It is a funny thing, but two of Delhi’s most iconic hotels are celebrating anniversaries at roughly the same time. The Taj Mahal Hotel on Man Singh Road is getting ready for its 35th birthday. And at the Oberoi, they’ve already started reviving old menus to recall the early days of the hotel, which will turn 50 next year.
What makes the coincidence more significant is that the two hotels are traditional rivals, with histories that are closely intertwined. When Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi was a mere employee of the Cecil Hotel in Simla, the Tatas already owned the grand old Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. But the Tatas were too busy to worry about the Taj and it became a sloppy and inefficient hotel. Air India’s Bobby Kooka (he created the Maharaja) wrote that he once asked JRD Tata why, when he was so critical of the slightest imperfection in Air-India, he did nothing about the mess at the Taj. “Because I wouldn’t know where to begin,” JRD replied.But while the Taj remained just another sloppy hotel, the Rai Bahadur built the Oberoi chain into India’s leading hotel company with the purchase of the Grand in Calcutta and a management contract for the Imperial in Delhi. But the Rai Bahadur’s ambition was to build a modern international hotel with 24-hour room service, an all-day coffee-shop and many other speciality restaurants. He found the land and started to build the hotel that we now know as The Oberoi in the early Sixties. But then, he ran out of money and the project stalled.
The story goes that somebody suggested to the Rai Bahadur that he could gain access to USAID funds if he found an American partner. He discovered that this was true, entered into a partnership with InterContinental Hotels (then owned by PanAm) and in 1965, the Oberoi Intercontinental opened. Run by the Rai Bahadur, his son-in-law Gautam Khanna and managers sent by InterContinental, it may have been one of Asia’s first world-class hotels. I remember staying there in 1969 as a small boy and feeling I’d ended up in paradise. There were pancakes for breakfast, hot fudge sundaes on room service, six speciality restaurants and the world’s best mocha cake (or so I believed!).
I wasn’t the only one to feel like that. JRD Tata recognised that the rules of the game had changed, empowered a newly-hired catering manager called Ajit Kerkar to transform the Taj and began talking to US chains about possible tie-ups. Seven years after the Oberoi InterContinental had opened, the Taj unveiled its own modern block, a new tower which was also a partnership with InterContinental. Some people preferred the revived and expanded Bombay Taj; some liked the Delhi Oberoi, but there wasn’t much to choose from. Until 1973, that is – because that was when the Rai Bahadur opened the grand Oberoi Sheraton in Bombay, a hotel that was superior in scope to the Taj’s InterContinental tower.
The Taj knew that to take on the Oberois, it had to open in Delhi but JRD Tata, Ajit Kerkar and the rest were political novices while the Oberois knew Delhi inside out. So none of the Taj’s plans came to anything till the company decided to build a new property on the site of the old Fonseca Hotel on Man Singh Road. The construction began in 1976 but quickly stalled. The Taj believed the Oberoi lobby had sabotaged the project. But because this was the time of the Emergency, Taj executives were able to use Rukhsana Sultan (the mother of actress Amrita Singh) to reach out to Sanjay Gandhi who was then India’s most powerful man.
Sanjay brushed aside all the opposition and a deal was struck whereby NDMC would partner the Taj and own the shell of the new hotel. (This has now come back to haunt the Taj, which took NDMC for granted.) Sanjay took a personal interest in the project, asking to see the plans and making little suggestions. On one celebrated occasion, he looked at the plan and asked, “Don’t you have roof-top restaurant like Café Chinois”? (Chinois was at the Oberoi InterContinental) “Err, no,” Kerkar replied. “Roof-top restaurants don’t work and they put too much pressure on the lifts.” Sanjay looked at him stonily.
“But I like roof-top restaurants,” he said, shortly. And so, they changed the plan to include one. (It used to be the Casa Medici and is now Longchamp).
Even the Oberois were not influential enough to stop Sanjay Gandhi and the Taj Mahal Hotel was finally built. By the time it opened, the Congress was out of power. But the Oberois were also out of luck.
The Taj took all of two days to make the Oberoi InterContinental look tired and second-rate. It is hard now to remember how the Taj changed Delhi. It introduced Sichuan food (House of Ming) to north India; and it brought real Indian food (Haveli) to compete with the Oberoi’s Mughal Room which was just an over-priced version of Kwality. And by keeping prices low, the coffee shop, Machan, attracted a buzzy young crowd that found it could afford to eat full meals at a five-star hotel for the first time. (In contrast, young people could only afford cold coffee at the Oberoi’s Cafe Expresso).
The Eighties belonged to the Taj. It attracted all of Delhi’s top politicians, it introduced power-lunching to the capital, its Emperor’s Lounge became such a deal-maker’s paradise that cynics called it the Racketeers’ Lounge and every celebrity of consequence who visited Delhi stayed at the Taj. When Sanjay Gandhi’s old cohorts left the Congress after his death and founded the Rashtriya Sanjay Manch, wags referred to it as the Rashtriya Sanjay Machan because that was where its members were to be found. In contrast to the Taj’s vibrant Indianness, the Oberoi seemed like a replica of a depressing 1950s hotel designed for travelling salesmen in the American mid-west.But nothing stays static in the world of hotels. In 1987, Biki Oberoi, the Rai Bahadur’s charismatic son took effective control of the company, decided to junk the Sheraton-InterContinental model and remodelled the Oberoi (they dropped the InterContinental) as the Indian answer to the elegant Regent hotels of South East Asia. I’m still not sure how Biki managed it but he took a dismal outmoded property and turned it into the epitome of chic and sophistication.
In the early ’90s, the Oberoi emerged once again as the equal of the Taj, a situation that only changed at the end of that decade when the Tatas forced out Kerkar and the Taj group temporarily lost the plot. A disastrous re-fit of the hotel destroyed the much-loved old Machan and put in place the hideous version that now exists. An ugly new lobby was designed and just as India was discovering real luxury and personalised service, the Taj group turned its Delhi property into a charmless room factory, sacking or transferring any member of staff who actually knew any of the guests by name.
The Taj Mahal did not really recover till the beginning of the 21st century when two outstanding general managers (Abhijit Mukherji and Yannick Poupon) turned the property around and made it seem like a luxury hotel again. A kickass general manager (Digvijay Singh) opened two outstanding new restaurants: Varq and Wasabi, and the Taj was back in the reckoning.
Today, the two hotels are equals once again. Which hotel you prefer says more about you than it does about them. The Taj epitomises a certain kind of Delhi: politicians, lawyers, deal-makers and lots and lots of Bombay notables who treat it as their Delhi residence. The Oberoi is preferred by rich, well-travelled foreigners, old-money Delhi and not-so-young ladies who wear tight jeans and carry Birkin bags. (The Hermès shop is at the Oberoi; the company’s Indian partners are Gautam Khanna’s family – so there is a sense of elegant continuity there.)
Both hotels have outstanding general managers, the classy and quietly competent Jay Rathore at the Oberoi and the dynamic and insightful Satyajit Krishnan at the Taj. Both have great restaurants: the Taj’s Wasabi and the Oberoi’s rocking Threesixty° attract the same kind of crowd. The Taj has better Indian food; the Oberoi has better Western food. The Taj lobby can be either, the beating heart of New Delhi or a railway station depending on your perspective. The Oberoi lobby, on the other hand, is a perfumed oasis of cool luxury.
I imagine that just as the Oberoi’s brilliant chef Saumya Goswami is masterminding a series of revivals of the hotel’s classic dishes, the Taj will revisit some of the hotel’s greatest hits (if they can find someone who remembers them; these days the Taj has zero institutional memory). There will be parties, festivals and celebrations. And that legendary rivalry will be played out once again.
From HT Brunch, April 6
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