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Profile: Namita Panjabi

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-03-07

If India is "everywhere" these days, if Indian fashions and cuisine and styles and brands are ubiquitous in America and most everywhere else, the question naturally arises: "Well, how did it all begin?"

The question could also be framed another way: "How did India suddenly become the 'It' thing, the place where American and other investors want to go to tap a market of 1.2 billion people, of whom 350 million belong to a growing middle class -- the world's biggest such cohort?"

For answers to these questions, one need look no further than Bombay-born, Cambridge-educated and New York-toned Namita Panjabi.

"I was present at the creation," she said yesterday, during a weekend visit from her home in London. "I was there when it all got started in the late 1970s. I was right at the forefront when India was transformed from an exotic, distant country to a culture that everybody wanted to know more about, a culture that had merchandize to offer to stores in America and the West."

Fast forward to 2005. In her current avatar, Ms. Panjabi is London's undisputed restaurant rani, or queen. She presides over a growing empire of haute cuisine establishments that feed more than 500,000 people each year. Her latest enterprise, Amaya in London's fashionable Belgravia, has a waiting list of nearly a month. Her first restaurant, Chutney Mary of Chelsea, was selected by the Curry Club of Britain as the best of the country's 8,000 Indian restaurants. She's feted at soirees, and she's toasted by television talk-show hosts, British critics, salivating for more Asian fare, simply cannot seem to get enough of the Panjabi style.

So, the reporter asked Ms. Panjabi, how does it feel to have been reincarnated several times in one still-young lifetime?

"I once went to this astrologer, and he looked at my hand said, 'This is a unique hand,'" Ms. Panjabi said. "You're going to be doing something new every seven years. Well, that's more or less what's happened in my life."

The progeny of a middle-class Bombay family, Ms. Panjabi studied economics at Newnham College, Cambridge University. She was hired as a merchant banker by Grindlays Bank, and then by Midland Bank, and was dispatched to grow the Indian market. She thrived.

"While my commercial instincts were being fulfilled, my creativity was yet to find full expression," Ms. Panjabi said. She and her sister, Camelia -- who's since become an internationally acclaimed cookbook writer -- decided to dabble in jewelry and textile exports. Through serendipity, the sisters met Marvin Traub, then chairman of Bloomingdale's.

"Marvin wanted to celebrate India," Ms. Panjabi recalled yesterday. "He wanted to see India through my eyes. We traveled the length and breadth of India together, getting a feel for the immense ethnic diversity of the country -- which is a continent, in reality."

Out of that collaboration sprang Bloomingdale's first India festival, appropriately called "India: The Ultimate Fantasy."

"Bloomingdale's was the first store in the world to make it happen for India," Ms. Panjabi said. "Everybody's eyes opened to India. I remember the sheer excitement and fun of being in New York during that time."

Mr. Traub -- who has since retired from Bloomingdale's and has recently launching a new project, Murjani Traub India Limited, with Mohan Murjani, to assist global retailers to come to India -- has been rightly hailed for his role concerning India. In the retail industry, he's considered the man whose smart merchandizing and savvy promotion gave India a fillip in the American market. What's less known is that Namita Panjabi's energy, knowledge of Indian culture and vast network of indigenous contacts were equally -- if not more -- responsible for India's arrival on the world stage.

"Marvin taught me that God is in the details," Ms. Panjabi said. "He taught me that what makes something -- a product -- wonderful is the way it's prepared and presented, the color, the size. If Indians ended up creating what I call OTTS -- 'over the top style' -- then Marvin Traub certainly taught us that your product needs to fit people's lifestyle. To shape an ethnic craft to fit a foreign audience's lifestyle -- that's what good merchandizing is all about.
Indians have an innate sense of style -- it has evolved over the millennia -- but I think what I brought to the business was timely marketing."

Namita Panjabi's other signal achievement was to persuade Indians themselves to be more accepting of the arts, crafts and domestic products of their 5,000-year-old culture.

"For too long, we Indians used to be enamored of everything foreign," Ms. Panjabi said. "Maybe that mindset went back to the days of the British Raj, when English goods flooded our markets. But what struck me, as I was marketing India to the world, was, 'Why don't Indians bring their own products into their own homes?' Today, Indians are reveling in 'India style.' It's very fashionable, it's very hip. But it's also very affordable to be ethnic in India."

It was her marriage to Ranjit Mathrani, an investment banker that took Ms. Panjabi to Britain. It was a random suggestion by her sister Camelia that led her to start Chutney Mary. That was Avatar Three of her reincarnations.

As she spoke, it occurred to the reporter that the astrologer's vaunted "seven-year" continuum could quite possibly suggest Avatar Four, some new venture for Ms. Panjabi. So he ventured a guess: New York?

"Ah, New York," Ms. Panjabi said, instantly giving away her private dream. "But the New York restaurant scene is so fluid; London is a lot more stable. I'll tell you this, however -- what New Yorkers are getting by way of Indian food needs to be upgraded."

So did that mean --?

"Indian food is very sophisticated, it's a very complex cuisine consisting of 50 or 60 different regional menus," Ms. Panjabi said, refusing to be drawn into revealing anything definite. "In Britain we changed the perception of Indian food from something cooked in a pot by stevedores who'd jumped ship to something very, very classy. That's a slow process. It's a long ride. I don't want to spend all my time in planes crossing the Atlantic. I like to be lodged in one place. I'm quite comfortable in London right. But if an established New York player with the right connections comes along as a partner, then we'll see."

Just see?

"It's very, very tempting to shake up New York with great Indian food," Ms. Panjabi allowed. "I like new challenges, I like to set style. I like to --"

She stopped. But the reporter had already caught the glint in Namita Panjabi's eyes.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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