Monstrous silhouettes, muscular shoulder lines and beefy grilles are routine for a sports utility vehicle (SUV).

However, if the Mahindras have in the just-launched XUV500 succeeded in dovetailing such ruggedness with subtle creases and deft touches, that might have something to do with a woman’s hand in an archetypically testosterone-soaked universe of SUV manufacturing and design.

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Meet Ramkripa Ananthan, 40, who heads the 20-member all-Indian styling team that worked on the XUV500. The diminutive designer describes herself as an “out-of-doors type” – she cruises on a Bajaj Avenger, has biked from Manali to Srinagar via Leh, trekked in the Sahyadris and run the Mumbai half marathon.

Perhaps it’s that bent that led her to go with Vice-Chairman & Managing Director Anand Mahindra’s idea of doing research in the wilderness of Kenya and on the Masai Mara for the exteriors and interiors of the XUV500.

If Ananthan and her team have succeeded in bringing out the animal in the XUV500, it’s evident in the features – and the way she describes them. “The dramatic side of the vehicle is its taut fender pounce, lean body, and distinctive rear haunch over the rear wheel arch,” she says, painting a vibrant picture. “For the interiors, the bright centre console seemingly flowing from outside-in makes a connect like the central nervous system of a beast.”

Ananthan had her task cut out “getting the management on the same plane. Design is a feeling, it’s a raw emotion”, she explains. “The design has to show your skill sets of balance, proposition and conviction.”

She’s obviously succeeded in that task. But that didn’t quite happen overnight. Over the past decade, Ananthan has worked on designing the interiors of the Bolero, Scorpio and the Xylo, in that order. The graduate in mechanical engineering from BITS-Pilani and post-grad in industrial design from Industrial Design Centre of IIT-Bombay joined M&M as an interior designer in 1997 at the Nashik factory in Maharashtra.

I head the styling team of Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M). There are 20 designers in the team and 10 model makers. Sub-groups work on different projects at the same time.

I graduated in mechanical engineering from BITS-Pilani and post-grad in industrial design from Industrial Design Centre of IIT-Bombay. I joined M&M as an interior designer in 1997 at the Nashik factory in Maharashtra.

The challenge was to match up to Anand Mahindra’s ambition of building a ‘world’ SUV. “The ‘global’ bit was not easy. We met a lot of customers, studied a lot of trends, did many workshops, evolved interesting processes and finally we decided to take forward a theme called ‘feeling the power’.”

The team worked on nine different concepts of the exteriors and 17 of the interiors. Concept six, says Ananthan, had the silhouette of the pounce and the haunch of a cheetah, going back to her favourite metaphor.

“A cheetah’s design language is edgy and not machine-like; if we didn’t go for it, we would have had designs that would have been more conservative – as in boxy or more rounded,” says the design diva who hopes to make concept cars of 2-3 of the other prototypes.

The Mahindra XUV 500’S door handle, when first designed, was slightly convex, trapezoidal, and of one whole piece the size of a large palm. It rested horizontally on the door frame and was fixed at its right end. You pulled from the left end to open and enter. When my boss saw it, he had a question. “Suppose,” he said, “I have shopping bags in my left hand, how can I open the door with my right hand?” He was right. Someone with shopping bags would have to twist, extend his right hand and then bend it backwards to open the door. The said person could, of course, just shift the bags to the right hand, but that was beside the point. “We said, ‘We will think of something’,” says Ramkripa. And so, the design team came up with a solution—a hole in the middle, so that the right hand can easily work its way in and pull the handle.

Designing an SUV involves hundreds, if not thousands, of such fine details that the person who buys the vehicle has no clue about.