakananda Saha, a Santiniketan alumna, art collector and gallery owner. "She is my pillar of strength, my best friend," says the daughter. One can almost hear her hoping that her own daughter will, one day, utter the same words. Chawla makes it a point to spend her weekends with her. "My Sunday brunch with Tahira, after she finishes her piano lessons, is a weekly ritual for us," she says. You'll find them at Payal Jauhar's Thai Wok, Baba Ling's Nanking, and Taipan and 360 Degrees at The Oberoi.

Chawla doesn't really care about how people see her. "When I go out in the evening, I don't want to prove myself to be an empowered woman," she declares. "I go out to enjoy myself. I don't go out to engage in intellectual conversations. Most people don't know what I do and it doesn't bother me." What gives her confidence is her belief in God. "Somebody up there tests me constantly and then blesses me with good fortune," she philosophises, "but only after I've failed miserably or taken the wrong decisions."