This interview almost didn’t happen. You see, R. Seshasayee has never — in all his years as one of Chennai’s most respected corporate leaders — given a purely personal interview, one not about his vast experience and knowledge of the automobile industry, but about his other interests and dimensions, his charitable work, his artistic talents and his philosophy towards life. And this interview request too, like others, was on the verge of being politely turned down.
“Then my wife gave me a talking to for 15 minutes,” says the long-time managing director of Ashok Leyland with a smile when we finally do meet. “I said I didn’t feel comfortable talking about myself, and she said, ‘Most people know you from just one angle, and it’s time you changed that!’”
That angle is, of course, his role as a visionary leader at Leyland for the last three decades (he’s been MD since 1998), and his high-profile participation in organisations such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) (he’s served as president of both).
But here’s something you probably didn’t know. He’s also an artist who has done portraits and magazine illustrations, a Tamil writer and poet, and a lover of Carnatic music who trained under Maharajapuram Santhanam. And that’s just the beginning.
“I’ve always believed that every person has many desires and talents, and that it’s necessary to develop them all to be holistic,” he says. “There must be one anchoring interest, of course, a central calling in your life, but it’s perfectly feasible to be many things.”
He gained this perspective from his multi-faceted parents — his father, M.S. Ramaswamy, who’s a lawyer, a musicologist, a tennis player, and an entrepreneur, and his mother, Vasumathi Ramaswamy, a well-known Tamil writer and novelist, a social activist and an orator. “Growing up watching them, it was natural to pursue different interests,” he says.
So during his college years, he painted cinema posters (“we worked on huge banners — it was a very laborious process”) and was the staff artist for the short-lived magazine, Mala. “In fact, in my early years, I didn’t think of being a chartered accountant or an engineer, just an artist,” he says. (He eventually did go on to become a chartered accountant.)
He also, fascinatingly, was a ghost-writer for his mother towards the tail-end of her career, he reveals: “This is not to take away anything from her — she wrote several hundred short stories, novels and essays — but at that time, she was unwell and struggling to meet deadlines, so I’d finish stories or rewrite them for her.”
Once, for instance, he wrote the next instalment of a radio serial she was working on while he was travelling from Madras to Tuticorin by train for an audit of a food corporation. “I finished when I reached and posted it straight to AIR… She never even had a chance to read it before it went on air!” he laughs.
Today, he still paints and writes Tamil poetry in his spare time, though, he says with a smile, they’re not for the public eye. His active involvement with Carnatic music too came to a halt with the untimely passing of Santhanam, but he retains his interest and thirst for knowledge on the subject. “I definitely want to do an M.A. in Music, when I find the time,” he says.
Time is something Seshasayee seems to have a special relationship with. Apart from his demanding career, he finds time to be involved with 17 — yes, 17 — different organisations, including charitable organisations such as SCARF and the Indian Cancer Institute, and educational institutions such as the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT).
“Thinking about what you can do to touch as many people and institutions as you possibly can is part of living holistically,” he says. “We don’t function as individuals in isolation; it’s important to get connected with our society, our world.”
Ask him how he manages to do it all, and he laughs, “I get asked that often. But, you can be very productive if you think through all your actions in a focused way; that way you don’t waste any time.”
His reaction to his upcoming move at Leyland from managing director to executive vice-chairman (from April) is similarly clear-headed. “It’s necessary for the sake of the organisation to have a succession,” he says. “The next generation is coming up and we must make space for them.”
It’s all part of the larger evolution of his life, as he puts it: “You have to constantly ask yourself — where do I find joy next?”
For a man as multi-faceted as him, the answer could lie in one of many, many things.
While at Vivekanada College, he was an active leader in student politics.
One of his greatest ambitions when he was younger was to make a movie someday.
He is a gifted orator, with a talent for extempore speaking.
He enjoys reading Bharathiar’s poetry.