Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Billionaires and their priceless possessions

India's wealthiest people draw joy from treasures that mere money can't buy

Published: Dec 3, 2015 07:50:25 AM IST
Updated: Nov 24, 2015 08:34:24 AM IST
Billionaires and their priceless possessions

Jitendra Virwani
Chairman & MD, Embassy Group

Net worth $1.65 billion
2015 Forbes India Rich List  #68

When Jitendra Virwani isn’t striking deals all over India to buy office space, he retreats to his 250-acre Embassy International Riding School, north of Bengaluru. He learnt to ride in the early ’80s, and in 1996, bought the erstwhile Ruia Stud Farm and started the school. He owns 80 horses and ponies, and now also breeds sport horses. Virwani grew up in a family that had “a bad history” in horse racing and gambling, he says, but he channelled his love for horses into championing other equestrian sports: Eventing, dressage, and showjumping. The school is one effort; the other is his Equestrian Premier League, currently in its sixth edition. “I’m trying to build the sport single-handedly in the country. I’m not looking for land or benefits from the government. I just want to be left alone to run the sport in a proper manner.” Two students from the school are currently competing in Europe, in an effort to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “I’ve probably spent more money in promoting the sport than my family has lost in horse racing,” he says, laughing, and quickly adds, “Financially I’m doing well so I can afford it.”

—    Anshul Dhamija

Billionaires and their priceless possessions

Harsh Mariwala
Chairman, Marico

Net worth $2.59 billion
2015 Forbes India Rich List  #35

Sitting in the balcony of his Pali Hill apartment in Bandra, Mumbai, Harsh Mariwala places a large wooden box in front of us. Safe within is something he holds very dear: A well-preserved Leica IIIa rangefinder camera with a range of light meters and lenses. (The model became popular after German photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt used it to shoot the iconic picture of a sailor kissing a nurse at New York’s Times Square in 1945.) The camera was a gift from his father, Charandas, who bought it in Europe. The occasion: The birth of Rishabh, Harsh’s son, in 1982. “The most vivid memories captured on the camera are of my children growing up,” he says. The digital photography revolution has made it very difficult to find film, so the camera is now a memento of good times. It’s not his anymore: “As part of his legacy, I have gifted the camera to my son,” Mariwala says.

—Salil Panchal
Image: Vikas Khot

Billionaires and their priceless possessions
Image: Tulu Sinha for Forbes India
Benu Gopal Bangur
Chairman, Shree Cement

Net worth $3.9 billion
2015 Forbes India Rich List  #22

Mungee Ram Bangur and his brother Ram Coowar travelled 1,700 kilometres from Didwana in Rajasthan’s parched Nagaur district to Kolkata (then Calcutta), the capital of British India, in the late 19th century. Among the first things that Mungee Ram—a stockbroker who later became a businessman—did after moving to 65 Sir Hariram Goenka Street (in present-day Kolkata’s traders’ locality, Burrabazar) was to build a sinhasan or shrine for the family deity, Lord Venkateswara.

His grandson Benu Gopal Bangur, whose stake in Shree Cement and personal net worth make him a regular on the annual Forbes India Rich List, says, “The shrine holds a special place in my heart. It is a very personal thing.” The 12-foot-high solid silver altar is more than a century old and the deity it houses is the Bangur household’s cultural lodestone. The tradition of worshipping the deity has passed on from father to son. “My grandfather used to conduct the ‘puja’ himself, a practice that was carried on by my father Narain Das Bangur,” says Benu Gopal Bangur. Members of the family pay respect to the deity every day.
—Shutapa Paul

Billionaires and their priceless possessions
Image: Amit Verma

Kuldip Singh Dhingra
Chairman, Berger Paints

Net worth $2.38 billion
2015 Forbes India Rich List Rank (along with brother Gurbachan)   #39

Kuldip Singh Dhingra’s family has spent four generations in the paint business. In 1898, his great-grandfather and grandfather set up the eponymous Bhai Uttam Singh and Bhai Kesar Singh, a paint company—the name was later shortened to UK Paints. (In 1991, the family bought Berger Paints with UK Paints as the holding company.) The baton seems ready to be passed to the fifth generation: KS Dhingra’s daughter Rishma and his brother Gurbachan Singh’s son Kanwar both work at Berger. The Dhingra heritage is on display in a treasured black-and-white family photograph that was shot in 1941 in the courtyard of their family home on Race Course Road in Amritsar. It has four generations of the Rangwala family (the original family name, Dhingra was adopted later): Great-grandfather, grandfather, father and their families, including KS Singh’s elder brother. In those days, a family photograph was a special occasion; they dressed up and a professional photographer was called in. Dhingra was born in 1947, so he isn’t part of the photo, something he regrets. Remarkably, the photo has stood the test of time and Dhingra estimates that there would be a dozen copies with members of his generation. He knows of no negatives and plans to make copies to pass them on to the next generation.

—    Samar Srivastava

Billionaires and their priceless possessions

Rajesh Mehta
Chairman, Rajesh Exports Ltd

Net worth $1.7 billion
2015 Forbes India Rich List  #65

In a small corner of Rajesh Mehta’s bungalow in Bengaluru’s Sadashivanagar is a collection of around 90 audio cassettes stacked on a shelf. They feature around 2,200 music tracks, a mix of old classical and Hindi film songs from 1942 to 1979, by singers such as KL Saigal, Noor Jahan, Shamshad Begum, Pankaj Mullick and Mohammed Rafi. Another 90 cassettes, copies of these, are kept inside an adjacent cupboard. It’s not that the collection is irreplaceable (he has now collected digital copies of everything as well); it’s the labour of love that went into creating it. “I was in the ninth standard [in 1979] when I decided to build this music collection. It took me 10 months and I spent Rs 10,000 buying blank audio cassettes and then getting the songs recorded on to them from gramophones.” The collection is divided by moods—love, masti, sad, and philosophical—and each tape has the songs sorted by his own ‘popularity index’. He listens to them two or three times a month on an almost-20-year-old radio cassette player. “The songs are timeless. There is no expiry date for them,” Mehta says.

—    Anshul Dhamija

Billionaires and their priceless possessions
Venugopal Dhoot
Chairman, Videocon Group

Net worth $1.8 billion
2015 Forbes India Rich List  #61

Not all cherished possessions preserve happy memories. Venugopal Dhoot, for instance, treasures a Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch which belonged to his father, Nandlal Dhoot. The senior Dhoot was among 55 passengers killed in an Indian Airlines air crash in 1993 near Aurangabad. At the crash site, a local shepherd—who knew about the family—recognised a black cap which Nandlal always wore, and the partially-crushed watch, which he returned to the Dhoot family. “The watch was severely damaged and burnt. But we kept it safe at that time,” Dhoot says. The family approached Rolex and “urged them to restore the watch to its original form, which they gratefully did”. Dhoot keeps the Rolex next to a framed photograph of his father at his Delhi residence (where this image was shot). He sometimes wears the watch on special occasions like his father’s birthday or during an important family gathering or ritual. “This is priceless to us and something our future generations would value and cherish greatly.”

— Salil Panchal
Image: Amit Verma

(This story appears in the 29 October, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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