The Taste with Vir: Elizabeth Kerkar’s contributions to Taj Hotels created new school of Indian interior design – opinion

In the 1950S and the 1960s, the big American hotel companies looked as though they would take over the world. Such chains as Hilton (owned by the eponymous family and then by TWA), Intercontinental (owned by Pan Am) and a little later, Sheraton (owned by the multinational conglomerate ITT), opened in many of the world’s capitals.

Some of these hotels were not bad looking structures (though it later became fashionable to dismiss them as ugly skyscrapers) but it is fair to say that they had no sense of place about them. There may have been a few token nods to the city they were located in, but most days, if you suddenly woke up in a Hilton or an Intercontinental, it was hard to tell which city you were in.

That began to change a little from the 1970s onwards but it continues to be a problem for many global chains even today. They use the same service model, the same systems and often, the same architects and designers no matter where they build their hotels. So there is very little to distinguish one property from another. Nor is there much sense of art or aesthetics.

Indian hotels have always been different much to the bemusement of foreign chains. I have heard it said that when the Tatas did not know what to do with the Taj Mahal Hotel in the 1950s, they asked Hilton if the chain would run it. Hilton said it would. But the existing building was too awkward and had to be pulled down. A huge new skyscraper would be constructed in its place.

The Tatas said goodbye to Hilton and decided to run the Taj themselves. They were up against the Oberois, India’s leading hotel chain who had collaborated with Intercontinental in Delhi and were about to collaborate with Sheraton at a brand new hotel in Mumbai. It should have been a no-contest. But against the odds, largely thanks to the genius of JRD Tata and the team he entrusted the Indian Hotels company (which owned the Taj) to, the Taj brand grew from one Mumbai hotel to rival the Oberois as a national chain.

Though the Oberois worked with the great American chains, they retained an Indian sensibility. Such great Indian artists as Krishan Khanna and Satish Gujral created works of art specially for Oberoi hotels and Rai Bahadur MS Oberoi, who built the chain, was keen to imbue it with an air of Indian-ness.

At the Taj, JRD Tata and Ajit Kerkar, the man who turned the Taj into an all-India chain, worked to a similar brief. Their combined efforts helped create the Indian hotel industry: one reason why India is probably the only non-Western country where the top hotels in each city are still run by Indian companies and not by foreign chains.

At the Taj, at least, a key element of the planning of each hotel was the design. Kerkar had worked in London before he was headhunted by the Tatas and brought back to India. He had a Swiss wife called Elizabetha (“Liz”) and in the early days of the Taj she worked closely with the great American designer Dale Keller (who designed both the new Taj and Oberoi hotels in Mumbai) and with Rodabeh Sawhney, JRD’s sister, who was involved in design at the original Taj.

Liz Kerkar took the American model and Indianised it so thoroughly that if a guest suddenly woke up in the middle of the night at a Taj hotel, he would never think he was at a Hilton or a Sheraton; he would know that he was with the Taj.

Even at the early Taj hotels of the 1970s, the Taj Coromandel in Chennai and the Taj Man Singh in Delhi, where the architects worked on the then current American pattern of relatively small guest rooms, she managed to create an Indian paradigm. Her stunning design for the Taj Mansingh lobby and for Haveli, its Indian restaurant, using works by contemporary Indian artists like Anjolie Ela Menon left you in no doubt that you were at an Indian hotel. Many years later, after she had retired, the Taj hired the well known international design firm of Hirsch Bedner Associates to redesign the lobby and they did such a bad job (almost like they were playing a practical joke on the company), that it reminded guests of what a brilliant job Liz Kerkar had done.

The Fort Aguada was the first five star hotel in Goa. Liz Kerkar’s mixture of modern fittings with Portuguese motifs and sea-shells and other beach symbols created the template for the modern Goan resort and has been copied again and again.

Though this is not widely recognized, much of what the Taj did in the Seventies was re-invention and re-imagination. Few people realize that a whole extra floor was added to the old Mumbai Taj building in the Sixties. Many of the so-called ‘historical’ suites were actually created during that era.

Similarly, the Indian palace hotel is largely a Taj invention. Yes, the Rambagh in Jaipur and the Lake Palace in Udaipur had been run as hotels through the 1960s, but they were feeble, terrible operations, run sloppily by their owners. When the Taj took them over on management contracts in the early Seventies, the group created entirely new spaces. They practically doubled the capacity of the Lake Palace by building a new wing that merged so perfectly with the rest of the palace that today, nobody even remembers that there are old and new parts to the hotel.

At the Rambagh, the ground floor (or basement, depending on your perspective) had no accommodation. The Taj cleared it out and created new rooms, fitted out in a palace style that Mrs Kerkar had created.

Even the historical suites in those properties were in disrepair. Liz Kerkar lovingly recreated and restored each of them, finding craftsmen and artisans who knew all the old techniques and could recreate the rooms that the maharajas and maharanis must once have lived in.

As for most of the palace rooms, they were created by Mrs Kerkar, based on her own imagining of what life in a palace should be like. The structures themselves were conceived decades ago (in the case of the Rambagh) or centuries ago (in the case of the Lake Palace) but the interiors of the hotels as they now exist sprang largely from Liz Kerkar’s imagination.

And then, there was the art. In that era, hotels all over the world did not spend huge sums on art. The Taj had always been an exception because of the Tata tradition of patronising the arts. In the early sixties the Taj even had an art gallery (Rupa Art Gallery) run by an outsider and then later, its own gallery (Taj Art Gallery) which lasted — I think – into the 1980s.

Mrs Kerkar spent a large part of her design budget on buying contemporary art. Partly, this was to encourage the contemporary art scene and partly it was to ensure that the art in all of the Taj suites was real and valuable. For the early part of the 1990s, I used to stay in small corner suites in the old wing of the Mumbai Taj (the 31/34 series) and though the rooms in the suites were all of the same size, each had been decorated so distinctively that it seemed totally different from the others. On the walls were Hussains and Ram Kumars —with no attempt being made to draw attention to them. That’s just the small suites — the fancy suites had works of art worth crores, all bought by Mrs Kerkar when prices were low.

A decade or so ago, when I still liked to stay at the Mumbai Taj, I did a TV show on the hotel’s art collection. Mortimer Chatterjee walked me around the hotel, pointing to each important piece. It was a mind-blowing experience and though Chatterjee said he wasn’t allowed to say what the Taj art collection was worth, I reckon it must be worth more than say, a whole hotel like The President or the Fort Aguada.

Liz Kerkar died last week, after a longish illness and I wondered how many people recognized what she had achieved. Her contribution to the Taj is, of course, enormous. But I think her achievements went beyond a single group and encompassed the whole Indian hotel industry. She created an Indian paradigm for hotel design which has, in one way or the other, influenced all the other chains.

And I would argue that it has gone beyond hotels. For many rich Indians, good taste is what they see in hotels and it is that look that they try to copy in their homes. So, without ever intending to, I suspect Liz Kerkar created a whole new school of Indian interior design.

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