The Imperial – New Delhi, India (English)
180 historic and contemporary photographs, maps and illustrations
Hardcover (real cloth bound / gold stamping / dust jacket)
160 x 235 mm, 720 g
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What do you get when one of the most important Indian constructors of the new city of Delhi meets one of the most ambitious social ladies of the British colonial empire? The answer is simple: The Imperial. This book takes you from George V’s surprising 1911 announcement that made Delhi the new capital of India beyond the last years of the Raj, when the Viceroy’s wife, Lady Willingdon, convinced the eminent constructor of New Delhi, Narain Singh, to build a splendid hotel. We accompany the new hotel, opened in 1936, through the following decades. It hosted lavish colonial parties and served ‘subversive’ Indian nationalists as their base to restore India’s independence after centuries of British rule. Pandit Nehru made the hotel his personal headquarters. Muhammad Jinnah drew up his plans for an independent Pakistan there. The Imperial became the hub of Indian society, from Delhi’s businessmen to Bollywood’s stars, the home for discerning international travellers and the nerve centre of global enterprises. Its unique museum concept makes it the most sought after hotel in India. Make the acquaintance of the famous guests who made The Imperial their home. Meet the wonderful staff providing the necessary ambience. Read about the thrilling moments leading to the creation of Pakistan at the Royal Ballroom and enjoy golden memories of the good old Tavern. Shedding light on the history of this unique hotel, this book reveals the path into its future: the ‘Imperial experience’.
The privileged among us know this special feeling of ‘coming home’ when checking into a hotel. The lovers of fine arts have experienced the deep admiration for a piece of art in a museum. Two emotions of equally satisfying pleasure. Ever thought about checking into a museum? Come with me to The Imperial in New Delhi. Here a fellow student from Klessheim Hotel Management College, Jasdev Singh Akoi, had the idea of merging his hotel with a stunning museum of historic India, displaying some 4,000 items of art. It was one of the most ambitious hotel projects. First of all Jasdev Singh Akoi had to steer the hotel from a severe depression into safe waters, transforming a ghost of a grand hotel into one of the rejuvenated maidens of the Asian hospitality industry. It was a seven days a week job, 18 hours per day, dirty hands. His wife Mira became the master designer, faithful workers including the housekeeper Mrs Sandhu and the carpenter Ratti Ram were at hands completing the monumental tasks. Against all odds, Jasdev Singh found arrangements with demanding labour unions after cutting down a work force of 1.200 by fifty percent, earned himself budgets for renovating basics, toured the hills for old British house ware to decorate a coffee shop named Garden Party, renovated rooms and rose rates to renovate more of the hotel. By then, the Akois had secured enough funds to start a master renovation, created The Spice Route, the most sensational of all Asian restaurants, opened Patiala Peg, revived The Tavern by opening Daniell’s and finally put their private art collection on display at the hotel. At the end of their efforts the hotel has changed into a white swan, proudly floating on the lake of Indian hospitality.
One Sunday I had early tea around seven, before taking a guided tour of the hotel’s antiques, paintings, etchings, prints and drawings. After three hours I had barely completed a third of the tour, competently led by the hotel’s arts manager O.S. Chowdhary. I escaped downstairs to have brunch. My favourite table is on the terrace. Since early morning a group of elegantly sailing eagles had been circling at approximately 1.500 foot above the lawns of the Imperial. Towards noon they had lowered their flying altitude considerably. Punctually at lunchtime they graced the roof ornaments of the hotel, scrutinizing every movement on the ground, waiting for their chance to snatch a sandwich or at least a French fry. I opened The Hindustan Times supplement, aptly named ‘Brunch’, to receive the confirmation: The brunch at The Imperial, I read, comes highly recommended. One of India’s best known editors, food and wine columnist Vir Sanghvi (‘Rude Food, The Collected Food Writings’) made The Imperial his ‘hotel of the year’, San Gimignano the ‘Italian restaurant of the year’ and The Imperial’s cellars received his personal ‘wine list of the year’ accolade. In another issue ‘Brunch’ says that ‘the only grand hotel in India to have really got its act together in the last couple of years Slowly my thoughts wander to the days when this was a piece of barren land, outside the old walls of Delhi. I embark on a journey into the past, back to the days when the capital of British India was Calcutta, and Delhi was a small provincial city.
Let me take you from those days to the moment a certain Lady Willingdon arrived to change the social landscape of Delhi and to convince the eminent constructor Narain Singh to build this hotel. Let’s travel from India’s independence to today’s buzzing capital of a superpower, with a bewitching, romantic and yet modern revolving point, called the Imperial. May I go ahead? Shall we?
The history of the Hotel Imperial brought Andreas Augustin back to this hotel which he had been visiting for almost 20 years. Happy personal memories were merged with professional research, carried out in India and internationally with devotion and attention to detail. Archives around the world became valuable sources, interviews with active and retired members of staff added stories and anecdotes to the growing collection of facts. With the help of the owning family and the management of the hotel finally the detailed puzzle of the history of New Delhi’s premiere hotel was completed.
Famous for its strict Art Deco architecture, The Imperial was New Delhi’s first luxurious grand hotel. The 'fastest turnaround in the hotel industry'.
My personal Imperial saga had started about 20 years earlier. Back in those days, I remember the hotel being a dark and almost dilapidated site, but buzzing with business. It was the kind of place where backpackers mingled with elegant business travellers. A shaky Ambassador taxi transported me from the airport to the city. Nobody was there to greet me at the hotel. For the hotel staff, us guests were just a tiny distraction in their daily routine of watching the time pass between morning and the moment they went home. Two decades is a long time, however.
When I came back to The Imperial, a member of the front office staff welcomed me at the airport terminal; cooling towels were handed out before the new Mercedes-S class took off. The Sikh doormen traditionally guarding the hotel opened the door of the limousine and greeted me with a friendly "Welcome to The Imperial!" Smartly attired bell-girls pushed the inner doors open. Elegant staff in stylish uniforms courtesy of designer Raghavendra Rathore glided hurriedly through the brightly lit house like ghosts in a Harry Potter movie. The corridors were adorned with thousands of pieces of art.
What had happened? Researching the history of the hotel, I had to go back to the day when New Delhi was declared the capital of India. That was the year 1911. Slowly I worked my way up to the day the hotel came into being. That was between 1934-1936.
The Singh family had built it, but rented it out to the Oberoi family, who ran the place. Many years passed. The nation of Pakistan was founded at the hotel in the wake of World War II.
Left: With the help of local picture scouts we unearthed wonderful photographs from the heydays of the hotel. Nehru (centre) held important political meetings at the hotel.
In the 1980s a member of the owning family took the helm of The Imperial: Jasdev Singh Akoi. It was upon him to undertake the monumental task of renovating a hotel described thus by Michel de Grèce: '… in Delhi the travellers will go to The Imperial. The red upholstery is still threadbare to the point of decrepitude.
Most of the light bulbs are burned out, the lamps are delightfully bizarre. Likewise, the bellboys understand nothing at all, yet their philosophical air is irresistible.'
Jasdev Singh Akoi took his place in the driving seat of the company, just as easily as he slides into his splendid Jaguar Mark III, 1953 model. With his natural sense for elegance and speed he became the long missing visionary leader of the good old Imperial. With the help of his wife Mira he worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day. Wing after wing of The Imperial was renovated. No part of the hotel could be closed as the income was needed to pay for the work. Temporary lobbies had to be created, and electricity transformers had to be moved without being turned off.
Left: Jasdev Singh Akoi, his wife Mira and their son Gobind, the new man at the helm of the Imperial.
There was still very much of the 'old' in The Imperial. The Los Angeles Times correspondent John-Thor Dahlburg wrote in October 1994: 'Take the narrow six passenger elevator, said to be Delhi's oldest, up to the rooms and you may feel as if you've been whisked back to the twilight of the British Empire. The Imperial has added a new wing but, realising that its history gives the building a character no other Delhi hotel can match, room rates have been revised so that the guests pay more to stay in the old wing, along with the ghosts of Nehru and Jinnah.' Meanwhile, Jasdev Singh Akoi had begun to collect art and antiques, buying from the palaces, collecting some 5,000 pieces of art. Singh Akoi decided to combine hotel and museum in one.
Artwork needs space. A new floor was added, the number of rooms increased by 57 units. In 1997 he proudly invited guests to the first opening of his 'Great Exhibition of Imperial Art' at the hotel. His masterpiece was still to come.
Building it and living the experience (below): The Spice Route The Atrium had been designed by Hong Kong based Indian architect Chandu Chhada. Now designer Rajeev Sethi, the celebrated cultural tsar of India created the 'The Spice Route'. Never before had a restaurant in India such a feed-back. Acclaim came from all over the world. A correspondent of the New York Times wondered: 'I cannot recall a time, during my 20-odd years of writing about restaurants when I recommended a restaurant for its decor.' Here, in October 1998, a star was born. A confident Thai lady with the sweet-sounding name Veena Arora became the chef of The Spice Route, the first female chef of a restaurant of note in India. Part of her success is a collection of home cooking recipes. 'From my mum,' she confesses. The Royal Ballroom. Here the charismatic Muslim leader Jinnah founded Pakistan. The Next Generation: Gobind Akoi, the son of Jas Singh Akoi, became the new executive director of the hotel in 2001. His father elegantly stepped aside and handed his dream, his vision over to his son. Gobind Akoi was at Cornell himself, had worked in the USA and knew that he needed a professional team to run The Imperial. He found Rishi Kapoor, who took over the part of strategic planning. Soon The Imperial was the first hotel in India to install Fidelio, a hotel operating software. The Italian restaurant 'San Gimignano' became an other India's sensation. In 2002 Frenchman Pierre Jochem became the first foreigner at the helm of The Imperial since the 1950s. He was an ex-general manager of The Pierre in New York (in addition to other leading Asian hotels). Pierre's persistence often needed a good portion of sense of humour: 'When I made my first rounds through the 285 rooms hotel,' he recalls, 'I heard an old, rattling vacuum cleaner at work. I said: That's a fairly old model; and the maid said. Yes, indeed, but it doesn't matter, when it breaks down we have a second one. On the first of January we start to vacuum the hotel on one side, at the end of the year we finish at the other.' Today Jochem laughs about this: 'The next morning we bought 50 vacuum cleaners. It took me four months to make sure that every room was vacuumed every day.
Designer uniforms for all staff were ordered.
The Imperial became the first hotel in India to hire music designer Marc Barrott to create special moods in different sections of the hotel. In the kitchen leading European chefs motivated their Indian colleagues. A French pâtissier created delightful little 'sins'. Flower arrangements all over the hotel were inspired by Strasbourg florist Groll. The housekeepers of competing hotels were seen once a week to copy the set up. Chic wooden furniture was placed on the lush lawns in front of the terrace. A high-speed Internet connection was laid into every room, with WIFI on all floors.
Today 21 Art Deco at 660sq.ft (61sqm) offer bathroom linen and duvets from Porthault of France, Bang and Olufsen TV sets, marble from Italy, sanitary fixtures from USA, Italy and Singapore, Burmese teak wood floors, French wood furniture and Italian glassware. These and all the other name-suites are among the grandest in the country, providing a home away from home to Her Majesty, the Queen of the Netherlands or Sir Richard Branson, who arrived on Virgin wings with 140 of his closest friends in tow.
Commercial success followed. By 2003 the hotel defended the second highest room rate in the country. The Imperial's turn-around became a synonym of economic success, its management considered one of the most disciplined and professional of all Indian companies. The company is a reflection of the changing times in India: 'My team is one of the youngest in any hotel in India – new thoughts, new ideas, new energy,' says Gobind Akoi, full of pride. Photographers arrived from all over the world to shoot the hotel. New York Times columnist Mark Bittmann recommended The Spice Route to his readers. More and more magazines published articles about the magnitude of The Imperial's Art collection. The Museum Hotel concept was born. What Jas Singh Akoi had conceived had become a triumphant reality.
The Imperial's symmetric design originally encouraged the idea to have the main entrance from the terrace, but in fact the entrance was always from the side to retain the serene setting of the tranquil lawns in front of the hotel.
From a sleeping legend The Imperial turned into one of the most famous hotels in the world. The news of the success of The Imperial travelled so far, that a leading American university entertained a case study on the 'fastest turnaround in the hotel industry'. What went missing in most studies and stories I read was the human factor and the humble fact that many people working in this hotel have been here for over 30 years. While other hotels have closed their doors and released all old staff to reopen years later with a shining new interior and brand new software called employees, The Imperial has held on to its home-grown staff. And the old staff has joined the new management team (with German quality driven resident manager Martin Kleinmann) in the turnaround of the century.
Back to the beginning of the story: when I arrived in Delhi after ten years of absence, I gasped at the new splendour of the good old Imperial. The question if I would like to write the history of the hotel was rhetorical. Of course, I wanted to do it. It was in fact an honour.
The Imperial New Delhi
as part of the series
THE MOST FAMOUS HOTELS IN THE WORLD
The author and the organisation THE MOST FAMOUS HOTELS IN THE WORLD would like to give special thanks to Jasdev Singh Akoi for keeping The Imperial legend alive and for adding the exemplary museum concept, and to his son Gobind Akoi for giving it the spin of the 21st century.
We would also like to thank Pierre Jochem, vice president and general manager and his ‘right hand’, Martin Kleinmann. Our deepest gratitude to the department of public relations for its valuable assistance, thanks to L. Aruna Dhir; and last but not least to Rishi Kapoor for his strategic planning.
Also thanks to (in loose order) B.K. Joshi, Prashant Yadav, Ravinder Singh, Bruno Cerdan, Veena Arora, Munish Kumar, Subash Goyal, Dorene Liedel, Birgit Løitegaard, Inder Sharma, Jill Gocher, Rosemary Hedges, Peter Gautschi and Stephen Vincent Fernandez.
Our heartfelt gratitude goes to O.S. Chowdhary, The Imperial’s manager of art & antiquity, who so competently devoted himself to this project. Radhika Singh must be mentioned for bringing the history of the hotel’s 1960s in old photographs to life. Vikram Madhok and Reshmi R. Dasgupta for their memories.
Assistant in historical research: Thomas Cane
Photography: Deepak Budhiraja, Frank Meltzer, Jacob Termansen, Titouan Lamazou, Joplin Sinclair.
Further photographic material: Rajat Dilwali / Kinsey Brothers New Delhi, O.S. Chowdhary / The Imperial Art Collection, Famous Hotels Main Archives, Vienna; Imperial War Museum, London; The British Library; Archives d’Outre-mer, Aix-en-Provence; Diplomatic Archives Quai d’Orsay, Paris.
Editor: Carola Augustin and Thomas Cane.
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