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Vol. XXXII No. 2, May 1-15, 2022

N. Sankar – Beyond Business

-- by Ranjitha Ashok

When N. Sankar, industrialist and Chairman of the Sanmar Group, passed away on April 17th, 2022, accolades flooded in. ‘A born leader’, ‘…a great patron of sports’ – his life was described by one media house as ‘an innings of understated achievement.’

The slogan of the Sanmar Group reads: ‘Where integrity meets excellence’ and N. Sankar symbolised those words.

For us at Madras Musings, N. Sankar held a very special place, and we will forever be grateful for his support and encouragement, his perceptive understanding of the place this little newspaper deserves in the landscape of the city so dear to him.

N. Sankar – the business magnate, the genius entrepreneur, the visionary…

But there was also N. Sankar the brother, the family man, the friend, the voracious reader, the movie buff, the man who enjoyed the company of friends, evenings of conversation and fun where all work was set aside, all formality given the go-by, where only laughter and camaraderie reigned.

For N. Kumar, his younger brother, Sankar was a protective elder sibling, not exactly a bully, but, Kumar adds with a wink, there was always that tacit understanding that “Big brother was always right – and that continued till the end.”

Sankar loved reading, loved his books and, says Kumar, Sankar, ever territorial, was never really happy lending them, and was always particular about getting them back. He loved English movies – Westerns and comedy being his favourite genres. Kumar recalls instances when his big brother tried to sneak into theatres showing A-rated movies, getting caught and being summarily sent away. Adds close friend, R. Ravichandran (Ravi), “His movie/projection room in the basement of his house is one of the best in the city. We have watched countless movies here. One of his favourites was Kathalikka Neramillai. And Sankar was particularly fond of T.S. Baliah’s role in the movie and could repeat his dialogues at will, doing a great job imitating Baliah.” 

Ravi recalls, “Knowing Sankar’s adulation for Madhuri Dixit, his wife Chandra, with son Vijay’s help, arranged a surprise dinner for Sankar for his 60th birthday. Every nook and cranny of the banquet hall was filled with photos and cut-outs of Madhuri Dixit. Many of us came in early to watch Sankar’s reaction when he walked into the Banquet Hall. It was one of the best Kodak moments I have seen. Our friend enjoyed the evening thoroughly with Madhuri everywhere he looked.”

Very correct in demeanour always, Sankar could cut loose if required. Friends recall him turning up in Wimbledon colours for a friend’s sports-themed birthday party. Another time, at a party thrown in honour of a columnist friend, he arrived sporting the theme colours and in addition wearing a tie fashioned out of a newspaper, as a salute to the friend.

Among singers, his favourites reflected his generation – Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Pat Boone, Petula Clarke, and Doris Day. He had a large collection of records, as he did videos, laser discs and CDs.

Was he a technology buff? Well, says Kumar, not exactly, but being Sankar, he always foresaw the impending arrival of change, and so made sure he was ahead of the curve, ensuring the latest in technology was installed in the offices. Theirs was the first company to link every office through telecommunications radar. Every office had a hotline.

He was a keen sportsman, with a special passion for Tennis. He trained under T.K. Ramanathan, Krishnan’s father. A very ferocious competitor, Sankar won several tournaments. He suffered an attack of polio when he was around 17 and was in bed for six months. But he fought back, returned to tennis, and won tournaments again. C.G.K. Bhupathi said he was ‘a beast on the courts’, even though he could not move much. Full of grit, he wanted no sympathy, says his brother. His passion for the game led him to become instrumental in rebuilding TNTA to what it is today. He developed the city league (maybe the only league in India) and renamed it the Sanmar League. Ravi adds: “When Sankar suffered his illness when young, he was advised not to walk for a brief period. To keep him engaged, his father, Mr. K.S. Narayanan, rented movies for Sankar to watch at home. His fondness for movies started at that time and he enjoyed them all through his life.”

A brilliant student, he was an engineer by degree, but just as good an accountant, and never shied away from responsibility, growing into a leader who rebuilt many institutions. For Kumar, his brother embodied ‘Detached Attachment’ as preached in the Gita. ‘This was his motto’, says Kumar.
Sankar was equally passionate about cricket, and when he took over Jolly Rovers, he built the team up quietly over the years, and developed the ground into one of the best in Chennai, as commented by Sachin Tendulkar. No money was ever spared in the development of the sports he loved. Charity comes as naturally as breathing with the Sanmar group, a trait inherited by both Sankar and Kumar from their father, the primary areas being sports and everything health related.

Sankar loved travelling, and as only to be expected, he was very particular about all arrangements, looking into every detail.

According to Ravi, the trips Sankar and his friends made to various cities the world over to watch cricket or tennis were truly memorable, with Sankar ensuring everyone had a blast.

He loved company, although he was very choosy. He preferred simply structured evenings, among his favourites being spending time at the Madras Cricket Club, in congenial company.
And for him, his family came first. As a dutiful son, he looked after their father like a child, when illness and old age took over, says Kumar.
He made an adoring grandfather.

Sankar with Sunil Gavaskar when the latter was made honorary member of the MCC.

Sankar always rented a Box for the IPL matches in Chennai, sometimes on his own or with his good friend, Venkataramani of India Pistons. The box had everything, including food and beverages. Ravi recalls one incident when Manas (Sankar’s grandson) was around 4 or 5 years old. “He would come with us for the IPL matches. Around 9:30 dinner would be served. And Sankar used to feed Manas his dinner because he was too little to hold a plate and eat. Once, while we were all having dinner, somebody standing behind us said, “Mr Sankar, isn’t that the most satisfying, fulfilling thing you have ever done? Feeding your grandson?”

It was Sunil Gavaskar.  The Commentators box was right next to Sankar’s. And Gavaskar, noticing Sankar feeding Manas, had come out to meet him.

Other stalwarts like Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble too never failed to make the effort to walk up to the Box to greet Sankar.

Sankar enjoyed good liquor, collected wines, and was very particular about food. In Chennai, his favourite haunt was Taj Coromandel, and he had a particular liking for light Italian cooking. According to Ravi, three or four starters were always a must, and predictably he made a meal of them. He was very fond of thin-crust pizza, loaded with veggies, easy on cheese, and no onions. After he was done liberally sprinkling chilli flakes all over the pizza, you couldn’t spot the veggies beneath. And, it had to be Tiramisu to finish off the meal.

When two guys with zest for life have been friends for a long, long time, stories will abound, admits close friend L. Lakshman. He recalls one instance, either Deepavali or New Year’s Eve. “Sankar and I had a formal dinner to attend at the Taj, Chennai, and we got there a little too early. So we decided to kill time at the bar. To our surprise, we found the whole place empty, and were informed the bar had been booked for the evening, for a private event commencing a little later. Seeing ourselves as head honchos in the fair city of Chennai, with brittle egos to match, this was not to be tolerated. Sankar asked for a word with the bar manager, who merely reiterated the same story. Time was going by, we were getting thirstier, so Sankar pointed to me and told the manager that I was a director of a Tata company, adding that if we were served immediately, we would not take offence and let bygones be bygones. Obviously unimpressed, the canny manager told us politely that he was so sorry, his hands were tied, and he could do nothing to help us. We understood. Loosely translated, the message was: “Your friend could be the Mayor of Chennai and you his faithful cohort for all I care, but you need to move now. Try your luck tomorrow.” And so, the ‘head honchos’ of the city’s leading business houses quietly slipped away, drowning their rejection at the dinner they were supposed to attend in the first place.

Ravi, an intrinsic part of many a convivial get-together, is in no doubt it is going to take a very long time to accept Sankar’s loss.

The same is true of a group of friends who, as Sankar’s health showed signs of failing, easily and organically slipped into the habit of visiting him every Sunday evening, a shared love for sports drawing them all together. In time, the group even acquired a name – The Sunday Group. The regulars numbered around twelve to thirteen, and the group met on most Sundays between 7pm and 8.30 pm. On days when India or CSK played, the evenings would last longer. As a general rule, there would be no dinner but several starters, at times specially curated by Sankar’s daughter-in-law, Sukanya. Longer evenings meant pizzas ordered in along with home-made thayir saadam. Sankar’s Sunday invitation went from SMS to WhatsApp to voicemail. Every Sunday, his invite began in exactly the same way: ‘Gentlemen, this is Sankar. I will be delighted if you can join me…’

If, in the heat of watching a game, some members forgot themselves and hurled fruity curses at the TV, Sankar was always cool and quite enjoyed the histrionics.

The purpose of the Sunday group was always ‘…fun, friendship, and fellowship – no serious stuff…’ to quote a couple of regulars.

Chandra Sankar has expressed her belief that these meetings went a long way in helping Sankar stay positive and cheerful as illness slowly claimed him.

Ravi says: “Just two months ago, our Sunday group met at Sankar’s house and had a wonderful, happy time. Little did we know then that it would be the last time that we were destined to be with this wonderful person. Each of us, in his own way, is struggling to accept this.”

You listen to all they have to say, and then you have to ask: What is it about Sankar that made him ‘Sankar’?

According to Kumar, Sankar was the very personification of an ideal mentor.

For L. Lakshman, Sankar, for all his hard-charging, professional demeanour, was ‘Mr. Compassion personified’.

For Ravi, the answer is: Pure Class, Dignity, Charm and Charisma, and these qualities came both naturally and abundantly.

In spite of his tremendous success in business, he had somehow developed a tremendous sense of equanimity – Samatvam – staying in sharp focus, but also balanced in approach to work. While he certainly appreciated success, he never allowed it to get the better of him. Equally, he never languished in sorrow when things did not work out.

N. Kumar quietly states, “I will miss his company, his advice. I will miss sharing an evening with him.”

This piece, in the interest of deadlines, is perforce but a cursory sample.

You know, of course, that there are many, many more people with countless more stories.

For N. Sankar was among those who, upon departure, leave very large shapes of emptiness in the lives they leave behind.

So how do you overcome such huge gaps in your life?

Perhaps in the way you live your life from this moment on.

In how you view life.

In the decisions, the choices, made.

Integrity, understated excellence, a quiet elegance of mind, measured speech yet a sharp, sometimes even wicked, sense of humour, and an ability to see value in every layer, every shade of life – qualities observed, learnt and incorporated into your life.

Perhaps then, the very real emptiness will fill with value, with meaning.

Comments

  1. calicut krishnan subramaniam says:

    SANMAN SANKAR

    The death of well-known industrialist N Sankar yesterday is an apt occasion to talk of one small geographical belt that has thrown up pioneering entrepreneurs from TN: Kallidaikurichi.

    From this quaint town in Tirunelveli district and nearby areas have hailed some top industrialists.

    The most well known is, of course, S N N Sankaralinga Iyer, the founder of Sanmar and India Cements group, and the grandfather of N Sankar. It is after Sankaralinga Iyer that India Cements sold its products under the brand name Sankar Cements. the towns of its industrial plants in TN are named: Sankarnagar and Sankaridurg.

    Apart from Sankaralinga Iyer, India Cements other founder T S Narayanaswami (N Srinivasan’s dad) also belonged to that Kallidaikurichi belt. From Kallidaikurichi itself came K R Sundaram Iyer who set up the Royal Enfield company in 1955 to manufacture the famed motorcycles.

    Another well-known output from Kallidaikurichi was Eswaran Iyer, who started as a trader in bicycles through the Easun Group, which is now well established company for electrical power solutions.

    K S Vaidyanathan of Paterson & Co was also from Kallidaikurichi. Paterson, a stock broking firm, was responsible for the first public issue in independent India in 1948. As it happens, the IPO was India Cements’.

    Not too far from Kalliddaikurichi is Alwarkurichi, which is the home town of S. Anantharamakrishnan, founder of the Amalgamations Group, which is into automobiles, plantation and trading, among others.

    And around 50kms from Kallidaikurichi is Thirukurungudi, the birth place of Sundaram Iyengar of the eponymous TVS Group about which nothing new needs to be said.

    When you talk of industries in TN, you talk of Coimbatore-Erode belt. Of course, Chennai, being the capital city, has plenty of names to boast.
    But do remember, Tirunelveli district has contributed a lot and deserves to be acknowledged for the same.

    P.S. Kallidaikurichi is equally well known for appalams and the quaint ‘rettai appalams’ (a kind of a cousin to papadams, but now looks to be sadly defunct).

    To add, little away from Kallidaikuruchi, there is a town called, Elathur. From here came HD Rajah, freedom fighter and MP. He also founded Vanguard Insurance and was contemporary to TS Narayanaswami, Ganapathy Iyer and Rane.

    A school he has founded is still running at Elathur.

  2. calicut krishnan subramaniam says:

    THANKS FOR ACCEPTING MY RIP ON SANMAN SANKAR

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