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The Madras Connemara: something old, something new

The Madras Connemara is still not the luxury property it deserves to be. But for all practical purposes, it is back to being a great grand old hotel, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Feb 22, 2014 18:20 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Madras Connemara,HT Brunch,Hindustan Times

When it comes to hotels, my first law is always the same: do not muck around with history. If something has worked for decades and decades, then do not tart it up with the phoney glitter of ‘modernisation’ and try and make it seem hip and trendy. Some of the world’s greatest hotels are classics: the Savoy in London, the St Regis in New York; the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne or The Peninsula in Hong Kong. Many of them have been restored and some (such as the Hong Kong Peninsula) have even been expanded with the addition of a new wing. But the effort has always been the same: preserve the character of the property.

In India, only the Oberois get the message. The Grand in Calcutta is still as grand as the name suggests. Even though the hotel would benefit from some restoration and a marketing push, I always feel a sense of history when I stay there. The Taj Group took a while to recognise the value of heritage: the Tower block added to the Bombay Taj in 1972 is an abomination. But they have finally got it right. The restoration of Bangalore’s West End and the heritage (palace) wing of the Bombay Taj have reaffirmed the original character of those hotels.

Readers of this column will know that I have mixed feelings about

Madras’ Connemara Hotel

. In an ideal world, it would be one of that city’s two best hotels. The magnificent and lavish ITC Grand Chola would be the city’s best modern hotel and the Connemara would be the grand old heritage property (the Savoy or Taj Bombay of Madras).

Except that it hasn’t worked out that way. The hotel opened a couple of years before the 1857 revolt and has seen more history than most Indian hostelries. (It is actually older than the Bombay Taj.) It has had many name changes – it was called The Imperial at one stage – before being renamed in honour of Lord Connemara. And it has seen many owners.

When I first went there in 1976, it had an air of faded grandeur about it under the Spencer’s management. In 1976, the old Madras that the Raj had left behind was dying and the new Madras of Amma had yet to emerge. So, at that particular watershed in our history, the Connemara stood as a memory of things past and an opportunity to create the new Madras.

As it turned out, the hotel never quite fulfilled its potential. Spencer’s gave it on long lease to the Taj in the early 1980s, just before Spencer’s itself was taken over. The RPG group now owns it and RP Goenka’s sons have adopted an admirable ‘hands-off’ policy towards the hotel division (which includes the West End). The Taj tried hard to please the new owners but it turned out that they wanted little. The late great RP Goenka once told me that when he stayed there in the late 1980s, they put him in the vast Presidential suite. “It was too big for me,” he recalled. “So in the middle of the night I called the desk and asked to be shifted to an ordinary room.”

Given this background, the Taj should have been able to turn the Connemara into one of India’s greatest hotels (the property has just 150 rooms spread over 4.23 acres in the very heart of Madras). But over the decades it has dithered, keeping room rates lower than the Taj Coromandel (though the Connemara is clearly the superior property), trying to turn it into a business hotel and then claiming, foolishly, that the Madras market was not ready for another luxury hotel. (This, just before the ITC Grand Chola, the Leela, the Park Hyatt etc. all opened!)

There have been times when the hotel has been very well run (when Dinaz Madhukar was GM, for instance) and the food has been outstanding, but the overwhelming sense I got, each time I visited (and till the Grand Chola opened, the Connemara and Fisherman’s Cove were my preferred Madras hotels) was one of unrealised potential and wasted opportunities.

Travelling through time and space The magnificent and lavish ITC Grand Chola would be Chennai’s best modern hotel. The Taj Group took a while to recognise the value of heritage – the Tower block added to the Mumbai Taj in 1972 is an abomination. But they have finally got it right

I went back a fortnight ago and found that the hotel had changed. It is still not the luxury property (in branding terms) that it deserves to be. But, for all practical purposes it is back to being a grand old hotel. The key to the transformation has been the Taj’s decision to revise its brand architecture. The Connemara is now a Vivanta (the Coromandel is the luxury property), a new brand that comprises slightly hip modern hotels (many still under construction) and conversions of older properties.

For the Taj, the decision to rebrand much-loved properties has been a risky one but the company has pulled it off largely – dare I say it? – thanks to the leadership of Veer Vijay Singh, the old Taj hand who runs the Vivanta hotels. (Full disclosure: he was one year senior to me at school so I’ve known him for most of my life.)

The Oberoi Grand in Kolkata is still as grand as the name suggests

Because Veer Vijay has spent his entire career at the Taj (it is the only job he has ever had) he not only understands the strengths and weaknesses of each property but, unlike most of the new breed of managers, has a feel for the core values on which the Taj was built. Plus he is bright and forward-looking enough to have been able to work with Landor Associates on the re-branding and recognises (though here I am guessing) the direction that Raymond Bickson is steering the company in.

So much of hoteliering is about people (forget all that nonsense about processes – they only get you halfway there – the rest of the journey depends on people and their flair) as anyone who has witnessed the astonishing transformation of the Bombay Taj under its current managers, or the decline in the Gateway ethos after PK Mohankumar left, will testify.

One of the attractions of the Connemara for me has always been The Raintree. This is a restaurant of vast historical importance. When the Taj took over the Connemara and decided to open an Indian restaurant, Camellia Panjabi wandered through the grounds and discovered a rain tree as old as the hotel. She decided to build a largely open-air restaurant around the trees.

For the cuisine, she chose Chettinad, the non-vegetarian food of the globe-trotting, business community, the Chettiars. In 1987 when The Raintree opened, the cuisine was a revelation. In parts of south India, a bastardised version of Chettinad food was being served at small restaurants. But here, at last, was the real thing with recipes sourced from Chettiar homes.

The Raintree was the first significant south Indian non-vegetarian restaurant at any Indian hotel and perhaps the first Chettinad restaurant of any consequence in the whole world. It was this experiment’s success that encouraged the Taj to open Karavalli in Bangalore and then, nearly a full decade later, Southern Spice at the Coromandel.

Another helping The Raintree restaurant at the Connemara was fortunate to have VK Chandrasekaran to oversee its relaunch

Sadly, the original tree around which the restaurant was built was uprooted in a storm some years ago though there are other rain trees in that space. Last year, the Connemara finally decided that it was time for a revamp. The new Raintree is one of lndia’s best-looking outdoor restaurants, light, airy, contemporary and yet, historically sourced – the pillars that lead off to the dining area are from the 15th Century, or long before America was created.

The rebranding of much-loved Taj properties has been pulled off thanks to Veer Vijay Singh, who runs the Vivanta hotels

The Connemara has been fortunate to have VK Chandrasekaran, an old Taj hand (like Veer Vijay) to oversee the relaunch of The Raintree. Chandrashekhar (as he is called) is a chef of the old school, shy, quiet and unwilling to draw any attention to himself in this era of media-savvy chefs. But he was at The Raintree in the Eighties and has spent so long in Chettiar homes learning old recipes that he knows the cuisine inside out. His challenge is greater than the culinary challenge at Southern Spice where the chef has all of south India to source dishes from or Karavalli where the entire coast offers up its riches. He has to create a menu from the cuisine of one community in one southern state.

So I was hugely impressed, as I ate my way through most of his menu, by the richness and variety of his flavours. No two dishes tasted the same and the simpler food (a fish curry, a mutton fry, a country chicken in gravy) was even better than the fancy banquet dishes.

So, should you stay at the Connemara? I would say yes! If you want modern luxury, then the Grand Chola is a hard act to beat. But if you want a sense of old Madras, if you crave a green island of peace in the centre of the traffic madness of today’s Madras, if you love good food and appreciate an update of the service that made the Taj group famous, then the hotel is perfect.

I have rarely been so relaxed and felt so cut off from the pressures of city life as I was at the Connemara (full credit to the current general manager, Samrat Dutta). Plus, despite its heritage, the Connemara is cheaper than the Coromandel, the Grand Chola, the Leela or the Park Hyatt. So as far good value goes, it is the cheapest of the world’s great grand hotels. You pay a fraction of what you would at the Mandarin in Hong Kong or the Oriental in Bangkok for a hotel that has a far more glorious heritage.

From HT Brunch, February 23

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First Published: Feb 22, 2014 14:46 IST