The rise of the art hotel
Most people with any interest in Indian art and culture have, I imagine, heard of Rajeev Sethi. You have probably heard of his role in the public arts, in the context of preserving Indian culture and of course, the Festivals of India and the other celebrations of our vibrant heritage.
What I did not know, till I went to see him at his art-filled office in Delhi’s South Extension, is how plugged in Rajeev has been to the world of hotels. When he explained how he got involved, it made perfect sense.
In the ’70s, when Rajeev started out, art was not a big thing. And though we had some government encouragement of culture, thanks to Indira Gandhi (and to such individuals as Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar), we had not yet reached the stage where every rich man believed he had to buy art for his walls and artists posed for whisky ads.
In that era, artists tend to be poor and desperately in need of corporate sponsors. The one man who recognised how important it was for industry to encourage the arts was JRD Tata. In the era when he was its chairman, Air India built up what must have been the world’s greatest collection of contemporary Indian art. JRD also urged the Taj group to buy as much art as it could, not just for decorative purposes in its hotels but because he believed that it was the duty of the Tatas to encourage art.
Though they had their differences, Indira Gandhi and JRD Tata were united in their determination to promote art. All government buildings built in Mrs Gandhi’s time were required to feature art and she recognised that Indian contemporary art would, one day, win global recognition for India.
In the early 1980s, when Delhi hosted the Non-Aligned Summit and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Mrs Gandhi had a separate VIP terminal built at Delhi airport to welcome the scores of leaders who arrived in their own planes.
Rajeev Sethi was among those put in charge of designing the new VIP lounges, and he filled them with paintings by the likes of MF Hussain.
Over time, alas, Air India has become just another struggling public sector unit and many of the paintings in its collection (including the Hussains commissioned for the VIP lounges) have disappeared; some have probably been stolen and police investigations are on.
Fortunately, the Taj has stuck with the art tradition. Its collection has over 4,000 pieces, of which 200 are premium works and at least 50 are museum quality. Some years ago, Mortimer Chatterjee, who collated the collection, gave me an art tour of the Bombay Taj (for a TV show) and I was staggered by the easy elegance with which works that were worth several lakhs were displayed in the rooms and corridors.
I can’t think of any other hotel in the world where so much art, collected over the ages, is available for guests to enjoy. If European hotels possess even two or three paintings of note, they make a big deal about it. But the Taj (whose collection is worth many crores; they won’t say exactly how much) makes very little noise about its art.
I have often wondered if the obsession with contemporary art for hotels is a peculiarly Indian thing. Foreign hotels don’t focus on art in quite the same way. But for many Indian hotel chains, art is often the key to design. Who can imagine the Maurya without the specially commissioned Krishen Khanna mural in the lobby? The Oberoi, Gurgaon is part art gallery, part hotel. The Ritz-Carlton in Bengaluru is distinguished by the stunning art (from its owner Nitesh’s collection) scattered all around the hotel.
Rajeev Sethi says that there are foreign chains that recognise the importance of art. He has worked, for many years, with Hyatt where the owners, the Pritzkers, are world-famous for their love of art and design. (The Pritzkers have, of course, endowed the prestigious architectural prize that bears their name.)
Rajeev worked with the Pritzkers when they were building Mumbai’s Grand Hyatt (in which they are more than just operators; they have a shareholding in the hotel along with their friends, the Sarafs) and was impressed by the interest the family took in art and design. More recently, Rajeev was involved in creating arts spaces at the new Andaz (part of the Hyatt group) in Delhi’s Aerocity. Like all his works, the inspiration is Indian but fits right in with the design of international hotels.
At the Andaz, one installation in the tea garden represents the different kinds of brick that went into the creation of the many cities of Delhi through the centuries. Another is a memory cupboard that often evokes the most comments from guests.
In recent years, the Pritzkers have been putting more of their love of the arts into their hotels. I went to the Park Hyatt in New York a couple of years ago (and wrote about it here) and spent most of my time staring slack-jawed at the millions of dollars worth of art on display. Nearly all of it came from the Pritzkers’ private collection, and I was told that the concept behind the hotel (where the suites and the rooms are designed like New York apartments) was to get away from standard hotel design and provide a residential ambience. You were expected to feel that you were guests of a millionaire art collector.
Hyatt has now carried that message forward with the recently opened Park Hyatt in Bangkok. In keeping with the new Park Hyatt ethos, the hotel is super discreet: if you were not looking for it, you might not find it. The design brief, I was told, “was to create a sophisticated private sanctuary reflecting Thailand’s rich culture”. The building itself, is an unusual shape. I struggled to describe it and when I couldn’t, fell back on their own description: a “twisted coil-like structure that is asymmetrical in all dimensions, forming a three-dimensional figure of eight.” Whew!
The hotel has some specially commissioned installations by the Japanese artist Hirotoshi Sawada. Throughout the hotel, you find art by some of Thailand’s greatest contemporary artists, including a stunning modern take on the Buddha (in the lobby) by Nonthivathn Chandanaphalin, who was the best-known sculptor in Thailand. There are works by such Chinese sculptors as Zhan Wang and art by the likes of Gao Weigang.
What completes the art hotel ambience is an open space that the Park Hyatt shares with the Central Embassy Mall (same owners, so the hotel and mall are linked to each other) on the sixth floor. This is full of cafés, art books, little restaurants and book shops. The idea is to convey a sense of peace and elegance through art and it works beautifully.
The idea of an art hotel is still largely unfamiliar in the West. In the 1980s, design hotels became a big deal after the likes of Philippe Starck and Andree Putman began designing hip properties. But in those cases, the hotel itself was the art object and even when it took the name of an artist (say The Mondrian in Los Angeles), there was no great art to be seen.
An art hotel, on the other hand, gets away from the hipness quotient of design hotels and uses art to add class and elegance. It has worked for the New York Park Hyatt and because of the art, the Bangkok Park Hyatt is potentially the best hotel in Bangkok (once it settles down and gets its service issues sorted out).
But I can’t help thinking, even as art hotels open all over the world, that we got there first. For Indian hoteliers, the idea of opening a flagship property without art is unthinkable. Even the Gurgaon Leela, intended as the chain’s lesser property (the one in Chanakyapuri is the super-luxury hotel), features original Raghu Rai prints in most of its rooms. Rajeev, who was involved in the enterprise, reckons that each print is now worth upwards of ₹3 lakh. Abroad, that would be a big deal.
Design is fickle. It changes. It divides opinions. Hipness is ephemeral. It begins to jar all too soon.
But culture and art: they last forever. And that’s why art hotels are special.
From HT Brunch, October 15, 2017
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