On our 15th anniversary, we bring you inspirational tales of 15 trailblazers from the realms of travel, hospitality, F&B, conservation, and photography. These pioneers, innovators, and emerging trendsetters have not only revolutionised their own fields, but are carving out new paths for people to follow. May their journeys take you places! By Team T+L
Trailblazers: People To Watch Out For:
The Makings Of A Master
Chef Justin Narayan – Winner, MasterChef Australia
Winning season 13 of MasterChef Australia has made Chef Justin Narayan a household name. The former youth pastor delves into his culinary inspirations and spills the tea on his future plans. By Bayar Jain
Until April this year, Justin Narayan was a youth pastor in Australia—not the kind of job in which you make headlines. By mid-July, however, he had acquired global fame and a dedicated fan base around the world—all by winning one of the most popular reality-TV shows: MasterChef Australia.
Clinching the coveted title in Season 13, Narayan served a platter of global flavours on screen, dishing out Mexican, Taiwanese, Malaysian, Indian, and fusion recipes with equal flair. The chef, who has Fijian and Indian heritage, refuses to be limited by geography. “With access to YouTube, TV, and social media, you can get influenced by different places by simply being online,” he says. His trip to India in 2017 was a big influence, too. He says he wants to learn making crisp and thin dosas, and chicken pulao the way his mother cooks it.
Excellent cooking aside, Narayan’s quick wit and calm demeanour has earned him a huge legion of fans. It was no surprise that the 27-year-old chef—the eldest among three siblings—got along so well with the other contestants. “We had a lot of fun dinners, a lot of practice and reading, and [watching] movies. Football was on a lot, which we really enjoyed—or I did anyway!” There’s nothing he would go back and change from the show, except maybe “exercising more.” “I gained a lot of weight during the show. But, I was practising a lot and had to eat a lot of food—it wasn’t my fault! I simply sacrificed myself,” Narayan jokes.
Life after the show has been a whirlwind. He’s riding the waves of stardom and basking in the afterglow of his recent marriage to Esther Smoothy Narayan. In the kitchen, Narayan has been experimenting with different cuisines and mediums. “I’ll be making some content, showcasing the food that I love to eat and cook and also the incredible places we have here in WA (Western Australia). I’ll get some experience in the kitchen and work towards opening up a restaurant one day.”
The key, according to him, is to cook from the heart, avoid fitting oneself into moulds, and learning the basics. “Once you have that, you have a strong foundation to create the food that represents you. Just go for it and don’t be afraid!” Narayan signs off. We can’t wait to see what he whips up next.
Favourite dish to cook: Chicken curry
Favourite cuisines: Mexican and Indian
Bucket-list destinations: Mexico, Portugal, and Denmark for food; South America and Antarctica otherwise
Frames For A Cause
Malaika Vaz – Wildlife Filmmaker
Goa-born Malaika Vaz wanted to be a wildlife filmmaker since she was five. At 24, not only is she living the life she dreamt of, but also making waves along the way. By Rashima Nagpal
Not many five-year-olds know of Steve Irwin, the late Australian wildlife conservationist and TV personality, let alone be inspired by him to shape their lives. But Malaika Vaz was no ordinary five-year-old. As a child, she decided she wanted to do what Irwin did on TV.
Vaz followed through and went on to pursue a career in wildlife filmmaking. She dropped out of college to work as a wildlife researcher with a film production company. “I couldn’t imagine any [other] job being more perfect for me,” says Vaz.
But the journey to be a wildlife filmmaker in India doesn’t go through a well-paved road. There are no speciality schools, and only a handful of professionals to emulate. So, working with filmmakers shaped her training. “Making a film is an iterative process, and the more you practise, the better you get,” she explains.
When it came to choosing the stories she wanted to tell, there were no two ways. Adventure has been a big part of Vaz’s lifestyle; she’s a pro at cross-country horse riding, windsurfing, scuba diving, and mountaineering. “But I realised that adventure means nothing if we ignore the protection of the habitats we explore,” she says. “This is what fuels my need to tell stories about the challenges our planet faces and the solutions that can make a difference.”
So far, the National Youth Awardee has worked on around 20 films. Her favourite projects include the Green Oscar-nominated Peng Yu Sai, an investigative documentary about the illegal trade of manta rays; Living With Predators, a three-part series that explores how communities and big cats coexist in India; and On The Brink, in which she explores various endangered species in India, including red pandas in the Northeast. She has gone undercover in the biggest wildlife markets in China, crawled deep into bat caves, and tracked lions on foot. But some of her wildest experiences have taken place in the ocean. “I was recently filming with tiger sharks near a tiny island in the Maldives. I was focussed on filming three massive sharks right when I felt something nudge me in the back. I turned around and saw another massive tiger shark gently prodding my scuba cylinder to figure out what I was.”
Currently, Vaz is making a virtual-reality film on Himalayan black bears in Kashmir, while also working on projects for her own production house, Untamed Planet.
On the bucket list: Diving and filming in the Galápagos Islands; filming mountain gorillas in Uganda
Stroke Of Genius
Mee Jey and Jey Sushil – Travelling Artists
Art in exchange for a place to stay? This is the novel idea that has allowed Mee and Jey to travel across the country, while also making a positive social impact along the way. By Anushka Goel
To paint is one thing, but to leave a lasting impression with your work is another. Mee Jey and Jey Sushil (Mee and Jey) have managed to do the latter. The couple has travelled across 17 Indian states, painting murals in people’s homes, schools, orphanages, police stations, and even prisons. From animals to toy trains, the couple has painted a variety of subjects—and posted about them on their popular blog, Artologue: Art For All.
When they started, Mee and Jey wanted to paint and travel, respectively. “In August 2013, we decided we wanted to stay at a friend’s place, and as a barter, we would paint a small corner of the house. We weren’t sure if such a project would work, so we invited people to paint the walls of our home,” says Mee. Anybody who was interested in experiencing a creative process, whether they knew Mee and Jey or not, was invited, and nearly 50 people—engineers, doctors, corporate employees, journalists, photographers, school and college students—visited their home over four weekends. They painted everything from masks to favourite birds, a reinterpretation of the three wise monkeys, and abstract designs. The overwhelming response encouraged the couple to start travelling and painting walls across India.
In the process, the duo introduced many young minds to art. Once, when they were painting a school wall in Muther, in Bihar, some female students asked them if they could keep their paint brushes. “They told us they were seeing such colours and brushes for the first time in their lives,” recalls Jey. In Rajasthan’s Sheolpura village, when the art supplies weren’t enough for the entire school to participate, the couple made blue paint out of indigo and brushes out of dried twigs and threads from discarded rugs, thus delivering a lesson in recycling.
How does a commissioned artwork usually come about? “We show the family Mee’s [previous] work and ask them what they want. Then, question-by-question, we dive deep into the discussion, at times trying to evoke childhood memories. We pick the memories to work on,” explains Jey.
Though the couple moved to the US in 2017, they have places left to visit and people left to work with, in India. Jey pins the Northeast on the top of that list. In the meantime, they’ve continued their work. In 2019, they worked with undocumented migrants in Texas, crafting butterflies out of colourful clay. Why butterflies? “Because they know no boundaries,” says Mee, “and they symbolise the immigrants, who only add to the social and cultural beauty and wealth of the country they come to.”
Sisterhood Of Sustainability
Mrinalika and Akshita Bhanjdeo – Founders, The Belgadia Palace
Modern-day princesses Mrinalika and Akshita Bhanjdeo are setting new standards in sustainable tourism with their regal homestay, The Belgadia Palace. By Aindrila Mitra & Adila Matra
Mrinalika and Akshita Bhanjdeo are millennial princesses, so it’s rather apt that they are champions of the defining cause of this generation: sustainability. The second and third daughters, respectively, of the 47th ruler of the Bhanja dynasty, Maharaja Praveen Chandra Bhanjdeo, Mrinalika and Akshita have been instrumental in turning their ancestral home in Mayurbhanj, Odisha, into a living museum and luxury homestay.
The Belgadia Palace is an 18th-century Victorian-style palace that sits on a hill in Baripada, an obscure town in Mayurbhanj. The sisters began renovating the structure in 2015 and opened its doors to guests in 2019. “The idea was to run The Belgadia Palace as a startup where tourism offers employment to the local community and small enterprises get funding from travellers, who participate in artist residency programmes and invest in sustainable infrastructure,” they explain.
Sustainability practices range from simple steps such as the use of sabai grass, bamboo, and terracotta decor in the house, to bigger projects like waste segregation, composting, nutrition farming, and hiring and training youth from the local community.
Akshita is also the creative director of Karkhana Chronicles, an initiative that aims to highlight the work of local artisans. “The immediate vision was to provide different artisan clusters across India a livelihood through commissioned pieces and installations at iconic properties,” she explains. Mrinalika and Akshita have many milestones to be delighted about: from hosting 1,000 guests in two years to organising 100 Mayurbhanj chhau dance performances to distributing 300 ration kits to families affected by COVID-19. But the feat they are most proud of is being part of the Save Simlipal Campaign. “The recent forest fire that impacted Mayurbhanj brought to light the lack of political framework and community awareness on how to build and scale climate resilience,” the duo laments. “I was able to mobilise media and local civil society to advocate for research into the cause of forest fires. This has sparked in me an interest in using my skills to have the environment and communities around me thrive and not just survive,” adds Akshita. This thought summarises the spirit of the royal sisters as well as the ethos of The Belgadia Palace.
The Future Is Electric
Sandeep Mukherjee and Samarth Kholkar – Founders, BLive
Sandeep Mukherjee and Samarth Kholkar are the brains behind BLive, India’s first e-bike tourism venture. The power duo gets candid about everything from the inception of the idea to promising collaborations and what the future holds. By Adila Matra
What happens when two best friends—one, a die-hard Goan, and the other, a Finland-based marketing strategist with a penchant for sustainable tourism and clean technology—marry their passions? BLive, India’s first e-bike tourism initiative offering curated tours on smart electric bikes.
Launched in Goa in November 2018, BLive’s first tour was to the scenic Divar Island. While Finland-based Mukherjee came with immense exposure to the EV (electric-vehicle) ecosystem, Kholkar, originally from Goa, had a strong understanding of tourism. Soon after the launch, the duo bagged the coveted title of Goa’s official EV Tourism partners.
Since then, BLive has taken its patrons on offbeat trails in Coorg, Puducherry, Jaipur, Kanha National Park, and Mashobra, among other places. “We have conducted over 15,000 tours in the last two years,” says Mukherjee. “Each tour is curated in a way that e-bikes can take you through the entire experience in a single charge, so each tour covers 15-20 kilometres,” he adds.
Every circuit has a theme, like culture, island, food, history, or village. For instance, guests can ride to a 200-year-old Portuguese house in Goa and enjoy a traditional meal. In Coorg, they whiz through meandering paths that lead to an untouched lake and a coffee date at a local home.
In the next 12 months, Mukherjee and Kholkar want BLive to be present in 25+ locations with a fleet of nearly 500 e-bikes. They have partnered with hospitality chains such as Club Mahindra, The Leela, Radisson Blu, Hyatt, and Marriott to offer e-bike tours at all their property locations. “We have also signed an MoU with GCUK (Green Cross UK) to be their sustainable-tourism partner,” Mukherjee says.
But the project is not without its roadblocks. “One of our first challenges was to integrate e-bikes in a way that does not hamper consumer experience but enhances it,” explains Kholkar. “We ensured that, like a movie theatre, there are two timings. A morning show and an afternoon show. This not only ensures that the batteries are charged but also that the bikes are thoroughly checked for mechanical issues,” he says.
Both Kholkar and Mukherjee believe that sustainable tourism is the need of the hour, and that their venture plays a critical role in the revolution. “So far, we have saved 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide (emission) through our eco-friendly tours. That is the kind of positive impact our tours deliver,” Mukherjee says.
Favourite foreign destinations: Kholkar: Croatia; Mukherjee: Mexico
Favourite Indian destinations: Both of us loved Ladakh!
On the bucket list: Both: Norway for the Northern Lights, and Northeast India
Trailblazers: Pioneers & Innovators:
Leap Of Faith
Ishita Khanna – Founder, Spiti Ecosphere
Dehradun-born Ishita Khanna is the co-founder and director of Spiti Ecosphere, a social enterprise that is shaping the ecotourism landscape of the valley. She tells us about her serendipitous arrival in Spiti, what has brought her back every year since 2002, and how climate change is affecting the far-flung region. By Rashima Nagpal
Many a little makes a mickle. Ishita Khanna has proven the old adage right with her groundbreaking work in the field of sustainable development in Spiti Valley over the last two decades. A social-work graduate from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), she first arrived in the valley for a short stint with the Himachal Pradesh government in early 2000. By 2002, the mountain girl had made an ineffable connection with the locals—and a wonder plant called sea buckthorn—that led her to set up an NGO (Muse) along with two of her like-minded friends.
Spiti’s geographical isolation posed plenty of logistical problems for Khanna and her friends early on. There was zero connectivity in those days; mobile phone networks and internet are recent and still hardly stable. “Once, one of the processing units for sea buckthorn turned out to be faulty. It [sea buckthorn] has a two-week season. So, we had to take the unit to Delhi overnight, get it fixed, and bring it back in time, otherwise a year’s produce would’ve gone waste,” she recalls. In the second year, Khanna suffered a major tragedy: two of Muse’s co-founders met with an accident, and one of them passed away. Khanna persevered and took a leap of faith.
By 2007, Muse had metamorphosed into Spiti Ecosphere, a social enterprise focussing on livelihood interventions (water access, reduction of fuel-wood consumption, etc.) and ecotourism (family-run homestays; treks and tours led by local guides) in Spiti Valley. “The idea was to build a sustainable model that would generate enough revenue to support our projects,” she explains.
In 2009, the organisation introduced a volunteering model. Travellers could now give back to the region by volunteering to help Ecosphere in one of its projects. “It was when a bunch of our guests joined us in building our first greenhouses that the idea came about,” Khanna shares. Since then, people from around the world have come to Spiti and contributed artworks, handicrafts, and recipes; taught young children; helped in growing crops and building solar passive rooms, among other things.
Khanna spends half a year—from May to October—every year in Spiti, spearheading each project and looking after Ecosphere’s two cafes in Kaza. The rest of the year, when Spiti lies frozen in sub-zero temperatures, she works remotely, preparing for the next summer of interventions.
Jeremy Jauncey – Founder & CEO, Beautiful Destinations
The man behind Beautiful Destinations, Jeremy Jauncey, lives a postcard-perfect life on social media. But the true beauty of his mammoth travel community lies in its ethos of sustainability. By Sumeet Keswani
It’s safe to assume that anyone who is on Instagram and even remotely interested in travel has heard of, if not followed, Beautiful Destinations (@beautifuldestinations). One of the largest traveller communities on social media with 25 million people—across Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok—forms the foundation of the full-service travel marketing and media company of the same name. And its founder and CEO—the young, fit, and handsome Jeremy Jauncey—is every bit the perfect ambassador for beautiful travel.
Travelling the world with his partner, former Miss Universe Pia Wurtzbach, Jauncey lives a cloyingly perfect life on Instagram. But how did it all come about for the 36-year-old? By chance, as all good things do. “I left home at 17 to pursue a career in professional rugby in New Zealand. Growing up in Scotland, it (NZ) was about as far away from the UK as one could travel, and I connected through Singapore—a journey which changed my life forever and set me on the path for exploring a career in travel,” reveals Jauncey.
While his personal Instagram page looks like a series of cover shoots and wallpapers, the influencer is not just about looks and luxury. The reason Jauncey is so influential and here on our list of T+L Trailblazers is that he knows, and advocates for, the right way to travel. “Sustainable and regenerative travel are ways to enjoy the personal benefits of exploring the world, while ensuring [that] your investment of time, energy, and money goes into protecting the environments you are visiting and the economic benefits delivered to the host communities,” he says. So, which destinations are leading the way in sustainable travel? Rwanda, Iceland, Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Panama, says the well-travelled entrepreneur.
When you travel for a living, it can become tricky to choose one memorable experience. Jauncey’s pick is unique and unsurprisingly tethered to his ethos. “I was invited to name a baby gorilla at the Kwita Izina Celebration in Rwanda. That opened my eyes to conservation-focussed travel, as the increase in baby gorillas born each year is used as a proxy for the success of their sustainable tourism industry.” His bucket list features Norway and Fiji, and “so much of India!”
With a passionate belief that travel is a force for good and a firm grip on the power and reach of visual storytelling, Jeremy Jauncey continues to inspire travellers to tread the planet softly.
Chasing Love & Light
Joseph Radhik – Wedding Photographer
What do Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Anushka Sharma, Samantha Ruth Prabhu, and Kajal Aggarwal have in common? Joseph Radhik, the wedding photographer every Indian bride dreams of. By Rashima Nagpal
Before 2008—the year his sister got married—Joseph Radhik had not given wedding photography a single thought. As an IIM graduate, his career trajectory for the next 20 years was set in stone. But after witnessing his sister’s ceremony, he signed up to shoot a friend’s wedding, and then a few more, just for fun. It turned out to be a dream, he says. “Everything flipped within the first few months.” In 2010, his work started getting noticed, shared, and amplified far more rapidly than he had anticipated. “Wedding photography swept me away. I could see myself making photos for years on end,” he shares his epiphany.
One thing led to another and in 2011, he found himself shooting a wedding where India’s biggest stars were performing on stage and partying on the floor. In the middle of it all, his eyes were glued to the couple. That hasn’t changed in the last 10 years. “Weddings have gotten bigger, [and] decor has become more surreal, but my focus has always been on the love,” shares Radhik. Another aspect that hasn’t changed is his approach: to make photos of people’s big days from the eyes of a friend. “Which means unlimited access and empathy to feel [the] big moments and to document them in the most real way possible,” he explains.
Radhik has been a big part of the shift that Indian wedding photography has seen. With a timeless style of photography inspired by the world’s foremost documentary photographers and photojournalists, Radhik endeavours to chronicle and promote the Indian wedding. “The colour, chaos, diversity, and relationships present at an Indian wedding are unmatched. I’d be honoured if my work can show the world even a glimpse of how great Indian weddings are.”
Not to mention how great destination weddings are! Some of Radhik’s most memorable destination weddings made him experience a Tuscany winter, a frozen lake in Switzerland, the tropical wonders of Vietnam, and private islands in the Seychelles. “I constantly remind myself of the unbelievable life I get to lead,” says the cameraman. And yet, his favourite destination for a wedding is the bride’s home. “Nothing beats nostalgia, personalisation, and intimacy when it comes to celebrating a union of love,” he says.
Besides setting up a studio in Mumbai, Stories by Joseph Radhik, he has co-founded PEP Professionals, a platform for aspiring photographers. He believes, “Photographers operate in silos, and this can become a thankless and isolated job of sitting in front of the computer for days. PEP is at the centre of thriving photography communities where daily conversations take place: everything from learning, talking shop, and asking for help to trading secrets!”
Dream wedding destinations: Rann of Kutch, forests of Wayanad and Kaziranga
Where Rainbows Reign
Keshav Suri – Hotelier and LGBTQIA+ Rights Activist
Keshav Suri is on a mission to build safe spaces within the hospitality industry and shatter discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. The hotelier and philanthropist talks about his cause, its challenges, and the road ahead. By Bayar Jain
“In an industry like hospitality, our role is to provide comfort, love, and care,” says Keshav Suri, the youngest executive director at The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group. He took some concrete steps in this direction in 2018 by launching the Keshav Suri Foundation —right after the Supreme Court quashed the controversial Section 377.
Since then, the foundation has been working to embrace, empower, and mainstream the LGBTQIA+ community. “We are the official affiliates of the It Gets Better Project (an NGO that relies on inspiring media programming, educational resources, and international affiliates to empower the global LGBTQIA+ youth) in India and have also brought IWEI (Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index) to the country in collaboration with FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry) and Pride Circle,” reveals the hotelier.
Each milestone, however, has come with ample challenges. The biggest hurdles are the lack of understanding and the abundance of misconceptions about the queer community in the country. “One of the ways to change the perspective of society is to create positive role models within my community,” says Suri. The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group is leading by example, by forming inclusive teams across functions. “It is crucial for LGBTQIA+ folks, who aren’t accepted by their own families, to know that they can have it all,” he asserts.
The Keshav Suri Foundation, along with the Aditya Nanda scholarship for transgender students, also encourages other companies to hire candidates based on talent and not on their gender identity or sexual orientation. “The community members have been stripped off their talents for decades and shunned in a closet with minimal opportunities for growth,” laments Suri.
Acknowledging the progress in the industry, Suri admits that certain problem areas persist. “I would like to see more job opportunities and inclusivity in professions that are not front-desk and tick a box… and it’ll be genuine when people from our community are allowed to work in the fields they want to, without it being for publicity.” Until then, pride marches on.
Prateek Sadhu – Chef and Co-founder, Masque
Kashmir-born Prateek Sadhu’s Mumbai restaurant, Masque, just turned five and celebrated with yet another accolade. From transforming India’s dining scene to reinventing itself during the pandemic, the restaurant has come a long way. The 35-year-old visionary looks back at the milestones. By Adila Matra
Chef Prateek Sadhu is on cloud nine. His award-winning restaurant, Masque (masquerestaurant.com), has turned five and has also made it to No. 32 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021. When it opened in Mumbai in 2016, it brought forth novel concepts like a 10-course chef’s tasting menu, revolutionising India’s fine dining scene.
Sadhu was born in Baramulla, in Jammu and Kashmir, and he says he never intended to be a chef. “I wanted to be a commercial pilot, but I grew up in an environment where food was central. I went on to enrol in a hotel management course. There was a eureka moment [on] one of those days, and here I am,” the 35-year old says.
Masque was the natural course for Sadhu after he realised that “India is a gold mine of ingredients.” “Diversity is our biggest strength,” says Sadhu. And it is the channelling of this diversity that makes the modern Indian cuisine at Masque so niche and experimental. Sadhu says he gets obsessed with certain ingredients. Sea buckthorn is one of them. “Every September-October, we have a few dishes with the plant. I love the yakhni and the mackerel toast on our menu as well,” says Sadhu. The chef discovered sea buckthorn in Ladakh, which is special to him for many reasons. “I used to spend many childhood summers there. For Masque’s fifth anniversary, we decided to do pop-ups in five cities, ending with Ladakh. We made a version of sea buckthorn, barley chips with cured lamb, and finished the meals with seasonal fruits like apricots and grapes.”
How did Masque adapt during COVID-19 and manage to stay afloat while many other fine-dining restaurants shut shop? “One thing that really helped me was the idea of reinvention. I was pushed into a body of water—I had to swim or die,” he explains. “We were in survival mode—we created a concept called ‘tailgate’ where customers could book time slots via WhatsApp, drive in, and get served in the safety of their cars.” Masque also introduced Chef’s Picks, which featured a menu curated by a team member from the restaurant.
For now, Sadhu is basking in the five-year celebrations at Masque, and his team’s perseverance through the tough times. “I am obsessed with gongura now,” he chuckles. “I am putting it in every dish and getting teased by my team,” Sadhu confesses and disappears into the kitchen for his next cook.
Comfort food: Rice and rogan josh
Favourite cuisines: Mexican and Japanese
Favourite culinary destinations: Copenhagen and Mexico
Stars In Her Eyes
Shivya Nath – Travel Influencer
Nomad, activist, storyteller, and author—Shivya Nath is many things. The pioneer of solo-travel blogging in India gets candid about the different worlds she juggles. By Adila Matra
Shivya Nath began documenting her solo-travel adventures in 2011 when Instagram was still in its infancy and influencers unheard of. She launched her blog, The Shooting Star (the-shooting-star.com), at the age of 23; it has since been ranked among India’s and Asia’s best travel blogs. Keeping up with the times, Nath also embraced the world of Instagram (@shivya) with meaningful and impactful travel stories.
“I started blogging because there were so many negative perceptions of solo travel in India. I was having the most incredible experiences on my travels (mostly). I felt like the positive stories needed to be told as well,” says Nath.
Nath quit her corporate job in 2011 after working full-time for two years. “I realised that all my work was online, and I didn’t need all the stuff I had accumulated over the years,” she says. In 2013, Nath even gave up her rented apartment, sold most of what she owned, packed up her life in two bags, and began to live like a nomad—until the pandemic hit in 2020.
For her travels, Nath identifies places that are under the radar or in their off season. She tries to avoid flying, ditches regular hotels, and opts to stay at family-run homestays and eco lodges that actively try to reduce their environmental footprint. Distressed by the damage caused by commercial tourism, Nath began collaborating with organisations to create awareness and offer travellers a chance to give back to the places they were visiting. In Munsiari, she worked with Himalayan Ark to conduct Instagram and photography workshops for the locals. “In Spiti, I collaborated with Spiti Ecosphere to tackle the growing crisis of single-use plastic,” Nath adds.
During the pandemic, when a steep decline in tourism affected livelihoods, Nath co-founded Voices of Rural India, a digital platform to host stories from communities across India. “We’ve partnered with community tourism-oriented organisations across seven states to build digital skills among rural storytellers—and pay [them] for every story published,” she adds.
After more than a decade of solo travel, Nath has no plans to stop. And to those hesitant to take the plunge, she has a simple piece of advice: “Fear often keeps us from exploring the world on our own terms, and that’s a shame because solo travel can be extremely empowering and enriching. On my journey, I’ve learned that the best way to fight this fear is to surround ourselves with positive influences, both online and offline.”
Favourite Indian destinations: Uttarakhand, Odisha, and Kerala
Favourite foreign destinations: Iran, Guatemala, Georgia, and South Africa
On the bucket list: Mizoram, Nagaland, West Africa, Peru, and East Timor
The King Of Jewels
Siddharth Kasliwal – Owner, The Gem Palace
Siddharth Kasliwal, the ninth-generation owner of The Gem Palace, grew up watching uncut emeralds, rubies, and diamonds turn into cuffs, rings, and necklaces. The scion talks about what drives him to sustain his family’s 200-year-old legacy while also whittling it for a changing world. By Adila Matra
The Kasliwals were stone cutters and enamellers who first came to Jaipur in 1728 at the invitation of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, who was building his fortified capital. Soon, the city began to metamorphose into a hub of art, culture, and trade; the Kasliwals shifted base from Agra to Jaipur and were appointed as the crown jewellers of the king. In 1852, the family established The Gem Palace. The jewellery brand was popularised among Westerners in the 1990s by Munnu Kasliwal, father of the current owner Siddharth. More than 200 years after its inception, the brand continues to instil wonder in its patrons.
Ninth-generation owner Siddharth Kasliwal has huge shoes to fill. Staying relevant is one of the biggest challenges. “It is not just about living up to the name and continuing the legacy,” says the 32-year-old scion, who took over as the creative head of The Gem Palace after the death of his father in 2012. “You need to adapt to the fast-changing business environment. We still craft our pieces by hand, using centuries-old techniques, while everybody is getting into mass production. That is what sets it apart,” he adds. The institution, which houses some magnificent jewels from the Mughal era, has created heirlooms for kings and presidents around the world, and dazzled stars such as Mick Jagger, Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, and the late Princess Diana.
Kasliwal has launched stores in Mumbai and RAAS Jodhpur, and has exhibitions lined up in a few national museums. But did he always want to helm a 200-year-old business? “I had always been a fan of history and travel. I loved visiting museums and learning about civilisations,” he says. “I was 17 when I got the chance to work with dad at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had access to its gallery, and that piqued my interest in the business. I realised this field could feed my interest in history and travel.” Along with restaurateur Abhishek Honawar, Kasliwal also runs 28 Kothi, a modern boutique hotel in Rajasthan that is famous for hosting artists, designers, and writers.
Meanwhile, The Gem Palace did take a hit in international sales due to the pandemic but is seeing a lot of interest from Indian brides. “The kundan meena sets are famous. With the pandemic, brides prefer to wear one jewellery set instead of four, and they want that piece to be from us,” he says. “I have had brides tell me that their grandmothers were ‘Gem Palace brides’. It is a matter of trust and loyalty.” And that, for Kasliwal, trumps everything else.
In A Different League
Sumer Verma – Underwater Photographer
Sumer Verma wears many hats: partner in the oldest dive school of India; director at a reef conservation organisation; underwater photographer and cinematographer; and now, a hotelier. He reveals what it was like to navigate the waters of an unknown world two decades ago and what he’s eyeing next. By Sumeet Keswani
When a 21-year-old Sumer Verma first dived into the Laccadive Sea from the Bangaram island of Lakshadweep in 1997, there was only one dive school in the country. But he was so hooked that he kept returning for advanced courses to eventually become an instructor at the same dive school, Lacadives (lacadives.com), in 2000. Today, he says, there are 25 dive centres along the coastline, and many pool training facilities in metro cities.
Back in the early aughts, Verma developed an interest in photography while working on ad films with Prahlad Kakar—the founder of Lacadives and Verma’s would-be business partner. “When you go diving, you have crystal clear water, light filtering through the surface and creating beautiful streaks, and amazing marine life. You instinctively want to capture it,” says Verma. He began with videos since he didn’t have access to still cameras. “Video is more difficult—any body movement reflects in the footage,” he adds. Slowly, he started making paid videos for his diving clients.
While shooting video did make him a better diver and earned him extra cash to sustain his hobby, it would also shape his future. Cut to 2021, Verma has an impressive body of cinematography under his weight belt. After getting his break in Mariyan (2013), he has shot underwater sequences for Bollywood films like The Sky Is Pink, Raabta, Bhuj, and some big-ticket productions in Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, and Malayalam. His other source of income is fashion and ad shoots.
While he is no longer donning the instructor wetsuit, Verma’s love for marine life hasn’t dimmed. “Shooting wildlife is my therapy; I’m going to do it till the day I die,” he swears. That might also explain his other role, that of a director at ReefWatch Marine Conservation, an NGO started by the founders of Lacadives for ocean conservation, education, and research. In Andamans, the organisation is generating artificial reefs with broken coral fragments. “Three years on, squids, lionfish, cuttlefish, scorpionfish, boxfish, baby stingrays, and clownfish have congregated around these 10 reefs.” On the Goa-Karnataka coastline, it has set up two rescue and rehabilitation centres for injured and sick marine life that washes ashore.
Meanwhile, Lacadives has expanded its turf—with three dive centres on Havelock, including big contracts with CGH Earth and Taj, and two centres on Chidya Tapu, where they set up base in 2010. Verma and Kakar have also partnered to start a hotel, Big Tree Resort, on Chidiya Tapu.
A separate dream of his is coming true in Alibaug, where Verma has set up a temperature-controlled 20m x 10m pool with three depths for his conceptual brand work and film projects. “I will also conduct underwater photography workshops for those starting out,” promises the pioneer.
Favourite dive site: Darwin’s Arch (now called The Pillars of Evolution) in the Galápagos Islands
On the bucket list: Snorkelling with humpback whales in Tonga; diving with tiger sharks in the Maldives
The Snow Leopard Guardian
Tsewang Namgail – Wildlife Conservationist
Since 2000, Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust has protected the endangered big cat in Ladakh while also taking the local community under its wing. Its director, Tsewang Namgail, has been spearheading its groundbreaking work for the past eight years. By Bayar Jain
It’s true: no one knows a place better than the locals. The Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust or SLC-IT understands this all too well.
Co-founded in 2000 by the late Rinchen Wangchuk, a Ladakhi mountaineer and naturalist, SLC-IT is a not-for-profit organisation that embodies a grassroots approach, implementing nature conservation programmes and transforming locals into informed guardians of the enigmatic snow leopard. At the forefront of its efforts is Tsewang Namgail, the organisation’s director since 2013.
“We believe that conservation goals cannot be achieved without involving local communities in decision-making, planning, and implementation of programmes,” explains Namgail. The team focusses on building local stewardship through community-based tourism, education, and research, while also helping in the conservation of the snow leopard.
But each step taken towards promoting ecotourism encounters hurdles. A rugged terrain such as Ladakh is known for its high altitude, low temperatures, aridity, and resource limitations. While the SLC-IT team has developed snow-leopard tourism in the region to extend the tourist season beyond the summer months, making ecological sensitivity mainstream remains a challenge. “The fault lies with our education system. Textbooks fail to apprise students of India’s ecological diversity, and how citizens need to behave differently in different ecosystems,” says Namgail, who holds a doctorate in community ecology. To combat this, SLC-IT has contextualised educational materials and conducted trainings for the youth. Thanks to these, many young locals have now donned the roles of snow-leopard spotters.
While its base is in Ladakh, SLC-IT has extended its green initiatives to other regions. “We have collaborated with Ecosphere in Spiti and Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim, while also expanding the Himalayan Homestay Program,” explains Namgail. The organisation also conducts collaborative research on snow leopards outside Ladakh. “SLC-IT and Panthera conducted the first-ever camera-trap survey in Myanmar in 2017 to determine the presence of snow leopards in that country,” he elucidates.
Namgail sees ecotourism as the way forward for sustainable growth. But he’s all too aware of greenwashing trends. “Many travel companies lure customers into buying products that look benign but are inimical to the environment. Responsible tourists should carefully examine goods and services,” he cautions.
Vinod Kannan – CCO, Vistara
It is a year of milestones for Vinod Kannan. In 2021, the aviation veteran has completed 20 years of innovation in the industry and taken on the role of Chief Commercial Officer at Vistara. He tells us how he landed here and what the pandemic has meant for flying. By Rashima Nagpal
“Aviation is one of those careers where you get drawn in and perhaps stay until you find something better. I didn’t, so here I still am, 20 years later,” confesses a candid Vinod Kannan, CCO, Vistara.
Originally from Bengaluru, Kannan moved to Singapore for studies at 16. He graduated as a starry-eyed engineer, with an aspiration to see the world. So, he found a job at an airline. “My first job was to work on the Singapore Airlines (SIA) website, with the e-commerce team,” he shares. In about five years of working as an engineer—and on aspects like network planning, sales, and operations—Kannan realised he enjoyed working with people more than machines. Hence, he switched lanes to become a marketing executive, and eventually rose to become SIA’s Vice President.
With years of expertise under his belt, Kannan came on board Vistara as Chief Strategy Officer two years ago. “Jet [Airways] had just collapsed. It was an opportunity for Vistara to expand, and therefore a lot of work was required on the planning and operations fronts,” he explains. By January 2020, he had transitioned to the role of Vistara’s Chief Commercial Officer, which involved overseeing three verticals—planning (where to fly, which routes to operate, how to maximise revenue); customer-oriented services (including the website, branding, marketing, and loyalty programme); and B2B sales. In March 2020, then five-year-old Vistara made headlines for being the first Indian airline to welcome the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner to its fleet. Nobody knew a pandemic was about to take over the world.
In Kannan’s words, “Every day [since the pandemic began] has been a feat.” Flights had to be removed and added at short notice; phone lines weren’t working; contingency plans had to be laid out overnight. At the same time, the airline launched flights to more international destinations than ever before. Doha, Dubai, Sharjah, Frankfurt, and London are some of the international destinations the airline now touches. Recently, Vistara has launched the Purple Ticket—a flexible e-card that can be used for flying or personal and corporate gifting. In a remarkable feat, Vistara’s share in the Indian aviation market grew from 5.6 per cent in June 2020 to 8.1 per cent in June 2021. “It shows that people have trust in the brand. That’s something we’re very happy about,” Kannan says.
At the end of the day, though, Kannan is a family man. “I have two kids, 10 and five, and they keep me on my feet. As a family, we love to travel. And like any wise man, I let my wife plan the holiday,” he smiles.
Favourite destinations: Europe, Bali, Goa
On the bucket list: The Northern Lights; a cruise in Alaska or Antarctica
Favourite book: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari