KANAKAVALLI VIGNETTES : Gayathri Sandeep - Learning, Loving, Living
Kanakavalli’s November Vignette, Gayathri Sandeep, effortlessly inhabits many roles—as the CEO of a hospital, as a corporate trainer known for her creative ideas, as a daughter, a mother, a wife, and as an independent woman with varied interests and passions. In this delightful conversation, Gayathri takes us down memory lane to her childhood filled with a love for music and the arts, and a grandmother who inspired her with her entrepreneurship and energy. Having restarted her Bharatanatyam training after getting married and becoming a mother, Gayathri opens up about what dance means to her as a powerful form of expression. With a family that supports her and challenges her, and a husband who believes in an equal division of labour at home, Gayathri is able to pursue her diverse hobbies, from gardening and working out to travelling and writing about the saris she loves. Remembering her grandmother’s impeccable taste in kanjivarams, Gayathri tells us about her own collection and her love for the drape. For Gayathri, who loves to fill her days with connection and activity, beauty lies in being true to herself. Taking time out of a schedule that is always packed to the brim, Gayathri browses the Kanakavalli repertoire to curate a selection that reflects her joyful energy. Excerpts of the conversation below…
Learning, Loving, Living
I’ve heard a saying that parents and grandparents never die, because they live on through their legacy, passed down through the generations. When I think of my childhood, I always think of the inspiration that my grandparents and parents have been to me.
My maternal grandmother, who we fondly called Rajam Paati, left the most lasting impression on me. Married at the age of 13 to a young man of 17 who later rose to be an income tax assistant commissioner, she was far ahead of her time. She was an incredible multitasker who beautifully played the role of a government servant’s wife, while running a stainless-steel factory and a small-scale dairy business. She didn’t do this for the money, but because she said she needed to have a purpose in her life. She was famous for her mango pickles, and insisted all her grandchildren learn the value of selfless service. In addition to all this, she also played badminton at the Ladies Club, clad in a kanjivaram sari! Everything she did, she did with great enthusiasm, inspiring me in more ways than one.
Above (clockwise from top left) : Gayathri with her grandparents who were an inspiration to her; After receiving a prize from M.S. Subbulakshmi for an arts competition while in school; Gayathri and her husband Dr. Sandeep at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar; A photograph of Gayathri's parents who always encouraged her.
I grew up in a family that appreciated and engaged in the arts. My grandmother played the violin and my mother is a trained kuchipudi dancer, while my father, an advocate, is trained in Carnatic music and is very fond of singing bhajans. In fact, music played a role in bringing my grandparents together. My grandmother travelled by train to meet my grandfather for the first time in Vaizag before their marriage was arranged, and as soon as she embarked, she took out her violin and played for him. My grandfather says it was love at first sight when he saw this young woman play the violin on the platform of the railway station!
I believe that everything I imbibed from my family has been invaluable for the work I do today, from the idea of serving a purpose to the value of creativity.
One of the best things that ever happened to me was meeting and getting married to Dr. Sandeep. I wanted to become a doctor when I was younger, but after getting a degree in Pharmacy, I decided to do an MBA in management and marketing. After spending a few years at a multinational company, I got married and started working in the family business. My father-in-law, Dr. NS Murali, guided me through the workings of the family-run Seethapathy Hospital, helping me hone my skills in the care and management of the facility. From him I learnt about how leadership can and should be compatible with the satisfaction not only of patients but also of hospital staff.
Unfortunately, both my parents-in-law passed away within a month of each other, and my husband had to take over his father’s practice as a surgeon, leaving the management of the hospital to me. Fortunately, my father-in-law had prepared me to become the CEO, and with the support of my husband and my sister in law, Dr. Uma Ram, I was able to take over. Over the years, we have gone from one of the oldest hospitals in Chennai with just six beds, to a 60-bed, multispecialty facility. I have learnt lessons I will never forget in facing obstacles and scaling up.
In addition to my work at the hospital, I have also been a corporate trainer for many years, something I truly cherish and enjoy. I always remember my grandmother, a mother of six who filled her time with activities, interests and entrepreneurship, and I draw inspiration from her every day.
Dance as expression
As a child, I learned Carnatic Music, yet I always had a special love for dance. I began training in Bharatanatyam, but in the 9th grade academics took over and I had to take a break. It was only after getting married that my mother-in-law and husband saw how much I missed the art form and encouraged me to return to it.
This is how I found myself a student of dance again after my daughter was born. I trained under my teacher Smt. Radhika Vairavelavan for ten years before I made my debut on stage at the age of 40. My eleven-year-old daughter was the master of ceremonies at my first performance, and Smt. Vyjayanthimala was our chief guest. It was truly a memorable occasion.
Above (clockwise from top left): Gayathri and her guru Radhika Vairavelavan with the great Vyjayanthimala; An old photograph of Gayathri when she first started learning Bharatanatyam; For Gayathri, dance is divine energy; With her guru, who began teaching her when Gayathri was almost 30.
To me, dance is divine energy. When I dance, I become the character I am performing. I can transform from a woman forlorn with love to a goddess devouring evil. I can be challenged by forty-five minutes of non-stop dancing with complex footwork, while trying to coordinate with the singers and the music. Dance gives me freedom from the mundane, and allows me to explore what it means to be a woman. It allows me to express myself, but it also teaches me to control my emotions. The lessons that dance has taught me have made be a better leader and a better person.
On my travels, when I encounter communities who speak different languages, dance gives me a universal language to express myself in. I believe body language speaks more than words, and I feel fortunate to be able to communicate in this way.
I will always be so grateful to my teacher, who accepted me as a student despite my age. She recognised my yearning to complete my training and taught me in the most graceful way possible.
A woman at the workplace
When it comes to my work, I firmly believe in two things. First, every day is a new day, and second, I want to be an inspiration to the people I work with, as a leader and as a woman. To me this means dressing with care, no matter how simple my work saris are, and communicating meaningfully with my staff.
I was very fortunate to marry into a family that treats everyone equally; where there is absolutely no gender discrimination. We carry this value into our hospital, and take the safety of women very seriously. Still, I have seen nurses who struggle to come to work, facing restrictions from families who do not want them to achieve financial independence. I’ve seen others who are abused by their husbands and still come into work the next day. I hope that our policies can support women to achieve their goals without obstacles.
Above (from top): Gayathri with the hospital staff during a cooking competition organised during Breastfeeding Week; With the team of doctors at the family-run Seethapathy Hospital.
Some of the greatest highlights of my career are to do with the relationships I have forged and the extraordinary experiences I have had. However, there are also achievements I am proud of. As a hospital, we have achieved the NABH accreditation three times, an arduous but satisfying process. The AHPI awarded us the Hero of India Award for our flood relief work in Chennai in 2016. In 2018-2019, the CII-FICCI awarded our clinic the Award of Excellence in Patient Care in the Small Hospital Sector, something I really cherish.
I believe in the power of learning and I am constantly upgrading my skills, doing courses to improve my understanding of the healthcare sector and to upskill as a trainer. I also conduct several courses myself, including one I created to impart communication skills to nurses. I support various companies with content structuring, and conduct movie-based retirement workshops as a corporate trainer. Each time I am invited back to conduct a workshop at a company, I feel a deep sense of accomplishment.
Life beyond work
I like to be active and busy in all my waking hours, making sure that everything I do enriches me and those around me. I see my life in four parts—time for myself, time with my husband, time with my children, and time with friends and relatives. My ‘me’ time is spent working out, walking along the beach, and, more recently, gardening. I spend a little time in my vegetable garden every morning and I absolutely love it. I was inspired by my brother Vijay and sister-in-law Dr. Bhuvaneswari who have the most beautiful garden with over 50 varieties of flowers. Growing my own organic vegetables has been the most satisfying experience. I also love to read and to write—I read the works of great teachers as well as corporate training books, and I enjoy writing about saris.
Above (clockwise from top left): Gayathri with her son, her greatest supporter; With her husband Dr. Sandeep at the Valley of Flowers on the trek to the pilgrimage site of Hemkund Sahib; The entire family, with their beloved dog; Gayathri loves her garden and has recently started growing her own vegetables; Her home is filled with light and greenery; Gayathri with her daughter who she says knows her inside out.
My husband is a busy surgeon, but he is very good at maintaining a work-life balance. When we first got married, he would often take me out for ice-cream after his shift—which was a relief because I thought all doctors would be very serious and boring! We still make sure we get our time together every evening, whether it’s going out for a meal or just chatting before retiring to bed. When our children were young, we spent all the important minutes of our days with them, and they now have wonderful memories of their childhoods. My daughter is my greatest critic; she knows me in a way nobody else does. My son is my biggest support, who always notices when I’m wearing a new sari and pays me a compliment. My children bring such interesting perspectives to my life—I always say one is a dewdrop and the other is a drop of sunshine.
The division of labour in our home is very equal–something I really cherish. I’m able to do the things I love only because of how supportive this family is. Our beloved dog is an important member of the family too—he mediates in moments of anger and sadness.
I have the most wonderful friends from school and college, as well as the spouses of Sandeep’s school batch with whom I love to get together and travel. I’m also lucky to have a group of workout buddies, who enjoy going on treks and hikes together. I enjoy connecting with people, and truly value the time spent with friends.
Inspired by my grandmother’s seva, I have also tried to find ways to give back to society in small ways and to make a difference. Whether it is by supporting weaving communities and temples or conducting health awareness programmes through the hospital, these little things offer immense satisfaction.
A collector of saris
The first time I wore a sari, I was 11 years old. My mother tells me that when I was even younger, I’d wear a sari with my school shirt as a blouse and act like a teacher. I grew up watching my paternal grandmother wear a 9-yard kanjivaram every single day of her life, from simple understated ones at home to grander weaves for festive occasions. My mother wore the simplest of saris and jewellery and yet always looked elegant. I have always imagined that a sari represents possibilities—when you drape a sari, you can be whoever you want to be.
Growing up in Chennai, there was only one sari store where my grandmother had her saris made to order. She would spend all day at the store, specifying the exact colours she wanted, the design of the borders and the pallu. She would ask for a vazha poo vaira oosi in the colour milagai pazham, for example. She was always admired for her taste in saris, and even today when I visit the store, the owner and staff recognise me and call me by my grandmother’s name!
Above (clockwise from top left): Gayathri as a child dressed up in a sari; With her mother in matching kanjivaram saris; With her grandmother, mother and aunt, all dressed in kanjivarams.
My husband has always supported my love for the sari, bringing back saris from every state he travels to on work. I have Benarasi weaves, Maheshwaris from Madhya Pradesh, Paithanis from Maharashtra, and painted Mundus from Kerala. Some of my favourite saris in my wardrobe are also gifts from my sister-in-law Dr.Uma Ram. I think that when someone with an eye for beauty, which she definitely has, picks a sari for you, it draws you out of your comfort zone and encourages you to try new things.
My husband also enjoys photographing me in my saris, and I started posting these photos on Facebook along with information about these diverse and beautiful handloom crafts. My interest has grown over the years, and those Facebook posts have inspired a coffee table book that I’ve been working on for the last year. It is my take on what the sari means to Indians—as a way of life, a garment woven with emotions and memories. I want it to be a feast to look at and read, inspiring more people to discover and wear handloom saris. As I researched my book, I also found that there is very little documentation of the sari from before the 1920s. Fortunately, people like Ahalya are doing such wonderful work, documenting and preserving craft traditions.
My love for the sari runs deep, and it has become a big part of who I am.
On beauty & tradition
Beauty, according to me, is being true to oneself. I find beauty in life—having a cup of tea in the rain, observing the intricate patterns on the wings of a butterfly, running on the beach at sunrise. There is beauty in hard work and creativity; in fighting for your dreams and following your passions. Being self-aware, introspecting and showing empathy are the basis of Indian tradition. I don’t think there is a culture anywhere else in the world that has been more tolerant of diversity. India has been a cradle of spirituality, where tradition stands strong while allowing us to maintain our individuality.
On the Vignettes kanjivaram
I’ve bought and loved several kanjivarams from Kanakavalli, but what I particularly love about this one is that it adapts to every event, from the grand to the small. It has both silver and gold zari woven into it, a rare and beautiful combination. I love how the design mixes the old and the new—a design popularised by MS Subbulakshmi, and revolutionised by Ahalya!
I have worn the sari for international conferences and golu visits, with lots of contrast blouses and different jewellery. Each time, it feels like a different sari.
Gayathri is wearing a black kanjivaram embellished with checks in gold and white. Thuthiripoo and diamond patterns adorn the pallus amid hints of white, while the pallu features a diamond band edged by peacock, deer and floral motifs in gold zari.
- Gayathri Sandeep, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant.
View Gayathri's accompanying guest curation here.