Nobody told me Bikaner was sexy. I’m not complaining but some warning would’ve been nice.
We’re at The Gaushala on our first night, the lounge at Narendra Bhawan, the hotel that is about to become our home for the next few days. The playlist is electronic and I’m sipping on a negroni. There are no cows in sight.
There are generally signifiers of Rajput or Marwari hospitality in the restaurants of the state’s hotels. The live music, the folk dancers, the mustachioed doorman.
President Karan Singh is eccentric, effusive and dressed to the nines when he joins us for a drink, “You’re in Rajasthan. Bikaner is right outside these gates. We didn’t want a themepark.”
I’m glad. This is as far from a Chokhi Dhani as it gets.
Each year a close friend and I holiday together. In recent years we’ve been spending time in Rajasthan’s eclectic hotels. He is an architect and designer, I consult and write about the two and we both love a spot of luxury.
First things first, Narendra Bhawan is not a palace. Nor is it a heritage hotel. It’s the former residence of the late Narendra Singh, the last Maharaja of Bikaner who is its muse.
The jali is new, designed by architect Ravi Gupta. Its former terrace is now the central courtyard, Diwali Chowk. The rooms were built around it. The new rooftop has a sunny Mediterranean vibe and a pool.
I knew Narendra Bhawan was different when we were welcomed at the hotel.
It has no lobby and vice president Siddharth Yadav, sharply dressed in a navy vest with a pocket square, checked us in groggy from the car ride from Jaipur airport (Jodhpur is closer but not as well connected) on a plush sofa, under a Hussain, with an espresso. Nobody addressed us as sir and ma’am.
Like us, those with an affinity for art and design will feel instantly at home at Narendra Bhawan. The hotel was designed by Ayush Kasliwal, with furniture and accessories from his labels Anantaya and AKFD sprinkled in with vintage pieces, and kitschy garage sale collectibles. The design journalist in me couldn’t resist and I decided to reach out to Ayush to learn a tiny bit about his approach to designing the hotel.
Ayush, how did Narendra Singhji inspire your work? What kind of research or referencing did you do for this project?
We actually had very little material to start with, there were a few photographs, that we started with. the one which stood out the most was one with Narendra Singhji sitting in a red bedroom, with a red bed, a red fridge.. it was a striking image, and I had the fortune of seeing that particular room.
The chromatic intensity of the hotel comes from this image, and some of the colours that were there in the older house. In addition to these images, there were a lot of anecdotes that we were told about - from people who know him, his retailers, his personal photographer. He was actually a bit of a recluse, and a very private person. His family was not ready to give us interviews.
The other palaces and homes, including Laxmi Vilas, and Karni Bhawan give indications to what his upbringing would have been like - in terms of the spaces.
What did you create specifically for Narendra Bhawan? What came from Anantaya’s existing collections?
A lot of the furniture pieces were specifically created for Narendra bhawan, the furniture in the outer verandah, in the living rooms, and the office, the dining room. All of these were custom made. However, we tried to, wherever possible, find old pieces that complemented the new, bringing about a lived in and eclectic feel to the spaces - much as a grand uncle’s home might have been.
Most of the smaller accessories like the vases, the red in-room information box, the bathroom accessories were all developed specifically for this project. However, a few of the classic Anantaya pieces like the crescent thaali, the cloches, the umaid bowls, etc, have been used across the property.
Each glass bookshelf is packed with Penguin classics to read, interspersed with Victorian-era ceramics, bronze sculptures and coloured crystalware. I have never felt more fond of the relics my family has hoarded for the last few decades. I find the word fabulous in my vocabulary over and over and have a newfound appreciation for the quirky knickknacks in my own shelves.
There are weaves by Ekaya Benaras on the wall. Calligrapher Kriti Monga has painted the lyrics to La Vie En Rose in brilliant gold on the red baby grand piano named Edith (what else?) in the hallway. Shirley Bhatnagar’s sculptural ceramics from her series Anthropomorphic fit perfectly next to the Alice in Wonderland inspired Mad Hatter bake house. The gallery has its first ever exhibition with artworks by Mahaveer Swami, a contemporary miniaturist on display.
The rooms have four categories. Surprisingly, as they go higher, the rooms become more sparse, like they have nothing to prove. We stay in the Princes room, a spacious semi-suite, with plush bedding and touches of velvet. There is a writing desk and scarlet pencils for me to make notes. The coasters are floral and the water bottle covers are beaded. The soft furnishings though striking provide a sense of continuity from the other hotel spaces, so the place never feels garish. The bathrooms have vintage art and all natural toiletries from Ayca which become a favourite to order for my own beauty cabinet. The India rooms are swathed in natural materials. The Republic suites are vast but minimally decorated, with four poster beds and striking designer pieces such as a lounge chair and ottoman by Sandeep Sanguru.
But it’s neither the rooms, the design elements nor the sweet little touches that have my heart the same way as the dogs and cats do (10000 stars for hotels with animals). I’m also thrilled about the myriad social spaces in the hotel. The hallways have sofas and gold diwans for lounging, and there are nooks in the jali to curl up with a book. There are opportunities to sprawl in every corner, without the pressure to caffeinate, though you always have the option.
Those needing something more substantial can visit Pearls and Chiffon, their beautiful sun drenched coffee shop. I loved the buffet area - all antique mirrors and copper brightened with fresh orange lilies, and a private dining room, cosy and opulent bathed in soft, warm light
On our subsequent days, we explore the city. I’ll admit knowing nothing about Bikaner except that it lends its name to packets of addictive sev. We learn that polki jewellery and miniature paintings are its other mainstays. That explains the exhibition.
Narendra Bhawan offers its residents themed city tours, and the opportunity to live like the Merchant or Royal families of Bikaner. On our first day we choose the former and head into the glorious old city. I’m thrilled to see Rampuria haveli and the other many ornately decorated havelis of Bikaner, abandoned by Marwari merchant traders who moved to Calcutta with their families. I’m surprised to find the winding lanes full of art deco buildings. There are towers rising through the middle of buildings, curved balconies and grills in swirly shapes. That explains the art deco influences back at the hotel. We eat a typical merchant’s lunch in a 19th century haveli covered in stunning murals. It’s an all vegetarian thali with dishes such sev tamatar, kair kaju dakh and moong dal salad.
The next day we live like Royals. After a visit to Bikaji ki Tekdi, the palace of founder and namesake of Bikaner, Rao Bika; a visit to Devi Kund, a cluster of cenotaphs or chattris, and a museum visit to see how the other half dined, dressed and lived, we eat lunch in the courtyard of the the exquisitely carved Laxmi Niwas. This time, it’s a more sumptuous affair. Laal maas is on our plates.
The theme continues into the evening, when we drive an hour away to Darbaari, where glittering lights lead us to an all white picnic for dinner and drinks (perfect for a proposal or a small celebration with family and friends, a white cabana with a fully stocked bar is included ). We toast to the present moment - a delicious barbecue, the raspy, delicious voice of a local folk singer, a stunning setting under the stars and time with friends.