The rise of the art hotel

The Taj group has a collection of over 4,000 pieces, of which 200 are premium works and at least 50 are museum quality

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.

Rajeev Sethi has played a pioneering role in introducing art and heritage to hotels

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.

For Indian hoteliers, the idea of opening a flagship property without art is unthinkable

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.