The Dashing Sanjiv Shanmugam, Bengaluru’s much admired, secretly envied and high-flying businessman.
He dominates glossy magazine pages and their ‘best dressed’ lists. His clothes are usually carefully accentuated from his collection of watches, hats, bowties, and jackets. His socks are carefully chosen and he curates pocket squares with the discerning eye of an aesthete. There’s a winning smile, a booming voice, and a perfectly trimmed beard. Put all this in sum with a personality that can fill a room, and you get Sanjiv Shanmugam, Bengaluru’s much admired and secretly envied high-flying businessman. No glamorous gathering in town is complete till Sanjiv walks in, but to rely only upon his looks can be deceiving. There’s more to this single dad, nostalgic brother, and dedicated son than meets the eye.
RITZ catches up with this charismatic Bengalurean in a candid tell-all to find out what makes him a style icon and, more importantly, a man, who behind all the stories, quietly supports a mission greater than himself, touching the lives of rural women and giving them the wings they need to rise to a better future and a better tomorrow.
Interview: Archana Shenoy
Photography: Lucky Malhotra
Styling: Anamika chanda
Automobile Courtesy: Porsche Center Bengaluru
Sanjiv Shanmugam doesn’t believe in contrived modesty. But question him about his work and background, and he is reluctant to elaborate. If you ask around Bengaluru, people will tell you that the Shanmugams spell old money, but ask Sanjiv himself about his formative years, and it is nostalgia for it is the simple pleasures in life that brighten up his eyes, not tales around ancestral riches. “We are ‘old’ Bangaloreans in the sense that our family has been here for generations,” he begins.
“I don’t live in a world of regrets, but yes, if I had not had to come back to help my father with the family business, I would have opted for something in the creative sphere”
“I grew up on MG Road and went to the Bishop Cottons’ School, but winter vacations were always spent in Delhi at my grandfather’s quaint old bungalow, with its misty gardens and tall trees.” The grin and energy with which he welcomed us are subdued into a thoughtful demeanour as he recalls those years – the transformation of an energetic child given to mischief into a high-schooler who won a scholarship to study abroad. “I was at a private Quaker college in Ohio called Wilmington,” he says. “I can happily say that those were the best years of my life. My fondest memories and closest friends belong to that period, some of who are like family today. But Bengaluru has always been home,” finishes the man. To those outside, the totality of Sanjiv’s existence can be embraced in two words: privilege and luxury. After all, how complicated could life be for a man rumoured to never repeat suits at the city’s splendid dinner parties? (“Rubbish”, he says, dismissing these stories as plain exaggeration.) The fact though is that Sanjiv is extremely reserved and chooses to guard his privacy with a vehemence. He counts only a few as his close friends, and the Sanjiv they know is not the man who dazzles at dinner parties. This other Sanjiv is a hands-on parent who combines the duties of both mother and father into one well-turned-out personality as he raises his young son, Vir, and attends to all the mundane chores of everyday parenting. “Two sides of the coin I suppose,” he shrugs when we ask him about this. With a little insistence on our part, he slowly elaborates: “The most important thing is discipline. My weekdays begin at 5:45 am and once I have dropped Vir off at the school bus, I hand myself over to my trainer at the gym. I go straight to work from there, and get down to business without distractions. Once the day is over, I am back home with my boy.”
“If I have a sociable persona, beneath it is also a deep scar that is 21 years old, from when I lost my brother. I think about him every day and the walls of my home are full of his photographs”
The Shanmugams are old entrepreneurs in Bengaluru, whose factories dominated the manufacturing scene for years. Once Sanjiv returned from his higher studies in the US in the late 1990s, they began to diversify into real estate. “I also invest in start-ups, both in India and abroad, and have a keen interest in the F&B space. In fact, I’m working on a new F&B concept and hope to get it moving later this year,” he tells us. His weekdays end with evenings with his boy, supervising his studies, taking him out to soccer, or watching Shark Tank on TV together. “On weekends, though, I am completely different,” he laughs, referring to those parties and nights-out that have built the image of Sanjiv as a legend in Bengaluru society. He is quick to play it down and remind us again that he is simply good at dividing his time. “I strictly monitor my schedule, and when I earmark time for something, I go into it fully, whether it is business or play. That’s all. Weekdays are for work, and weekends for fun. I also host friends at my farm or organise playdates at home for my son and his mates, so really it’s a whole lot of different kinds of ways I find to take the edge off. And to make an effort to spend time with the people who matter.”
“I am proud to be an active participant in the growth of CherYsh, which allows me to go to bed every night knowing that while living my own life I was also able to do something for a stranger faraway that might have made a difference”
Sanjiv has been successful in growing the business his grandfather and father established, but was this the path he chose for himself, or would he have opted for something else? He pauses for a moment. “I don’t live in a world of regrets,” he begins, “but yes, if I didn’t have to come back to help with the business, I would have opted for something in the creative sphere. From my early years I have actually been hugely interested in architecture, design and interiors. I was my mother’s primary assistant when she collected art or decorated our homes – I have her to thank for developing my aesthetic and artistic sensibilities.” This is clear both at his house in town as well as his farm, full of exquisite objets d’art and elegant furniture, laid out in rooms that negotiate with ease the concepts of space and comfort. “My ideal life would be to live between India and Europe,” he continues, “and who knows, I might actually do that in future. But I am determined about one thing – I may not have been able to do what I wanted in the late 1990s because the world was a different place then. My son, however, will never face that conundrum – I will ensure he is free to pursue his passions and I will do all I can to enable this.”
Sanjiv lives life well – and how! But what even a number of his friends do not know is the story of the charity he supports to champion women from underprivileged backgrounds. “A few years ago I met a firebrand of a lady called Cheryl Rebello who came to see me with a pitch to help support girl children and women in rural Karnataka. I have not looked back since.” The CherYsh Trust approaches change through systemic interventions to improve the quality of living for women and facilitates three stages of girl children’s journey from learning to livelihood. “The programmes it implements go, step by step, from Educate (early learning) through CherYsh Shiksha; Prepare (vocational training and skills development); and Secure (livelihood options),” Sanjiv details for us. His sense of pride at being an active participant in this organisation’s journey is palpable. “It allows me to go to bed every night knowing that while living my own life, I was also able to do something for a stranger faraway that might just have made a little difference.” Talk about making a difference and his son, Vir, comes up at once. “I am sure Vir will continue the tradition,” exclaims the proud dad who in turn plays down his own charitable leanings as simply following in the footsteps of his own father.
“Vir, is the one thing that surpasses everything else in my life. I could spend hours talking about this little chap who consistently leaves a tremendous impression on everyone he meets”
Sanjiv seems capable of speaking for hours on the subject of his son. “Vir, is the one thing that surpasses everything else in my life. I am proud to say that he consistently leaves a tremendous impression on everyone he meets. A friend recently told me that at less than 13, he has more patience and poise than I do in my 40s!” Vir is at the Mallya Aditi International School in the 7th grade, and is, in Sanjiv’s words, “the greatest anchor in my life.” He keeps me optimistic, because no matter what, at the end of the day I come home to him. I have been incredibly fortunate to have this loving human being I can call my own and yes, I do spend ‘quality’ time with him. He has a real spark for business innovation and for sport, and I do what I can to encourage that.” On weekends Vir stays with his “Amma and Thatha” (Sanjiv’s parents) along with cousins, who all descend on the family home and have a blast. The young man in question, we know for a fact, is quite the replica of his dapper dad, and is often seen alongside Sanjiv at Sunday brunches or family outings – literally a miniature version of his style icon father.
We bring Sanjiv back from his loving soliloquy about his son to the one word the whole city associates with him, whether or not he accepts it: style. “I know it’s a cliché to say that style is a very personal concept. But frankly this is a cliché because it is true. Style can never be about imitation – to me it is one part self-knowledge, one part self-confidence. I must credit my grandfathers for this. My paternal grandfather was a business luminary, who made it against the odds and lived life to its fullest. I have always been fascinated by the kind of 1960s glamour he embodied – when he walked into a room, he towered over everyone. My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, was an Inspector General of Police, an Intelligence Bureau director and an author who had a completely different kind of regal confidence about him, a quiet dignity.” Both men have clearly shaped Sanjiv, who draws inspiration from them while defining his own style. As he tells us, “Frankly, in the end, no matter how much you dress something, it is what lies behind the façade that gives real punch and style.” Ahem! We agree. He’s a huge Tom Ford fan and tells us with some embarrassment that he has just spent a fortune at their flagship store on Sloane Street in London this summer. He also loves Brooks Brothers for their no nonsense looks for formal wear. “I’m someone who’s most certainly aware of the trends but have a particular style of my own that I stick with – I don’t experiment for the sake of looking trendy. I love my jackets and, at the risk of sounding immodest, have an enviable collection of Hermes’ pocket squares. For my travel accessories, it has to start and end with Goyard,” he admits.
“Running with the bulls in Madrid is one of the craziest things I have done to date – I ended up with a scar on the ankle but it could have been worse!”
We ask him what he thinks is the general perception that people have of him. Could he share a glimpse of who he actually is beneath all the layers and veneers? “I like to think people see me as friendly, happy-go-lucky, and someone who is well-moulded. Of course there are always characters around who will focus on the negatives, which we all have. I have huge reserves of energy and am socially very gregarious. But that’s the point – there is a whole other world inside even the most cheerful human being that others cannot see. If I have a sociable persona, beneath it is also a deep scar that is 21 years old.” The reference is to his brother, Suresh, who passed away in 1995. “I think about him every day and the walls of my home are full of his photographs. He was a phenomenal man, the wonder-child of our family, and then, just after he returned from his studies abroad, we lost him in a tragic accident. Our family is grateful for all that God has given us but He took back the greatest gem we had. I know how to mask that sorrow, but that doesn’t mean there is no sorrow. That said,” he adds, “I see sorrow as a personal feeling – I don’t like to make a display of my emotions.” There is finality in his tone and we don’t push him further.
This experience early in his life with death and loss means Sanjiv knows he only has one life to live, and wants to make the most of his time. He is a self-confessed “adrenaline junkie” and has scuba-dived in different parts of the world, bungee-jumped a couple of times in Australia and New Zealand, and sky dived as well. “Running with the bulls in Madrid is one of the craziest things I have done to date – I ended up with a scar on the ankle but it could have been worse! I am certainly very adventurous,” he grins, “but I have learnt where to draw the line and stay clear of foolish recklessness!”
And what is his perception of luxury? How important is it to him in life?
“Luxury is…stopping to enjoy the view! For me, time is the ultimate luxury! If I get to spend enough time with my family and friends and travel the world while doing so, there’s nothing to beat that!”
Hard Facts With Sanjiv Shanmugam
Birth date: 19 May
You wouldn’t be caught dead in: Shorts – I have skinny legs! [laughs]
You love: To be loved
Women are: “…meant to be loved, not to be understood” – Oscar Wilde. That’s all I will say after two divorces!
Style is: Never in imitation
Favourite set of wheels: Aston Martin Vanquish
Food preferences: Japanese