Satya Paul: The man who sought the beauty of the world

Updated on Jan 10, 2021 08:14 PM IST

Obituary: A son pays heartfelt tribute to his father and a life well-lived

Puneet says his dad, Satya Paul learnt about life by living it
Puneet says his dad, Satya Paul learnt about life by living it
ByPuneet Nanda

Writing about my father does not come easy. It is also unrealistic to encapsulate a life so rich into a short write-up. Whatever we may say now was not gathered from conversation, but from the context of witnessing his journey. We had a silent understanding, and what we shared did not need to be spoken. 

“Dad [Satya Paul] was barely over five years old when partition happened. Because of the hardships of those years, poetry, music and the arts were a refuge [for him]”

—Puneet Nanda

It came across to me, he learnt about life by living it. He was barely over five years old when Partition happened. The family started a tea stall at the railway station. I imagine the meagre beginnings, being sensitive to the pressing situations of survival and the natural yearning of a man to transcend them, propelled him to go beyond what is normally required of a young child. 

He had a love for poetry, music and the arts. Maybe because of the hardships of those early years, they were a refuge — the sheer joy of immersion into a world of beautiful expression would have uplifted and inspired. 

Classic Satya Paul saris came with funky prints like the Bindu sari
Classic Satya Paul saris came with funky prints like the Bindu sari

He was drawn to poetry, not only of the Indian milieu; he relished Maugham, Eliot, Frost, Hugo, and others. He related an incident from his early years, when he had the opportunity to attend a Ravi Shankar concert in Central Delhi. Somehow, he scrounged up the money he needed to get there and back, but when he got back and related where he had been, his father gave him a thrashing. He simply did not believe that a concert was what he had gone to. 

Explore to learn

Later, the family was allotted a plot in what we now know as Sarojni Nagar, where they opened two restaurants: Punjab Watani, run by his father, and the other, Albany Cafe, by him. He created it in a way that would allow the artists of that era to hang out and have long discussions on arts, philosophy, and, of course, politics and current affairs. He speaks of the many wonderful people he came in contact with at the time, like Arjun Dev Rashk or Jagjit Singh. I recall hearing in a conversation many years later that they used to tell Jagjit, if you want us to listen to you, you bring the whiskey. It was a rich period, when he worked really hard to keep up with the long hours of the café and his love for beauty.

The God of Cricket theme sari
The God of Cricket theme sari

By the mid-1960s, the pressures of running a cafe led him to seek other avenues of trade, and he found opportunity in textile retailing. He started in 1965, taking on the cottage emporium franchise from the government. By 67, he dissolved the arrangement and made his own — Handloom Emporium was born. Soon, he shut the restaurant and what we now know in hindsight, laid the foundations of success for the entire family. 

Key milestones in Satya Paul's life
Key milestones in Satya Paul's life

Marriage and family happened, and an era of intense travel to all parts of the country. This he did to learn about various weaving centres, which led to creative collaborations and a fine-tuning of products that he would proudly offer to his evergrowing clientele. He intuitively explored and took risks without thinking of them as risks. Exploration was a means of learning; risk a means to grow the business. He simply flowed with life as his heart guided him, fuelled by a rare kind of trust.

The “Ooogle”sari, which was part of the pop art collection
The “Ooogle”sari, which was part of the pop art collection

A very unusual parent, he gave children the full respect one would give to adults. Later, when we established the brand together, he never questioned me; we just worked together as joyously as two children would play with crayons and paper. 

“He created Albany Café for the artists to hang out. I remember hearing that they used to tell Jagjit Singh, if you want us to listen to you, you bring the whiskey!”

—Puneet Nanda

He encouraged us to pursue our interests and passions. One of his wishes was that we would learn some musical ability. This came much later for me when I started learning dhrupad from Ustad Nasir Zahiruddin Dagar.

A joyful life

By the mid 1970s, his innate seeking led him to the mainstream of his life; towards the exploration of the inner journey of consciousness. He started attending live talks with J. Krishnamurti and subsequently found Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who is also known as Osho. This not only set the tone for his own life, but that of the entire family. It transformed him into an even more open, generous, trusting human being, who exuded warmth and showered his love unconditionally. He was a charismatic magnet that people loved to be around.

A hand-painted, printed and embroidered Satya Paul sari with Om motif
A hand-painted, printed and embroidered Satya Paul sari with Om motif

After Osho passed on in 1990, he continued his journey, until he found Sadhguru in 2007, and took enthusiastically to explore spirituality through the path of yoga. Eventually moving to the Isha Yoga Center, he finally found his home, where he left gently, joyfully embracing his departure as totally he did his life.

His genuine seeking and the blessings of all the masters in his life have been the foundation of his life’s journey and his utter fulfillment. 

Puneet Nanda is Satya Paul’s son. He retired from the business 10 years ago and is now a volunteer at Isha Foundation

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From HT Brunch, January 10, 2021

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