Opinion

The Singhania story

| Updated on: Jul 18, 2011
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It is a law of nature: what goes up, doesn't stay up. So if you look at the chart of top business houses in India today, many of yesterday's heavyweights no longer figure in it.  

 The Goenkas, Bharat Rams, Kirloskars, Mafatlals, Modis and Shrirams have all seen their business empires either breaking up or running adrift. It makes you wonder where today's big boys will be tomorrow.

This book is the story of one of yesterday's business stalwarts – Sir Padampat Singhania of the JK Organisation.  An early warning: If you are looking for an analytical story on what went wrong with the Singhania empire or some business insights, this is not a book for you. Instead, it is a fairly syrupy account of the life and times of Padampat Singhania, who incidentally was at one time the youngest Ficci president in 1935-36 at the age of 30. Written by sons Gaur Hari and Govind Hari, Sir Padampat Singhania, Man of All Seasons ( Niyogi Books ) is an unabashed eulogy from start to finish — of how their dad Sir Padampat Singhania built up the group's business interests in paper, aluminium, textiles and of how he led his personal life.

Funny insights 

 There are some unwittingly funny insights into the way business was done those days – take the anecdote of how at Padampat Singhania's sister's wedding, there was no ice available at the Bhargav ice factory, the town's regular supplier. The Singhanias repeatedly sent delegations to the factory to obtain ice until the exasperated manager told them that perhaps Kamlapat Singhania (Padampat's father) should set up his own ice factory. Sure enough, the baron immediately did that.

 Like all Marwaris, the Singhanias' journey too started in Rajasthan – in  Jhunjhnu in Shekavati region, before moving to Farrukhabad and from there on to Cawnpore (as Kanpur was called those days) located 100 km away.  They began by lending money, before gradually moving into enterprises. Like a lot of India's leading business families, the early fortune was made in textiles — after which the family got into a host of other areas. While Kanpur was Singhania's main playground, the family fanned out all over. Some members struck out to Kolkata, others to Mumbai (with the Raymonds takeover). 

 It's the Kolkata chapter that has got a lot of media attention – with a Tata Singur-like experience befalling the Singhanias.  The brothers describe how in 1969, when the CPI-M government was elected, trouble began brewing at the JK Aluminium factory at Asansol.  Labour unrest led to the factory being closed. On Sir Padampat's advice, the Singhanias based there – Hari Shankar and Lal Lakshmipat began diluting their business interests in West Bengal.

Lifestyle details 

Also fascinating are the lifestyle descriptions which are out of sync with the careful Marwari ways. On the one hand, lavish houses in Kanpur – Ganga Kuti and Kamla Retreat (which had 22 acres of garden); on the other hand, the ingrained savings habit. “Sir Padampat used his pencils down to the stub until they were too small to be handled,” describe his sons.

 The best feature of the book is undoubtedly the pictures — and the good thing is that there are so many of them. Whether it is the picture of Padampat Singhania leading a procession of Jain munis in Kanpur or images of Pandit Nehru, a frequent visitor to the household, there are plenty of interesting stories in pictures.

 Writing a family chronicle can cut both ways — on the one hand, the proximity can give you many anecdotes; on the other hand, objectivity suffers. If only it had been better written, this might have been a wonderful book rather than a passable one.

 

Published on July 21, 2011

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