If you are trying to spot Mumbai’s “rich and famous”, you have to wait until well past midnight to get a glimpse of the city’s glitziest cars. With the roads snarled up by day with an uncontrolled mass of taxis, rickshaws, scooters and even the odd bullock cart, the city’s ultra-rich prefer the calm interior of a chauffeur-driven 4x4.
But once the sun goes down, the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches and Maseratis come out to play. “They only come out at night,” says Ravi Bhagwat, who runs the repair garage of Navnit Motors, which has one of India’s two Rolls-Royce dealerships. “They’re very under-utilised.” But hidden beneath Mumbai’s billionaire mansions, there are garages that hold as many luxury cars as anywhere in the world. “There’s a customer of mine who has more than five Rolls-Royces already,” says Mr Bhagwat’s boss, Sharad Kachalia. “Every year he buys a couple of them. He has short wheel-base, long wheel-base, convertible – all the three models. And once the coupe is available, he will be a buyer.” Since Navnit launched in 2005, it has sold 40 Rolls-Royces in India, seeing up to 60 per cent growth every year. Sunny Dewan Wadhawan, the managing director of the property developer HDIL, has two Rolls-Royces – the Phantom and the D8 coupe, as well as a Land Rover, a Bentley, a Hummer, a Lamborghini and a Porsche. “You name it, he’s got it,” jokes Mr Bhagwat. “Most of our customers are owners of all the premium brands.” India’s richest man and the chief of Reliance Industries, Mukesh Ambani, has 29 cars in his garage. Only 10 years ago, Vijay Mallya, the billionaire industrialist behind Kingfisher Beer and Kingfisher Airlines, was alone in India in his shameless public consumption of luxury. The self-styled “King of Good Times” has for decades flaunted his fleet of Ferraris, Maseratis and a 1913 Rolls-Royce Silver ghost, as well as his many homes, including a Mumbai mansion, the sprawling Kingfisher Villa in Goa, a castle in Scotland, a flat in the Trump Palace and a pad in Monte Carlo. When he moored the 50-metre classic yacht Kalizma – which was previously owned by Richard Burton – outside the Gateway of India in Mumbai back in 1998, it was a first. Then Gautam Singhania, the head of the Raymond textile chain, bought his yacht Ashena to town in 2006 and became Mr Mallya’s main rival in “partying afloat”. The huge injection of cash that has flooded into India in the past two to three years has taken luxury to a new level. Even so, with dark clouds gathering on the economic horizon, these could be the days of peak spending.According to Merrill Lynch’s Asia-Pacific wealth report, which was published last month, India created more high net worth individuals last year than any other country in the world. And this “new money”is willing to spend it. “People are not only spending because they have extra money,” says Anju Dutta, whose Marine Solutions company is Mumbai’s only dealer in Ferretti, the luxury Italian yachts. “It’s because of a lifestyle change. The business community in India, the Marwaris, they traditionally didn’t like to spend. They just stored – they saved for the rainy days.” The merchant classes from Rajasthan and Gujarat still tend to present themselves as sober puritans with simple vegetarian tastes whose sole passions are hard work and family. For example, Aditya Mittal, the son of Lakshmi Mittal, the world’s richest Indian, admitted in an interview with this month’s GQ India magazine that he often held back so as not to appear flash. “I’ve never bought a red Ferrari,” he admits. “And I’ve wanted one since I was 11.” But Ms Dutta says there has been a shift. “The younger generation, the sons who are maybe 23 or 24, they’re very responsible young adults – it’s not as if they’re completely flamboyant, but they are ready to spend a bit more.” The results are visible in Mumbai’s harbour. When Mr Mallya’s latest yacht, the 95-metre Indian Empress, returns from Europe after the monsoon, it will be one of more than 250 floating palaces on display. Space is starting to run out. “We hope to double the numbers next year,” says Ms Dutta. If Mumbai’s authorities finally relent, and allow a much-needed marina, the numbers would rapidly hit the thousands, she says. At the head of the new big spenders have been the billionaires created by India’s property boom. Rakesh Wadhawan, of Housing Development Infrastructure Limited (HDIL), Niranjan Hiranandani, of Hiranandani Construction, and Chandru Raheja of K Raheja, all made it on to the Forbes billionaire list this year for the first time. Those already in the top division – K P Singh of DLF, Ramesh Chandra of Unitech, and Vikas Oberoi of Oberoi Constructions – have seen their property fortunes swell. And they are quite happy to flaunt it. Sunny Dewan Wadhawan, the managing director of HDIL, has snapped up one of the Ms Dutta’s Ferrettis for €8.5 million (Dh41.8m), and he loves to be photographed with his Ferrari F430 Modena. The underground car park at the neo-classical Wadhawan Mansion on Pali Hill is stacked with luxury cars.
Amit Bhonsole, from nearby Pune, drives a Lamborghini and has the choice of three helicopters when he flies into Mumbai. Ashish Raheja, the heir to the Raheja fortune, recently ordered a Maserati.
When India’s more established billionaires play the game of conspicuous consumption, and it tends to be on houses and weddings, they make certain they blow everyone else out of the water.
Mukesh Ambani, the elder son of Indian business legend Dhirubhai Ambani, used to be uncomfortable about his younger brother Anil’s flashiness – he married a Bollywood star and drives his own Lamborghini.
But Mukesh has now taken to displaying his wealth with all the zeal he has applied to projects such as building the world’s largest, most technologically advanced oil refinery. Last year, he bought his wife Nita an Airbus A319 jet for her birthday.
Antilia, the US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) mansion being built on Mumbai’s Altamount Road – with 60 storeys, 27 floors and parking for 168 cars – will be far and away the most expensive house in the world.
In this he is following Lakshmi Mittal, who earned his place among the global elite back in 2004 when he bought the world’s most expensive house in Kensington Palace Gardens for £70m (Dh444m) and put on a spectacular $80m wedding at the Palace of Versailles for his daughter Vanisha.
This year, Mr Mittal spent a further £117m on a second mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens. His 262-metre super-yacht Amevi, which was launched last year, is inconspicuously moored near his Mediterranean home.
But it outshines anything owned by Vijay Mallya. Mr Mittal’s younger brother, Pramod, has also got in on the act, buying a Ferretti last year, as has Tina Ambani, Anil Ambani’s wife, who also ordered one of the Italian yachts at the beginning of the year.Mumbai’s old money – Parsee families such as the Tatas and the Godrej’s – are more private in enjoying their wealth than even the Marwaris, finding lavish public displays vulgar.
But even they are starting to flash a little more cash. Adi Godrej, who is part of Mumbai’s Parsee aristocracy, has bought himself a Ferretti 880. The Piramal family, who are behind the pharmaceuticals giant Nicholas Piramal, entertain on board a restored dhow.
Mumbai’s old money, though, still tends to enjoy its wealth in more understated ways. Swati Piramal and Adi Godrej’s wife, Parmeshwar, for example, are both known for throwing the city’s most lavish dinner parties – sumptuous affairs where food, drink and decorations are flown in from across the world.
Mr Piramal in January served 80 guests nothing but vintage champagne and wine, with tasting notes for, say, a Château Margaut 1967 attached to each bottle. The new money reserves its party spending for weddings and they are growing more sumptuous every year.
Saurabh Agarwal, one of the city’s best known wedding planners, says: “It’s just been going up and up. People spend more and more on weddings.”
The weddings that Mr Agarwal organises now start at $300,000 and routinely go up to $3m. One of his most recent events, the August bash for Siddarth Mutha in Macau involved hiring DHL to fly out a thoroughbred stallion for the groom and shipping a vintage car from Hong Kong.
At another recent wedding, the top guests were each given paintings by M F Hussein, India’s most expensive living artist, to take home with them. Luxury goods companies such as LLadro, Hermes and Gucci, and designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Salvatore Ferragamo and Zegna have all started to design for the Indian market.
The sector for blue-chip brands in the country has been growing by 25 per cent a year and is expected to be worth $30bn by 2015, up from $3.5bn this year, according to the consultancy AT Kearney.
But India’s love for lavish consumption might just have reached a peak as the global slowdown gathers pace.
“We certainly think there will be a big impact on the luxury section in India. The buoyancy in the market was coming in because of the first-time rich. These are the ones who are also likely to be very vulnerable,” says Arvind Singhal, the chairman of the consumer research consultancy Technopak.
The paper wealth of India’s billionaires has already taken a hit. Lakshmi Mittal’s paper fortune has dived by $30bn, and the wealth of the newly minted property tycoons have been sliced. Shares in Mr Wadhawan’s company, HDIL, are more than 90 per cent down from last year’s high. Some argue that the billionaire class will be protected.
“When it comes to luxury items and luxury living, there are always people that have it, regardless of what the economy does,” says Bindu Mittal, another wedding planner.
“If you’re one of the top guys, you’ve been planning for your daughter’s wedding for years. They’ve all got money saved up.”Mr Kachalia says he is seeing signs of a slowdown.
“We have been getting the orders, but it’s a bit slow,” he says. “There are very many people who have lots of money with them, but they do not want to glitter themselves when everything is a little dark.”
Ms Dutta says Marine Solutions has felt the chill from the global economic fallout, particularly in the level of demand for its smaller yachts.
“I would have expected maybe 30 per cent more sales than what we are doing just now,” she says. “I had a list of clients, 10 to 15 of them, who we expected to lock in and then they didn’t go ahead. There’s a lot of postponing going on.”
And, in a sign that the cycle of consumption may have turned full circle, Mr Singhania’s yacht Ashena, one of the first to arrive in Mumbai harbour two years ago, is up for sale.