About 100km from Delhi, on a hilltop in the middle of mustard fields, stands the 19th-century Tijara fort. It was in ruins when it was acquired in 2007 by culture preservationists Aman Nath and the late Francis Wacziarg, and their chain of Neemrana Hotels. After the first phase of restoration, from 2013-16, Tijara opened as a hotel where traditional architecture has been sensitively maintained.

Like other Neemrana properties, it is a piece of cultural heritage. Nath describes its aesthetic as evoking India’s colour and clutter in a contemporary way.

The fort has magnificent uninterrupted views, a royal feel and a lovely seven-step garden. Its three main structures—the Mardana Mahal, Rani Mahal and Hawa Mahal—have been retained. Uniquely, Tijara also marries two concepts that Nath is passionate about. It is both a restored heritage structure and an art museum. Each room is dedicated to an artist or designer and features their work, whether originals or prints.

Anjolie Mahal by Anjolie Ela Menon. Photo courtesy Neemrana Hotels
Anjolie Mahal by Anjolie Ela Menon. Photo courtesy Neemrana Hotels

In one room, I encountered three works by artist Jagannath Panda that are as curious as they are painterly. He has used resources like fabric from the hotel to present his works, allowing them to retain the context and cultural reference. “I was excited to be part of this," Panda says. “Aman is very passionate about putting history, legacy, and culture into a single space. And this time it has a layer of contemporary art," he adds.

For Kanchan Chander, the project was about revisiting an old memory. Many years ago, Wacziarg had visited her show and loved a Meena Kumari portrait. Chander decided to pay tribute to this memory by following a Bollywood theme in the room she designed, Kanchan Mahal. “It is fascinating that the space takes the old and juxtaposes it with the contemporary," she says.

I found my stay at Tijara refreshing. Clean air, intense sun and smog-less starry nights are luxuries, as is the opportunity to stay in close proximity to art by some of the most celebrated and creative people in the country. People escape the city in search of solitude and fresh air. Tijara offers oxygen both for the lungs and mind. Edited excerpts from an interview with Nath:

What was your motivation for bringing art into hotel rooms? How did you choose the artists?

I have always been posterity-minded. That remains our quest as we restore and develop heritage hotels. I feel that once you have done enough of the raja and rani names, you run into a dead end, a block. Beyond just a creative idea to name rooms after artists, I think our artists must enter the gates of posterity without waiting for the government to do everything. For initial selection, I made a committee to guide the process. Then there were personal friendships that I relied upon. And of course, there are those who were so enthralled with the idea that they themselves offered to contribute.

Aman Nath. Photo courtesy Neemrana Hotels
Aman Nath. Photo courtesy Neemrana Hotels

How does focused yet limited representation of a single artist or designer enhance the experience for the guests?

Tijara is a work in progress. I am creating two libraries which will have books and catalogues of the artists after whom the rooms are named. Those interested can see more of, say, Anjolie Ela Menon, Nilima Sheikh, S.H. Raza, or A. Ramachandran. The rooms are not straightforward rectangular spaces like most modern hotels and they’re certainly not white-cube galleries. There are spaces within the rooms, niches and walkways. Each of the mahals, therefore, provides several avenues for artists to give a unique experience of their practice. Anjolie has painted massive frescoes. And there are others who chose to paint directly on walls or ceilings. Nilima’s double-sided works have been installed like a window that can be opened to see the other side.

How do guests reconcile the gap between serious art and a vacation destination? How do uninitiated guests engage?

I think a room is where you are finally cocooned away from other people, their judgements and conversations. Likewise, art is also a great escape, especially if you get to admire it for 24 hours and more. One cannot sleep in an art gallery. Nor wake up in a monument. Tijara is hopefully both, and that is a very rare experience. As for those who have not interacted with art, there is always a beginning. The works of Ramachandran or Sanjay Bhattacharya are easy to relate to. Crafts connoisseurs like Laila Tyabji and designers like Ritu Kumar and Suneet Veer Singh have created spaces that are eclectic and full of surprises.

The good thing is that one sleeps in the dark. So, all art vanishes to reappear different in the morning light. There’s wall text about the artists and their practices in each room. Guests enjoy the experience and show their rooms to each other.

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