After Parmeshwar Godrej’s (1946-2016) demise on 10 October, a wide range of personalities from remarkably disparate fields offered their condolences in public. There were world-famous authors, academics and economists, politicians, artists and designers, business tycoons, actors and filmmakers, quotes from journalists and socialites, and at least one Nobel laureate. People so varied, you would be hard-pressed to pin them to a single newspaper page. Yet they were there together like a Parmeshwar Godrej-hosted party.
When asked, most of them seemed unsure as to what defined her. Was she really just a socialite with a famous surname? Yes, she certainly threw Mumbai’s most famous parties, hosted the cream of the international jet set, from Goldie Hawn to Oprah Winfrey. But she was much more.
Born to an upper-middle-class Sikh family, Parmeshwar is rumoured to have been selected to become one of Air India’s earliest flight attendants by its then chief JRD Tata himself. She was around 17 years old when she met Adi Godrej, then about 21. After a brief romance, the two were married by 1965. Despite the glamour of their lives, Adi and Parmeshwar Godrej, along with their three children, remained a close-knit family.
Usually those marrying into rich families have to alter their lifestyles to suit the household. In the case of the Godrej family, the reverse seemed to happen. She brought glamour and style to the large but somewhat staid Godrejs. Wearing her signature beret and oversized glasses, even to an evening party, always stylish, always bronze tanned, she threw lavish parties, hosted the biggest names that visited Mumbai, promoted artists and championed social causes. She was one of the first Indian celebrities to campaign for AIDS awareness. In 2004, along with Richard Gere, and backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, she launched the Heroes Project to combat AIDS and got celebrities like Imran Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan to work for the cause.
Adi Godrej is reported to have once said, in a book, ‘Our best advertising was due to her (Parmeshwar).’ When Godrej tried to revive Cinthol after the group’s split with Procter & Gamble, then a relatively small brand, as The Times of India reports, Parmeshwar got her friends Imran Khan and Vinod Khanna to endorse it. She was possibly India’s first designer when she helmed Dancing Silks, a high-end boutique, in the 1970s. She refashioned iconic restaurants and famous homes as an interior designer. She set up a production studio. From the pre-liberalisation era, when high-society parties were infrequent, to the glitzy globalisation phase, Parmeshwar dominated the very idea of high-society dos for over half a century.
It is said that there was only one way to figure out if you have arrived in Mumbai’s good life: either you’ve been invited to a Parmeshwar Godrej party or she’s been to one of yours.