For centuries, Indian palaces and buildings of prominence have housed some of the subcontinent’s finest and most important works of art. Kings and emperors have always used sculpture, murals and paintings to not only decorate their places of work, play and worship, but also as an integral part of the architectural design and environment.

Today this tradition lives on in the halls, rooms and corridors—even and inside the swimming pools—of some of the nation’s finest hotels.

“Artwork is very critical to any hotel and has to be well integrated with its décor. For example, the new look of the Taj Mahal Hotel, in 2000, was substantiated with M.F. Husain’s Three Stanzas of the New Millennium painting in the lobby, which resembled India in a new millennium, and the relationship between tradition and modernity", says Gaurav Pokhariyal, general manager at the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai.

If paintings help in creating an identity of a hotel, they also provide a fascinating glimpse into the history of the city and the personality of that particular hotel. The ITC Maurya in New Delhi resonates with Mauryan history and art, and has paintings depicting Buddhism and peace. The paintings at the Leela Palace, New Delhi, however, illustrate royalty and are in traditional bright colours to go with the design of the hotel, which is built like a modern-day palace. On the other hand, the Oberoi in Gurgaon, which started operations in 2011, has contemporary art with minimalist colours and patterns, in sync with its architectural features designed on the tenets of height, light and space.

“Our hotel features works by young contemporary artists like Mrinmoy Barua or Neeraj Yadav. In fact, one of the significant pieces of art in our lobby is a canvas, Dominus Aeris: Middle Class Dream II by contemporary artists Thukral and Tagra," says David Mathews, general manager at the Oberoi. The painting is that of a building surrounded by greenery, forming a face-like structure, depicting the middle-class aspirations of the city. It is hung opposite a cream-white wall, against a light brown floor, and red furniture in the lobby.

Works of art, therefore, are picked for a certain visual resonance with a hotel’s concept. Where they are placed is also important. Starting off as luxury confined to the finest rooms, most hotels now have their best artworks displayed in public places, beginning with the lobby. “Placement of art and artefacts runs parallel to other streams of interior design. You have to care to not only adorn private spaces such as the suites, but also ensure that the artwork is placed throughout the public space," says Samyukta Nair, head, design and operations, Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts.

Shuvankar Maitra’s ‘Foliage’ in the presidential suite at the Oberoi, Gurgaon.

At the ITC Maurya, the dome of the lobby, modelled on the rock-cut styles of the Ajanta cave paintings, is overlaid with The Procession of Life, a painting by artist Krishen Khanna, depicting life in its various hues and forms. Though the painting itself is 30 years old, its still-vibrant shades of blues, greens, browns and reds blend seamlessly with the wooden dome, forming a central aspect of the hotel design.

In this hotel, art also plunges to the depths. “There are 18 coloured-glass paintings by M.F. Husain, focusing particularly on the Artha Shastra, placed against the poolside of the lobby", says Dipak Haksar, chief operating officer, ITC Hotels.

From the thematic artworks in the lobbies, as the design of space and interiors become more focused or personal in the rooms, restaurants, spas and business clubs, so do the paintings. After The Golden Lotus in the lobby, there is an intimate black-and-white painting of Shiva and Parvati hung outside the spa at the Leela. Sanjay Bhattacharya’s painting, at the Executive Club of the ITC Maurya, illustrating Ashoka’s calm face during his procession, blends well with the sombre grandeur of the space. A Rajesh Pullavar painting presenting the peninsular side of Mumbai is of a piece with the Harbour Bar at the Taj Palace.

The presidential suite at the Oberoi in Gurgaon has Shuvankar Maitra’s Foliage, consisting of very subtle shades of yellow, red and green, with minimalist patterns. “Art should not be intrusive or distracting—it has to add to the experience by blending in with the overall essence and aesthetics of the hotel design," says Mathews.

Most hotels commission their art, while some works have been sourced carefully by their in-house art teams. “The ITC Hotels art collection is over three decades old. In the mid 1970s, well-known painter Krishen Khanna was commissioned to assist in reaching out to the leading artists of the time, and since then our paintings and art collections reflect the culture of Mauryan age, and are not for banal prettification", says Haskar.

Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi, chairman of the Oberoi Group, personally selected works for the suites and public areas of its Gurgaon hotel. As for the Leela, the hotel says its director of design and operations, Madhu Nair, travels extensively to collect the art from all across the country to display at the hotels.

According to Pokhariyal, the Taj Palace Mumbai, which already has 4,000 paintings, will continue adding more artworks from younger artists and displaying them alongside the masterpieces. “This will continue to be an important part of the hotel and its architecture", he says.