Having read and written so much on the once Auckland, once Wilson’s and finally “Great Eastern Hotel” as we knew it till the time that it closed shop, I had been craving to go for that Heritage Walk through the huge structure standing regally across the Governor House, on the Old Court house street since the last 180 years. To imagine the various events this mansion has been a witness to over the past close to two centuries, in itself is bound to give a shiver down the spine for anybody remotely inclined towards history! And I, being in love with the history (as long as I am not expected to get any marks for reproducing them) of my country, my city and of the British era in India, could not possibly leave the opportunity to walk through the corridors that have been tread by the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Queen Elizabeth, Nikita Khruschev, Mark Twain, Mahatma Gandhi, just to name a few…
My only remaining memory of visiting the Great Eastern Hotel was that of entering through very selectively decorated and illuminated portions of an otherwise ramshackle building. I was to attend a wedding reception at one of the grand ballrooms and trust me when I say this – I was completely put off! Was this what THE GREAT EASTERN HOTEL was like? However, the grandeur of the ballroom spoke volumes about what it had seen in its heydays! While the rest of the experience was a blur, the run-down entrance and the dull darkness of the rest of the venue had struck me bad! And as I started reading about the history of this place, it saddened me even more! How little we do to preserve remnants of our history!
Through most of my school and college days, the hotel had steadily gone from bad to worse during a time that had seen the Oberoi Grand first and then the Taj Bengal coming to the forefront as the prime go-to hotels in a city that was considered to be stuck in time! Handed over to the Government in 1970, its steady decline continued till 1995 when the Left Front Government attempted to divest the property for the first time and failed. The attempt was unsuccessful again in 2001. It was only in 2005 that the Lalit Suri Hospitality group acquired a 90% stake in the hotel – it cost them INR 52 crores. It took 8 years to renovate and the Lalit Great Eastern opened its doors to the people on 19th Nov 2013 with the bakery first followed by Phase I with 195 guest.
As I walked towards the Lalit that afternoon, my thoughts kept going back to the very dilapidated dark and dank front entrance. The ornate gari-verandah, mentioned in a previous post, along with the whole of the façade on the Old Court House Street still remaining behind covers with renovation work going on in the background, the main entrance today lies through Waterloo Street. A once-empty considerable patch of land within the hotel area, that served just right for a modern-day hotel entrance with ample space to manoeuvre and even park guest vehicles has been smartly blended into the old structure making way for a bigger entrance and lobby, a must-have for Star rated hotels. My walk through the lobby entrance gave me hope! I felt joy at what I was seeing. All is not lost after all!
However, that this modern swanky entrance is actually a custodian of history for half the life of the city of Calcutta is stamped by the huge metal containers that hold dwarf palm trees as you walk or drive in through the gate. If you are wondering what these are – well, once upon a time in Calcutta, there was a bakery run by a certain Mr David Wilson and these huge containers had once been dough mixers for the once-famous Wilson’s Bakery. If you are wondering why they needed to be used this way – well, history and all things historical have their own value and for those who want to hold on to that – there are always ways! The Lalit Group, unlike many others for whom renovation is a complete transformation, preferred to retain parts of the history and blend it with the modern version of perhaps the oldest functional hotel in India, if not Asia. So, while in parts it might look rather mismatched and the striking differences may stand out and scream at you, the heart might perhaps soften and accept the stark difference for the sake of history!
I took in the décor around me as I waited for my friends as well as our guide for the walk. The old paintings, vintage cupboards and drawers, a vintage phone in the lobby, some old rugs and the grand piano that has been mentioned in my earlier post were, as if, plucked from the pages of history and dropped in the middle of a posh and swanky new world! But in spite of the mismatch, the old and new worlds of the Great Eastern Hotel settle in almost like portions of old and new Calcutta blends all around it, to give shape to my city of love! I was almost lost in thoughts when my friends as well as our chaperon for the Heritage Walk, Madhumita Bose, Manager PR & Marcom at The Lalit Great Eastern Kolkata joined me to start walking down the lanes of history.
Madhumita explained the theory behind the décor – heritage items and all things Bengal! At the far end of the lobby stands three life-size vases with a roundish-triangular design with a hole halfway up on the right-hand side of the triangle. On closer inspection and her explanation, it became clear – the semi-round triangle was a fish head – a “macher matha” signifying a good start, the little hole being the eye and the three intricately etched installations with a pair of raw coconut built on top of each were the gills of the fish. Talk about innovation! Some paintings by eminent contemporary painter Sunil that were found in a semi dilapidated condition during the handover post the divestment, now verified by the painter and restored to its current state, adorn the lobby area.
And then as the eyes move further and settle on the magnificent grand piano! Believed to be more than a century or more old, this grand old beauty was manufactured in Hamburg by MF Rachals & Co. and had once been the heart of Maxim’s – the bar. With time came unuse and decay and it was after painstaking and extremely expensive restoration by the Braganza & Co. that this beauty has once more been made functional. Madhumita told us how wonderful and melodious the entire lobby and its surrounding areas, including the Tea Lounge, become when tunes are rendered out of this beauty during evenings, occasionally, a group of enthusiastic visitors joining in a chorus as the fingers of the player dances on the keys to churn out magic. Imagine it being played at Maxim’s and Uttam Kumar sitting in one corner with a cigarette in hand and that killer look appreciating the music with a glass of scotch placed on a table in front of him. “I have heard that apart from his own house, the only other place where Uttam Kumar would sit and listen to a script was the Maxim’s. Unfortunately, there exists no picture of him at the bar.” Madhumita added the last line a little sadly! Goosebumps, right?
Passing by more old cupboards, dressers, drawers, dough makers we reach the glass-topped Tea Lounge and Alfresco, perhaps one of the only 24-hour open bar and restaurant. Our visit being during the afternoon, the sky and the upper floors of the Edwardian and Victorian made for a great view once we lifted our heads, but I am sure come darkness, it would make for an even better view with the lights twinkling around. I have covered most details on the history of the hotel in my previous posts, so here, I will just be talking about my feelings as I walk down corridors, verandas, stairs and lounges steeped in history! Our next stop was the Legacy Lounge – or the Legacy Grill as it is also called, thanks to the wonderful grilled items it presents to the guests. The décor of the Legacy Lounge again is rather a concoction of the old and the new world – with smart seating arrangements from today to charcoal irons, bread moulds and water jugs of the past all blended in perfect harmony.
With a wide window giving a view of the rooms on the other side and ornate brass showpieces retrieved from the run-down relic that it was, carefully polished and put as exhibits on the far end of the wall together gives a rather strange feeling of being stuck in time in a modern aircraft! Further down the alley across the Legacy Lounge, at the very end of the smoking zone tables stands an old frail looking cupboard on top of which are two “surahi”s – pewter jugs – one plain brass, typically a wine jug and a bigger wood and silver-coated one with a brass handle and intricate carvings bearing a Buddhist style. While the apparent size might indicate them to be rather heavy, the actual weight of both the jugs is way beyond imagination! Madhumita shared with us how it took official testing of dried-up remnants clinging to the interiors of both vessels to reveal that the brass one was used to pour wine while the heavier one was for whiskey! Whew! Imagine the effort it must have taken to pour one peg! Poor bearers of the time!
Come back for more on this walk, through history in the next part of my blog. Till then…