As someone who has been involved in writing about architecture and art for many decades, Geeta Doctor brings her knowledge to an assessment of the way hotels have evolved in our country.

For a land that has been famous for its spectacular forts perched on hilltops, exquisite summer retreats in the midst of mist filled hillsides, or along the banks of rivers and lakes, creating a language of architecture meant for hotels has never been a problem.

When you look at the extraordinary panorama of choices that the ITC Hotels present in its offering of more than a hundred hotels and destinations you cannot help but be amazed at the variety of styles, historical, modern-contemporary, colonial and vernacular that the entire gamut represents. Within the group itself, there has been a certain ordering of styles into what is described as “Hotels, palaces and resorts” which is indicative of some of these categories.

Just as has been the case in the old countries of Europe, that used to have a monarchical style of governance and architecture, the erstwhile royal families were quick to realize the potential for transforming their vast estates with their palatial homes and hunting lodges into hotels. There’s obviously a thesis waiting to be written on how the transition from a stately pile belonging to one dominant family, or lineage representing a particular region, state or country has been transformed into a very specific type of building meant to attract and serve the needs of an entirely different clientele.

Quite aside from the practical considerations of designing a type of building that answers to the needs of a specific type of climate and environment, what you realize is that there are common features that link the Old World to the New that emerged during the period of the first generation of Hotel architecture. In both cases, there was a need if not expressly stated, then certainly one that seems obvious today, that these were “monuments” in the best sense of the term. They were meant to represent a certain character that would include continuity with the past, opulence and luxury. It would not be wrong to add another term that might sound a little quirky – yatra --or journey as a form of pilgrimage. The monumental style was meant to stun you by their size and imposing use of materials. In the early years of Indian Independence, the grander hotels  that were built did indeed seem like architectural icons to be gazed at by awestruck visitors. It was only very gradually that they came to be seen as “People’s Palaces” to be open and accessible for the most part to those who had the means to enter and be entertained.

It’s not entirely accidental, for instance, that “Heads of State” and visiting royalty were most often accommodated in these early hotel complexes. Or that words such as “Grand” or “Royal”or “Palace Hotel” came to be attached to their names with the same type of veneration provided by the first line of service providers, the Darwans, the “Greeters and Meeters” who stood outside the new stately piles and salaamed and saluted the new age guests. To be sure, this is exactly what was expected of a country that has been always seen as defined by its maharaja culture.

In the case of the ITC Hotels, there has been a pattern of creating a reference to a period of history dominated by a ruling dynasty. It was started most vibrantly with the ITC Maurya in New Delhi. What is utterly fascinating to observe is how the Maurya demonstrates many of the characteristics of an earlier era of hotel architecture and culture while also changing to meet the needs of the new. Perhaps it is something that happened much earlier than anticipated with the introduction of the extraordinary artistic influences that have made the Maurya a virtual tableaux and often the changing repository of the art and ideas of India’s best known artists. For instance, the use of sandstone for the imposing facade, the curving driveway, or “yatra” effect that leads the visitor in gradual stages to the opulent entrance foyer, but most certainly the dramatic figure of the Emperor Asoka standing at a strategic point of the estate are all part of what we have called the ‘monumental’ style.

Even here, however, there is a departure from the usual genre of sculptural gesture. The Emperor Asoka is shown at a moment of a critical transformation in his life from conquering warrior to a questing seeker and eventually a follower of the Buddha in the aftermath of his Victory at Kalinga in the 3rd century BC. Even the style of casting the bronze piece was done in the rougher, earthier manner of creating images practiced by the tribal craftsmen of Bastar together with the welding techniques and modernist idiom of 20thcentury by the sculptor Meera Mukherjee.

Whether this was altogether a new direction for the artistic direction of hotel art, we cannot say for certain. As other well known artists began their commissions, for instance, as Krishen Khanna created the extraordinary work which transformed the upper reaches of the barrel vaulted “Buddhist” vihara style of ceiling in the lobby, the whole atmosphere underwent a transformation. It became a people - friendly place. People came on a “yatra” specifically to gaze at the vihara paintings. Not only do these continue to attract visitors on account of the vibrant colours and style that Khanna has managed to infuse into them, but what gives them their vivid character is that the artist managed to bring in the everyday incidents and scenes from the life of the city and its streets into the hotel space. This could be seen as a harking back to the Buddhist style wall paintings, but they also suggest the sturdy street type quality of the stucco figures that artists through the centuries have used to decorate the entrance structures of temples in the South. By combining ideas of perspective and narrative taken from the fresco artist’s repertoire and adding every day events and figures of real-life people, Khanna has been able to suggest a sense of visual stream of life that is as fascinating today as it was when he created it.

Since that time, providing visual markers with the past through conscious historical, archival and architectural references, for instance in the selection of famous dynasties of the past, such as the Cholas, Kakatiyas, Marathas, Mughals and so forth and contemporary artists to add their own very distinctive works, has been a part of the ITC Hotels' way of being inclusive in its policy.

Obviously there has been an evolution in the way both the public and private spaces have changed with an increasing emphasis on including the local flora and fauna in creating a sense of being a part of the environment. The ITC Mughal at Agra is a deliberately understated series of red sandstone faced public spaces and residential rooms that have been designed around inner courtyards and private gardens linked by water bodies set in the most splendid of gardens. The outside garden is not a formal Persian style garden in a rigid geometric format, but a wonderfully expressive space that allows for all manner of birds and living creatures to come to its bounty. In a sense it’s more like a painting in the miniature style with small groups of trees and shrubs. The stepped processional pathway from the formal entrance to the residential units leading to the Mughal style terrace with its look-out towers is an inspired choice. It neither imitates nor slavishly replicates the models that Agra provides with so much panache, but re-creates them in a modern contemporary way. 

At the ITC Maratha, Mumbai, the architectural references are in the use of  stone and other materials used in the tiered segments of the central atrium space that is located well inside of the hotel. The entrance itself is more intimate and friendly as the trend towards a de-centralized un-cluttered hotel lobby allows these days with so much electronic equipment to process the visitor. The atrium with its Disney style fake palm trees and bustle of the Mumbai bazaars is altogether as cosmopolitan, Bollywood glitzy, as well as both bland and ‘busy’ as one would expect of the country’s premier commercial hub. The more recent hotel, the ITC Grand Central in Mumbai’s erstwhile mill district has incorporated the use of courtyards and gardens with references to a possible link with its Portuguese past with the inevitable high rise tower that dominates its architecture as a nod in both directions – that is gardens and grandeur.

If one has to choose the one large property where the landscape dominates the rest of the built space, it would have to be the ITC Sonar Kolkata. It not only reflects the semi-amphibian culture of the riverine delta of Bengal but it’s central vista of a sheet of water filled with lilies, floating tea-rooms tethered to the ground and deep verandas on every side looking on to the play of light, shadows and all manner of miniscule marine and winged creatures that have made the pond their luxury hotel space is an art work all on its own. 

In all these myriad ways the ITC Hotels have shown themselves to be in a continual process of being adept at accepting the changes that take place in the world of hospitality management while remaining true to an inner capacity to dream and to encourage the creation of dreams for others.