Mina and Ravi Chawla had been exposed to world-class art and luxury, experiencing first-hand how wealthy and privileged individuals were drawn to India’s rich culture and heritage. Accordingly, their initial goal was to showcase the best of India for the world later they would also bring the best of the world’s craftsmanship and premier global brands to India. The first step was the Indian Handicrafts Exhibition, which they organised in Delhi from October 1 to 15, during the designated International Year for Tourism.

Funds were short, but the Chawlas did their homework, cherry-picking the most appealing of India’s vast cornucopia of craft genres. Their list also had to consider what they could actually get their hands on and offer at a reasonable price. Quality, availability and cost were their top criteria. In his role as a tour guide and organiser, Ravi had developed relationships with the proprietors of the finest stores and boutiques in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, where he would bring his discerning Everett clients to purchase exclusive souvenirs. He now benefitted from this goodwill, persuading the owners to give him merchandise on a consignment basis. The Chawlas secured finely worked brassware from Moradabad, carpets and shawls from Kashmir, and carved ivory from Delhi and Mysore, along with silk saris and scarves from Banaras, Bangalore and Murshidabad.

The YMCA Tourist Hostel on Jai Singh Road proved to be an ideal venue for the Indian Handicrafts Exhibition: it had a captive clientele, was strategically close to the buzzing hub of Connaught Place, and was a brand-new building. The General Secretary invited Ravi to use the largest space, the Library Hall. The YMCA management was so enthusiastic, it even waived the hiring fee.

Ravi took out a loan of Rs 3,000, equivalent to three monthly salaries, and designed pamphlets with colour photographs of the crafts on display. He talked hotel managers into placing the brochures in their lobbies, as a “service to your guests,” he said, not untruthfully. He even managed to slip promotional material under hotel room doors.

With the support of his political connections, Ravi also convinced the Director General of Tourism to promote the exhibition, explaining that it would be more than an exhibition of wares: there would be live demonstrations of age-old skills from regions across India.

The Chawlas’ concerted effort and attention to detail paid off. From the time the doors opened at 10 am until they shut at 10 pm, the venue was thronged. Visitors included not only tourists, but expats, embassy staff as well as local residents.

Mina’s European exposure was a key asset in tastefully decorating stalls, which were manned by vendors who paid a commission on sales. The header on all receipts and other documents was “Indian Handicrafts Exhibition, YMCA Tourist Hostel, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi”. This meant all payments were centralised and clients wishing to reorder would correspond directly with the Chawlas.

As promised to the Director General of Tourism, the exhibition’s main highlight was the live section, where craftsmen demonstrated their ancient skills. A Banarasi weaver created his silken web on a handloom, Kashmiris executed their famed crewel stitch embroidery, carvers from Mysore expertly worked ivory and block printers from Jaipur methodically covered lengths of cotton with traditional motifs.

The vendors were more than satisfied with the amount they sold during those 15 days, and the commissions paid to the Chawlas were handsome their bottom line was almost Rs 50,000. In fact, there were so many orders pending even at the end of the exhibition, that they continued dispatching from the different storage points.

Amid the hard work and excitement of this major undertaking, the Chawlas had another source of excitement and concern on their minds: Mina was in the final stage of her first pregnancy. The due date was October 12, at the height of the exhibition, which had been over a year in planning. When the event closed its doors on October 15, Ravi hurried his overdue and overworked wife to the Holy Family Hospital. Vishal was born on October 16, 1967. Their firstborn had arrived with their first venture. And he grew along with the business, helping as much as his little hands could even as a toddler.

Following this initial success, the upward trajectory of Mina and Ravi’s business was by no means straight or easy. Trials and tribulations followed, such as Mina’s appointment as Manager in Charge of Reservations, Public Relations and Housekeeping at a new hotel. The venture aimed to capitalise on the massive demand for accommodation due to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development of 1968 in Delhi, but fell through. Ravi began trading in air conditioners sourced from embassy auctions, which were in excellent condition. When he brought a batch of AC units in for servicing, he was unknowingly defrauded: the technicians switched the original compressors for cheap, substandard ones. Discovering the trick, the buyer rejected the lot. Ravi lost face and all the savings he had sunk, and he had to borrow from a childhood friend. Mina would recall, “I did not always think he was right, nor did he think I was always right, but we trusted each other completely then, and we have continued to do so through all our ups and downs.”

A break came from the General Secretary of the YMCA Tourist Hostel, who offered Ravi two of the shop spaces in a shopping arcade that was nearing completion. It was a golden opportunity, but Ravi was at a loss as to how to pay the rental. The General Secretary, Mr Cornelius, had seen for himself what Ravi and Mina could do during the Indian Handicrafts Exhibition. “Look here, my friend, take up my offer,” he told Ravi. “You don’t have to pay rent for the first six months, by which time I’m sure you’ll be up and running.”

Under the name “Indian Handicrafts”, the shops were a success and the Chawlas later expanded to all but one of the arcade’s units. Art, sculpture, ivory and brass were their mainstay, with some kurtas and saris. While Mina minded the stores, Ravi would scour the second-hand shops of Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid district for rare and affordable items. Husband and wife would sit up at night, cleaning and polishing some, while leaving the patina on others.

At one point, they convinced the arcade’s management to allow them to set up a travel desk, for which Ravi brought in one of his colleagues from Everett. The Chawlas continued at the location for 20 years, until the YMCA shuttered it for renovation and repurposing. They registered all their future businesses under Indian Handicrafts, even when garments for export became their stock-in-trade.

Excerpted with permission from Ravissant: A World of Ultimate Elegance, Ravi Chawla, Mapin Publishing.