The Red Earth Riding School near Pondicherry, just off the multi-lane highway leading into the city from Tindivanam, lay wet with overnight rain. Once through the gates, you could first smell, and then see -- horses!
There is a comfortable tumble of equestrian facilities, integrated into the trees and the landscape -- rather than standing apart. It is homely, and welcoming, and the horses peer out of the stables wondering if the visitor has an apple or a piece of jaggery for them.
Within a schooling fence, a lone rider was putting either himself, or the horse, through the paces. To the side of the fence, in riding kit, relaxed the school’s famous founder Jacqueline Kapur, chatting with a visitor. All around her were her dogs -- two Great Danes Zara and Ludo, a mixed Rottweiler Kaiku.
She cheerily greets this unannounced visitor and beckons him over, “yeah, the dogs are dangerous, deadly dangerous,” she laughs.
Later, Aparna M Sridhar, Centre for Soft Power, catches up with her over Zoom, for an interview.
Jacqueline Kapur has lived in India for 32 years now, part of the extended Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville community, established by Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa, known with great devotion and reverence as The Mother. Red Earth was set up in 2010.
A German by birth, she finished her studies at the University of Bochum before living in Japan and learning the language at the Japanese Language Institute in Tokyo for a year. Her friends told her about Auroville, which at that time was “much like a little village,” Jacqueline said.
After her first visit to India, a friend came to Germany and told her that she had met the ‘man’ of Jacqueline’s life and that he was an Indian. On her second visit, Jacqueline met Dilip Kapur, the founder of Hidesign, one of India’s most successful leather brands and got married to him and raised two children, before they separated.
Excerpts from the interview:
Auroville has drawn Europeans to it because of the work and philosophy of Sri Aurobindo as well as the beautiful ideas of living propounded by The Mother, his collaborator, who was French. What was it that attracted you to Auroville?
I don’t think there is anything which you can pinpoint. It was definitely not just the beautiful landscape. I don’t think you can compare it with anything else.
I think what attracts me the most, even now after 30 years is the idea that here people here try to be the best they can be. Or that is the dream I still have. The ideas of human unity, no judgement and sharing of whatever there is. As simple as that. Why is it so complicated to be nice to other people, even oneself.
To be friendly, open hearted, giving without expecting anything in return - I think that is more understood and more practiced here, than it is maybe in Delhi or in Paris.
The other thing is the cultural mix. We have people from all over the world here and from all social strata and age groups. I'm very, very happy that my children grew up in that kind of community.
How did you connect to the larger India through your love of horses?
What I missed a little bit in Auroville was the connect to the rest of India. Even though more than 50% of Aurovillians are Indians, it is still a little isolated. Through equestrian sports I have made so many new people, whom I call friends now. It opened India to me because there was a direct common interest in our love for horses.
Would you say that the people who are interested in horses in India are similar to people who love horses elsewhere in the world?
Yes, I think, people here share this same connect with animals. In Germany, horses and horse riding is much more common. It is available to a broader group of people. In Europe there are horses everywhere.
In India, it's definitely different. You need to look for them, so it's mostly richer people who enter this sport. I've tried, in Auroville, to open it up to more people because when I was young, I didn't have enough money to buy a horse for myself. The riding school is a little give back to people who really like horses. I sponsor a lot of kids who cannot afford it and wish to ride. I want to work on equine therapy because that's something very close to my heart and I think it's something which will help a lot of people.
The values you were talking about in Auroville, can they be instilled through equestrian sports and therapy?
There are many things we can learn with horses - about empathy, compassion, responsibility. It’s about leadership without being aggressive. It's about connecting with yourself and through the horse.
There's something in horse behavior which we can’t explain, how in their presence your emotions and feelings get magnified. That’s why autistic kids respond so strongly to horses. Horses allow you to let the walls down very easily.
And it's not only for kids. It's just so much more visible when you have children who normally do not touch or do not have contact with other beings or the world at large. When they're around horses, they open up. Horses have an incredibly calming effect. So, anxiety, post traumatic experiences, OCD and other problems can be treated with horses to a great extent.
How much of your business acumen has come from this riding school? And from there, do you bring to the riding school, the Jacqueline from your business world?
In my corporate leadership programs I always say that with a horse, you cannot have a ‘maybe’. If you want to become a leader, you have to give clear instructions. There has to be a “yes”, there has to be a “no”. But in between there can be the room for brilliance, for individuality. If I keep restricting the animal all the time, there will never be a partner. Then the horse can't shine. It also needs to work with everybody so that you know if you have a herd, it cannot run this side and that side. Then the survival of the herd is in question. So with any group dynamic it is the same thing - you need to have one line, you have to have the guidance of a compassionate leader. There has to be guidance and that cannot be too harsh.
How was it starting and running a business in India as a non-Indian?
Equestrian sport is the only place where everything is absolutely equal. It is the only Olympic sport where women and men compete against each other on the same level because it's not a question of strength. You need to be fit, but you don't need to be super strong. You need to be capable of communication and you need to build trust with the animals so that they give the best.
So if you bring that into the corporate level, the communication is not working properly. There are orders, but there is no communication. Women are way better with at that because we are mothers, (or at least we think about helping others to grow and bloom). Often women become leaders in companies that cut that part out. If you see strong women leaders, they are often not very maternal or caring. They have to become tougher than the men in order to rise to that position. I find that very sad.
As to whether it is difficult to be a female entrepreneur in India, in my case as a female foreign entrepreneur it has actually opened a lot of doors for me, rather than closed them because I stand out.
Where did your creative ideas for Casablanca (India’s first multi-brand department store) and now Ayesha Accessories come from?
When I was young, I think one of my favorite stores was Accessorize in Germany. I always liked jewelry but I don't like the typical stuff. It has to be a little bit off the beaten track type of jewelry for me.
Since I was 12 years old, I have been wearing black and my mother wears pink all the time. I don't like the happy “girly” type of stuff but I know what people like which is mainstream jewelry. What I enjoy designing is a little bit different so I created a whole line called Girl Power, with which you can wear your attitude around your neck. So it says things like ‘unstoppable’ or ‘rebel’ and all of it has a little girl sign on it. I have one design with the map of India on it.
I don't know where I get the inspiration from. I often wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea. I think my brain becomes very creative when I dream. We have a team of designers who execute these ideas.
I have also designed the B and B “Black Box” guest house in the riding school, that is made out of recycled shipping containers. My casual dining bistro in Pondicherry is PY Love Cafe, made with recycled furniture and mirrors. Everything there is made of and vintage pieces.
You named the brand after your daughter Ayesha. Is she also part of this?
She's very much involved with trend research and she's working with me on brand building and she's really close to the message we're trying to give about - self love and respect.
Your daughter acted in the Bollywood film - Black. Do you all watch a lot of Bollywood films?
It was the only Bollywood film I saw (smiles). She acted in the first half of the movie. It was the first time she had ever been to a movie theater and she was impressed. She didn’t know anyone in the sets and in fact she asked Mr Bachchan on the first day of the sets if this was also his first movie (laughs).
What kind of cooking do you like since you have your own cafe?
I like cooking and am supposedly a good cook. What I really like is that I have a very nice lady working for me who cuts the vegetables and I don't need to do the dishes, yet get all the praise for being a ‘wonderful cook’.
I do love chats especially paani puri. During the lockdown, I think I ate dal with moringa leaves 5 times in a week thanks to the lady who works here. So what I really like is the Auroville scenario, where I can take elements from different cultures. I sometimes like to cook a German dish with an Indian side dish with a Thai curry, and afterwards have an Italian dessert or French dessert. I like to mix things.
(In the middle of the interview, Jacqueline excuses herself to let in someone at the door. Her three majestic dogs stroll in and settle down besides her.)