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Meet Urvi Piramal

Meet Urvi Piramal

Photo Courtesy: Urvi Piramal.

Businesswoman. Conservationist. Wildlife photographer. Artist. Urvi Piramal is all these and more. An inveterate traveller, she has wandered the wilds of Patagonia, explored the Arctic and Africa and even negotiated the rugged wildernesses of Mongolia. But as she makes clear to Bittu Sahgal, her heart belongs to wild India, for this is where the tiger, the striped predator that has taken over her life, resides.

Who is the real Urvi Piramal?

My life is an open book. So basically, what you see is what you get! Of course, different people see different facets of who I am. But those who know me well know my wild side, my affinity for nature. I literally belong to the wild. That is the real me.

How did you fall in love with wild nature?

I am a reflective person and nature has fascinated me since my childhood. As a teenager, I loved the gentle sway of the monsoon, but would equally be mesmerised by the sheer, raw power of the monsoon sea along Marine Drive. I would find myself imagining what kind of creatures lay hidden, out of sight, beneath the waves. I guess that was the closest to a wild experience one could hope for in the city. But to answer your question… I think I was born with the love of nature programmed in my mind and heart!

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Ahmedabad, but I grew up here in Mumbai. But we were a travelling family. My father was a lawyer and the minute courts would shut, we would all be bundled into the car to discover different parts of India. Driving through the countryside and the vast forests that existed in those days, like most people I took nature for granted, imagining it was indestructible, eternal. I remember driving miles and miles and miles with my father, passing the vast forests of south India, central India and even the high Himalaya.


Very typical. Queen Mary High School, Mumbai and then B.Sc. at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

Not too much wildlife there, right?

Right and wrong. Most people think of tigers and elephants when the word ‘wildlife’ crops up. But where I grew up, the sound of birds followed us everywhere. Butterflies and dragonflies were commonplace. Frogs serenaded us at night. Our beaches were studded with marine life. We took all this for granted. Those birds, insects and other creatures that have managed to survive us, are still as wild as any you might find in the forest, though admittedly fewer in number. Of course, Bombay city was greener. Quieter. Cleaner. The Bombay of yesterday was already what your Kids for Tigers brigade wants the Mumbai of today to be.

A file picture of Urvi Piramal as a young girl. Early influences shaped her love for nature. Photo Courtesy: Urvi Piramal.

You and your late husband Ashok discovered Africa almost four decades ago?

Yes, Ashok and I discovered Africa early in our lives. My brother-in-law and sister had a factory in Kenya and invited us to visit them in Africa. That was way back in February 1974. The wide-open spaces and the dramatic beauty of Africa enthralled us. We were hooked.

And from what it appears, your entire family, grandchildren and all, are hooked.

Yes, I am so happy that my children are just as deeply interested in wildlife. Even more so, because my daughters-in-law love the wilds and have brought up their children, my beautiful grandchildren, to love and care for the wilds. As a family, we are constantly in search of wild places to visit and learn from.

What sculpted your wild side?

Too many to recall. How can I choose just one? Perhaps the migration of wildebeest and zebras as they gather to ford the Mara river. There is probably no comparable spectacle anywhere on the planet. You see herds and herds of them gathering on the banks of the river, plucking up the courage to swim the waters where they can see the crocodiles lying in wait. To the uninitiated, this may seem macabre, but in truth there is no cruelty in nature. It’s the cycle of life. We humans have much to learn from nature.

So two books in one package. Africa or India? Which one grabs you the most?

Both. Africa and India are very, very special in very different ways. I think in Africa you don’t merely see different kinds of animals, but the vistas are larger, grander. But in India we have the tiger. That beats anything the world has to offer. The thrill of never knowing whether you will see the tiger is what appeals to me the most. You are sitting quietly in the thick of the jungle. The alarm calls are sounding. The tiger is there you know. But where is it? That is the magic. Unless the tiger wants to reveal itself to you, all it needs to do is sit tight in the undergrowth and it becomes invisible. It’s like going out on a treasure hunt, for that is what the tiger is... a treasure.

How did the tiger manage to take over your life so completely?

Well, you take me back nearly 20 years. I had never seen a tiger. A dear friend of mine, Hemendra Kothari, insisted that we accompany him to the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. We chose to explore the forest from elephant-back and sat patiently as the mahout kept stopping and going, trying to pick up a trail to track the cat. Nothing. Then, at day’s end, as we headed for the exit gate, our elephant stopped dead in its tracks as the distinct roar of a tiger reverberated through the forest not far from where we were. My heart pounding, we waited silently for what seemed like an interminable amount of time. Soon enough, from what looked like just another patch of grass, out came this beautiful creature - orange, black and white, striped and with eyes of burnished gold. One look into those eyes and I was mesmerised. I knew at that moment that a love affair had begun. I was smitten. Totally in love with this beautiful creature. After that, every time I got half a chance, all I wanted was to be where I might see a tiger. The cat has literally taken over my life. Countless tiger sightings later, all I want today is to protect this amazing animal and all it represents.

Hemendra! I’m not one bit surprised. You were very close to his late wife Bindu with whom you shared so many wildlife adventures.

Yes. Bindu. I miss her so much. She was way ahead of me. The forest was her passion, her life. We found ourselves happiest in each other’s company in the remotest of destinations across India. Kanha, Tadoba and even far away Kaziranga in the Northeast, which I first visited when I was only 12. We had so many joint adventures in wild India. I think of her every time I am in the wilds.

And now that your children are handling much of the business, do you find more time to do what you love... being out in the wilds?

I think I always found time to go into the wild... when they were very young and even now that they are all grown up. The forest was and still is my escape. My life. Every visit to the jungle rejuvenates me.

A file picture of Urvi Piramal’s late husband, Ashok Piramal, with their children - Harsh, Rajeev and Nandan Piramal (from left to right). Photo Courtesy: Urvi Piramal.

What about wildlife photography? Learned on the job, or took lessons?

Learned on the job. I’m still learning. And am still very much an amateur photographer. Having said that, I did take a couple of very basic lessons from friends and so I am now more comfortable framing my images, using lenses in different light conditions… (laughing) using sophisticated SLRs is somewhat different to using the point and shoot cameras I started out with.

And what equipment do you use?

I use two Nikon bodies… a D500 and D800. And two Nikkor lenses, a 28-300 mm. and a 200-500 mm. zoom. My favourite is the 28-300 mm. Between these I manage to cover most situations.

How did the idea of the books come about?

I used to take photographs for myself to revisit and enjoy exciting times I had in the wild. Sometimes I would share these with like-minded friends, who would tell me how lovely the images were. Inevitably, I would also narrate my experiences. Many of my friends suggested I document my work for posterity and to share with more people. At first, I never entertained the thought seriously. But I eventually concluded that sharing my images could be one way of sharing my vision of nature with others who may not have taken, or perhaps never had the opportunity to experience true wildernesses. It was cathartic in many ways.  Sharing my love of wild nature and my own experiences has been magnified. I find almost as much pleasure today in making people aware of the natural beauty around them and sensitising them to its fragility as enjoying the outdoors myself. Thus, the books.

More books?

Not sure. Let’s see. Perhaps I might find yet another medium through which I can reach out to even more people. Some way in which I can awaken them to the true worth of our wild heritage, its connection to our own survival, and to how forests gift us our water security, our climate security, and influence the health of the planet on which we live.

It’s been a decade since you took charge of the Ashok Piramal Group. Anything you would  do differently?

Nothing. Not one thing.

What about the future?

I would like to pioneer the way future-ready buildings are constructed in this era of climate change. Even today our projects are pre-certified Platinum under the ‘Indian Green Building Council (IGBC)’ – Green Homes Rating. I would like to go much further. To show how entire buildings themselves can be climate-control devices by design.

The forest is not devoid of a sense of humour. We were privy to a truly comic episode, when a young, enthusiastic tiger chased a bear into the bushes. Moments later, we witnessed the hunter become the hunted! The burly sloth had turned the tables... the tiger, evidently, did not quite enjoy a taste of his own medicine! Photo: Urvi Piramal

How would you like to be remembered?

I answered that with your first question. What you see is what you get. I want to be remembered for who I really am.

Author: Bittu Sahgal, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 4, April 2017.


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