In the late 90s, when Kiran Rao had just moved back to Chennai, the city had very few places where people could just sit, relax and catch up with friends as they sipped on coffee or nibbled on snacks. While we’re home to the ubiquitous tea-kadais, bhavans and mess – and of course the popular beaches – Chennai didn’t have five-star cafes or European style patisseries back then.
Kiran decided to change that, when she came back to the city in 1998. She had moved to England at the age of 15 to complete her education. On her return to India, she missed the kind of environment these cafes created. "It definitely was a way of life for me as a student in England. You'd step out and want to be amongst people. It is stimulating to be amongst people isn't it?," she asks.
Two years later, in the year 2000, Amethyst was born. With a masters in History and Social Anthropology, Kiran says she alway harboured an interest in aesthetics, decorative arts and nature, and this reflected in the way Amethyst was planned.
Amethyst, Whites Road
Wild Garden Cafe (Indoor)
While it might be safe to say Kiran pioneered the idea of luxury cafes in the city, she brushes it off with, “It is not that Chennai didn’t have cafes. I remember cycling to this tea-coffee place in Adyar called The Hungry Tiger, I also liked the name. I merely re-pioneered the idea of a leisure cafe. I wanted a place where people could sit and relax and not just eat and run.”
And so, Amethyst was Kiran’s first renovation project set inside her ancestral property – a 100-year-old heritage bungalow with a front garden, broad verandas and a Madras roof. A decade later, Amethyst moved to its current location on Whites Road. Naturally, this space, too, was restored – from a simple-looking, out-of-use granary.
Kiran admits that she enjoys the constraints that come with a limited canvas. “I like starting with a certain amount of constraint. If there’s a blank slate I might be at a loss,” she laughs adding, “To me, the philosophy of recycling and adaptive reuse is very inspiring. It is so wasteful to break things down or to just chuck them out. There’s so much that can be done when we’re talking about restoring or renovating spaces. I also discovered the excellent use of lime concrete while working on such projects.”
Kiran goes on to talk in length about her passion for restoring and renovating spaces. “Energy goes into construction. Most of it cannot be recreated – like stones formed over hundreds of years. Why waste all of that?” she asks.
Her business has grown over the years. Amethyst on Whites Road has a garden cafe (Wild Garden), a flower shop (Bloom), a fashion boutique (Upstairs) and a space to hold events (The Folly). The space at Chamiers, which is a collaboration with her long-time friend Mathangi Srinivasamurti, has a cafe (Chamiers Cafe), a gift shop and an exhibit space (Amethyst Room) that has become the go-to place in the city for book launches and pop-ups. Then there’s also Bhandej and Amrapalli Gold and Silver boutique in Nungambakkam.
Amethyst and Chamiers have also served as a platform for several brands to set shop in the city. “Chumbak opened their first retail outlet in the city with us actually. We’ve also got a brand new home decor outlet just across the street, a collaboration with Bangalore based Purple Turtles,” says Mathangi.
Apart from the ones in the city, Kiran has also restored a space in Puducherry – La Maison Rose, a cosy pink-walled French villa. Kiran rues that like Puducherry, it would be wonderful to preserve an entire area in the city. “The challenge in a place like Chennai is to find a small area and preserve the ethos of a street and to simply catch the culture of the area. It is quite sad to see that most of the neighbourhoods are being hollowed out right now, losing their essence.”
La Maison Rose
Having been invited to be on the panel of the third edition of a speaker-series event, Meraki - a Glassbox initiative - in the city, Kiran says, “There are so many more women entrepreneurs out there. While the system is failing in some areas, it is not in the others. All of us have to try and create some sort of balance. We’ve got to create training centres for those who have not had the opportunity to access the kind of education that’s necessary.”