Over the years, I had seen many pictures of her in papers and magazines, and had always been struck by her sense of style and the panache with which she carried herself. To me, she was the perennial diva. I was looking forward to our meeting, knowing this is the first time she has agreed to be profiled in a book and be extensively interviewed. I first met Parmeshwar Godrej about two years ago. I came away from that meeting with an insight into the Parmeshwar Godrej beyond her public persona. She will be missed by the many millions whose lives she touched through her philanthropic efforts. Parmeshwar was also an astute businesswoman with a very entrepreneurial personality. Over the years, I also interacted with her husband Adi Godrej and her three children, and her presence in their everyday lives was distinctive. She spoke about them with pure delight and pride. It is impossible to claim to understand the loss they must feel and I wish them strength to face this difficult time. I miss her greatly. — Gunjan Jain
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The world of beautiful people is as shiny and fickle as a shower of shooting stars. Not everyone can survive the glittering maelstrom of fame, money, power and stardust. Those who win their own place do so with a special sparkle of brilliance, which stays on—glowing brighter, both for itself and as a guiding light. It takes guts, glory and gumption to not only shine but also make sure that everyone around gets a little bit of that light to find and glow on their own. Using celebrity and cachet to build a life of beauty and purpose is a rare accomplishment.
Parmeshwar Godrej epitomises that sparkle of brilliance and has a story befitting the title. She became a celebrity by virtue of her oeuvre when she first burst on to the social scene and remains one till today. She remains the first lady of the patrician league of India. From being the versatile life partner of one of India’s wealthiest tycoons, she has transformed herself into a public figure, on first-name terms with world leaders, writers, America’s most beloved talk-show host and rock star humanitarians.
Many social celebrities have come after her; but not one of them has been able to hold forth like Parmeshwar. She is equally at ease sitting on the board of Godrej Properties as a non-executive director as she is on the boards of the Gates Foundation, Gere Foundation, American India Foundation, Palace School at Jaipur, Sir Elly Kadoorie School, Sir Anthony Bamford’s JCB, India Hotels and Health Resorts, and Ananda Hotels. While her body of work is nothing short of magnificent, it’s ironic that even though Parmeshwar commands a powerful A-list presence globally, very little is known about her personal life.
One can’t help but conjure a host of images when you think of Parmeshwar Godrej—a goddess in a pristine white dress; matriarch of one of the most influential industrialist families of India; art aficionado; astute businesswoman; fashion diva whom designers scramble to impress; doting wife and mother; and compassionate philanthropist. Leafing through the book of Parmeshwar Godrej’s life is the closest one can get to comprehending how, in a very short period of time, she carved her own identity. Parmeshwar remains one of the few billionaire matriarchs who has accomplished everything on her own merit.
Blessed to be in a position to help others, Parmeshwar has devoted her life to the causes she is passionate about. “It gives me tremendous emotional satisfaction to be able to bring about positive changes in the lives of others. In addition, when one is fortunate enough to be in a position to help others, I believe it is a responsibility to do so.”
Art for Cause and Effect: The Cultural Template
For a person as sensitive to her surroundings as Parmeshwar, to not be affected by art is inconceivable. She is passionate about quality and introspective cinema. With a yearning that was hard to deny for the art form, it was no surprise that Parmeshwar would give the movies a shot: “...it’s no secret that I’m besotted with the realm of cinema—I’ve always been fascinated by this art form and for me, cinema is art...”
In 1988, on being asked by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory to co-produce The Perfect Murder
, a film based on the 1964 CR Keating novel by the same name, she readily agreed. The movie itself reflected Parmeshwar’s avant-garde thinking, with its atypical theme as well as the Indo-Western collaborations, at a time when there were hardly any. She accompanied the film to several film festivals “where it won accolades from many critics,” Parmeshwar says. “In the same vein, I formed a company in 2000 with Shekhar Kapur called Starlight with the intention of producing commercial and ad films. Just a year earlier, Shekhar had produced a Ganga soap ad film for me, with Govinda and his then three-year-old son Yash as our models.”
To Her Own Design
Parmeshwar is a natural at getting the aesthetics right irrespective of the canvas. In the ’80s, she applied her wonderful sense of space to give Khyber, a South Mumbai restaurant, a complete creative makeover. A fire destroyed its interiors in 1985 and the owners, the Bahl family, requested Parmeshwar to give advice on the restaurant’s fresh look and image.
Parmeshwar and her son Pirojsha launched a project to set up a multi-use centre for housing, offices, hotel, etc, on the family’s reserve of around 3,500 acres of land at Vikhroli, a suburb of Mumbai. Parmeshwar invited her favourite Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, to design some of the buildings there; he famously compared the Vikhroli mangroves to New York’s Central Park. Once complete, the project will also be home to an urban art gallery, a museum and a library for contemporary art with focus on natural conservation.
In all of Parmeshwar’s collaborations, what remains consistent is her fondness for the arts. Throughout, she has paid tribute to her passions by committing herself to them wholeheartedly. Her effervescent personality coupled with her social skills, ensures that she brings the finest people to partner with. Through time, Parmeshwar has proven her knack for matching the right talent with the right project. She manages to get the crème de la crème to readily consent to her endeavours, a trait not many can replicate.
The Godrej scions, Tanya, Nisaba and Pirojsha give an insight into their mother, the lady beyond the spotlight: Our mother has always been a very exceptional woman, with a unique approach to life, and she has inculcated that in all three of us. She is a great mother—very passionately committed to us, very interested in what we are doing, very affectionate and strong. The basic set of values that we share are imbibed from our parents. She has worked very hard towards the cause of HIV/AIDS awareness, especially with her Heroes Project, bringing new ideas and approaches. She is an aesthetically driven person and, over the years, has worked in fashion, property and advertising with great success.
Our mother is a strong source of support to our father, and they complement one another. She is definitely the one who networks, creating friendships, associations and contacts that have been very useful to our father. The flair and creativity she brings to everything is unique. She often quotes her favourite song ‘My Way’ and she truly has lived her life conforming to no one’s rules but her own. She has never worried about the norm or what people will say, and she is one of the most self-assured people we have ever met.
(This story appears in the 11 November, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)