Managing Director of the Sports Performance Assessment Rehabilitation Research Counselling Institute (SPARRC), Sujatha Pugazhendi always has her hands full, opening clinics, introducing new programmes and ideating for the future. Her work, she says, brings together her passion for sport with her passion for entrepreneurship. She takes a little time out of a hectic schedule for a chat with Aneesha Bangera for the Kanakavalli Journal. In this delightfully candid interview, Sujatha tells us about her journey in the world of sport and fitness with all its ups and downs; letting us in on the story of how she fell in love, and opening up about the greatest challenges she has faced, with vulnerability and honesty. And of course, she happily takes a few moments to browse through www.kanakavalli.com, picking some of her favourite kanjivarams from the repertoire which, she tells us, made her fall in love with the sari.
Tell us about how you came to the world of sports fitness…
When I was in school, sport was my passion. I was the captain of various teams, and was always out on the playing field. In fact, I was often missing in the classroom, but everyone knew they could find me somewhere on the grounds! In a sense, that’s where it all began. After school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. My mother was keen that I pursue medicine but I didn’t really feel passionate about that. At the time, I wasn’t very sure of Physiotherapy as a subject, but it seemed to combine my love of sport with what was expected of me, and so that’s what I chose. During those four and a half years, though, I was constantly filled with doubt. I wondered what I was doing with my life, and where I would end up. It was when I was doing my internship at the YMCA, Chennai, that I came alive again. I was amazed at the work Dr. Kannan – who was instrumental in setting up the Fitness Foundation Academy at YMCA – was doing there, and I realised how vast the possibilities for physiotherapy were. The world of sports health and fitness seemed to open up before me.
You and your husband Dr. Kannan have changed the way sports fitness is approached in the country. Can you tell us a little bit about your partnership, at work and beyond?
I met Dr. Kannan during my internship; he was heading the fitness programme at YMCA at the time. I was immediately in awe of him – the passion he brought to his work and his deep understanding of fitness really struck me. He was my mentor; I looked up to him in every way and learnt so much from him about sports injuries, functional fitness, the importance of nutrition and fitness schedules… Perhaps it was a combination of our shared interest in the field and his mentorship of me, but we had a strong connection and ended up falling in love. I have realised that we truly complement each other’s personalities, even at work – I’m a more dynamic, outgoing and active person, while he is far more poised and composed. I think that his knowledge and dedication, coupled with my enthusiasm, make us a strong team.
It is your entrepreneurial spirit that is credited for the foundation of SPARRC, a pioneering institute in the sports health field. How did the idea for this strike you?
After working with Dr. Kannan for a while, I realised that there was huge potential in the field of sports fitness, but that there were limitations in his model. I took it upon myself as a challenge, to explore how we could expand and set up centres of our own. Our first clinic was set up in 2006 in Poes Garden, Chennai, but we began branching out quite quickly. I was committed to expanding our reach, and every 6 months we were able to set up a new centre, or establish a new initiative. The SPARRC centres work with injury and pain management, injury avoidance and functional fitness. We focus on prevention (of surgery), and, in addition to physiotherapists, fitness trainers and other sports experts, we also have teams of nutritionists and psychologists, making it a truly holistic offering. With the rise of lifestyle diseases, we are also treating non-sportspeople, aiming to help a healthy population to stay healthy. We now have 13 centres across India, in Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Coimbatore, Delhi, Hyderabad and Tirupur, with over 200 specialists treating 1500 people every day. We have also recently set up an educational institute, the Indian Institute of Sports Medicine, which offers an undergraduate programme in Fitness and Lifestyle Modifications (BSc), and two courses for MBBS graduates – the Fellowship in Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation and the Fellowship in Fitness Medicine and Lifestyle Management.
What are some of the most lasting lessons your work has taught you?
I have learnt so much about myself over the years. I have always had an entrepreneurial streak, and setting up SPARRC allowed me to follow two of my passions –for sport and entrepreneurship. I realised, over time, that implementation is one of my greatest strengths. I have an idea, I pursue it and figure out the step-by-step process to put it into action. I think another of my strengths is creativity; I am constantly coming up with new ideas and plans. But most important of all, are the lessons from working with Dr. Kannan, I learn something new every day. As my partner at work and in life, he constantly guides me and teaches me, and together we are able to push the boundaries of what is possible.
Not only is the work you do at SPARRC ground breaking, but the institute has also grown by leaps and bounds in just over a decade.How would you define your work ethic?
My motto is to create a win-win-win situation – where everyone benefits from the work done. In every single thing I do, I try to see how we can make a difference and how all of us can benefit: my team, my clients and the environment and society at large. Customer satisfaction is my number one priority. We have never advertised for SPARRC, and its popularity is based entirely on word of mouth and happy clients. I think that is our success. People who come into SPARRC immediately make a connection with us, and become lifelong ambassadors for the work we do.
As a woman and an entrepreneur, what are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?
I think many women tend to put other people’s needs before their own, and I have become a victim of that thinking too. As women, we multitask every single day, juggling family and work commitments as smoothly as we can. I love being a wife and a mother, but the biggest challenge has been not to neglect my own well-being. Ever since I had a baby, I seem to have lost the drive to exercise. Given my passion for sport and fitness, this is the biggest difficulty I have had to overcome. I also suffered a personal loss two and a half years ago when I lost my mother. She was my greatest support, my backbone. I went through a very difficult time, unable to cope. I lost interest in everything and had no energy. While we all go through tough periods like this, it made me realise that physical and emotional well-being are so important. I think all of us, and women in particular, need to prioritise health, and do what we can for our bodies and minds.
What role does the kanjivaram play in your life?
I am not a regular sari wearer, to be honest, but I fell in love with Kanakavalli and its kanjivarams. At work, I’m usually in tracks and a t-shirt, by virtue of the field I’m in. But Kanakavalli made me want to wear kanjivarams! Kanakavalli is not just another sari shop for me. When I was going through one of the hardest periods of my life, just after losing my mother, it became a place of comfort and consolation, a healing spot. Being at the Kanakavalli store at Kingsley allowed me to forget the rest of the world for a while, and I could spend hours there by myself, or chatting over cups of coffee with Ahalya and the staff. I would lose myself in the beautiful combinations of colour, the stunning designs of the silks. It gave me great comfort and joy. Sometimes, we need to connect to something externally beautiful, to feel better about ourselves. In Chennai, apart from the beaches, we have few outdoor spaces and parks that offer solace and the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the world. But what Ahalya has created with Kingsley and Kanakavalli has become just that for me.
Every single Kanakavalli sari I own has a story of its own. This particular one that I’ve chosen to wear is very special. I was looking for a kanjivaram to wear for our housewarming, and I must have turned the store upside down to find the perfect sari. I finally chose this beautiful white kanjivaram with delicate silver checks, and it made me feel wonderful. It remains one of my favourites. I know the effort that goes into every single Kanakavalli kanjivaram – the commitment, creativity and passion. I think Ahalya’s personality and poise as an individual come through in the saris she curates, in colours and designs you don’t find anywhere else. And for me, that is what is truly special.
- Sujatha Pugazhendi, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera
EXPLORE SUJATHA'S GUEST CURATION HERE