IN 1991, French diplomat-turned-banker Francis Wacziarg and his friend, writer and art aficionado Aman Nath, opened the 15th century Neemrana Fort just off the Delhi-Jaipur highway in Rajasthan as a ‘non-hotel’ hotel. It was the result of five years of painstaking restoration work and very quickly became the most talked-about and frequented getaway for people from Delhi. The name stuck and became the signature for the next 28 forts, palaces, havelis and mansions they acquired or leased, and transformed into experiential heritage getaways across the country. All the Neemrana Hotels are ‘restoration for reuse’ projects that have one thing in common. The intervention is minimalist — the old, weather-beaten exterior of the structure is left intact to retain a wistful nostalgia. But whether it’s the Neemrana Fort or the Villa Pottipati in Bengaluru; the resorts all have the basic amenities, a buffet dining with a fairly lavish spread; a well-equipped pool, and an occasional spa. It’s a blend of restoration and commercial viability. The duo insist that money is not the driving force, it’s about being sustainable. Either way, both Nath, 61, and Wacziarg, 70, have demonstrated over the past two decades that it is possible for restoration to happen away from the realm of royalty trying to turn their palaces into tourism ventures or outside the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India. They picked ‘B’-list monuments — or those that are not under the protection of the government and are, therefore, derelict and in desperate need of attention. But the story of the Neemrana Hotels has also been about battles fought — some won, some painfully lost. And of a constant trudge uphill with a system that has sometimes helped them along but more often than not, got in the way of their effort. In conversation with TEHELKA’s Revati Laul, they map their journey, in particular, the protracted struggle over one fort in Rajasthan.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
What made you start the Neemrana Hotels?
Nath: Francis and I wrote a book on the havelis of the Marwari community. It’s called Rajasthan: The Painted Walls of Shekhawati. It came out in 1982. Our endeavour was to get the Marwaris to be proud of their heritage and restore it. We wrote to all the Marwaris and flew down to Kolkata to speak to the Kolkata Marwari Association, who wanted to honour us for our work. We were asking for Rs 5,000 to do water pumping systems in their homeland, in the name of a family member, and we got just one cheque for Rs 250. That’s when I told Francis that it makes no sense for us to be begging the richest community in India to restore their houses when they’re not interested. By a process of elimination we came down to the question — who will do restoration work in jointly-owned properties — and told ourselves if no one is interested, let us do it.
I believe it wasn’t easy, being amongst the first to restore monuments privately.
Nath: It was all uphill. We wish the government wasn’t such a hurdle to cross. It’s not the Congress or the BJP — it’s the government attitude per se. We can’t and won’t do it and so, won’t let you do it either. Yesterday, Francis wrote to me in a mail — “I actually feel so fed up, shouldn’t we just stop doing all this?” We spend 50 percent of our time talking to babus, repeating the whole story from scratch to every new officer in the district. The Neemrana Fort in Alwar district ran on generator sets for 22 years because the government wanted a bribe to give us electricity, which we did not want to pay.
We like old buildings to look old. You shouldn’t turn a grandmother into a bride
There’s one project in Rajasthan — the Tijara Fort — that you have been struggling with for 10 years. What happened?
Wacziarg: It took us seven years just to get hold of the fort because the tourism department of the Rajasthan government overlooked the fact that the property was sitting on forest land. They had not done their homework and did not know that this property did not technically belong to them. The fort was on top of a hill, which was forest land. Since we had no access to it, we could not start the restoration. It took seven years for the Forest Department to allow us access to the fort. For that, the Rajasthan government had to identify some land and give it to the Forest Department in exchange. They couldn’t find any, so we had to pay a fortune on their behalf. Finally, it was handed over to us, but then it took them one year to give us electricity. How can you work on a construction site without power? Because we needed to dig a borewell for our own water, we had to buy land below. The link or access roads were never built by the government. So we had to cut a hill road to the property at great cost. We are still waiting for the government to do up the adjoining road. About two-and-a-half kilometres of road is a mud path. We’ve been doing restoration work on the fort for three years and after that long a wait, it seems that the current Rajasthan Chief Secretary CK Mathew has come as our archangel.
How did the government finally hand over the fort to you, especially since forest rights are a hotly contested space?
Wacziarg: It went through three successive governments and finally, it wasn’t the government that did anything. We were directed to buy land in exchange for the forest land. So our experience in Rajasthan has not been very good, including the Neemrana Fort Palace, which we’ve had since 1986. On that property, we’ve still not been able to demarcate the land. There’s always a dispute — this part is yours, this part is not yours. The Forest Department recently took us to court and lost. We’re not able to make a wall and protect the forest.
What about other parts of the country. You have 28 properties.
Wacziarg: The only place where I would say things are moving very fast is Puducherry. We have two properties there. Maybe it works well because it’s a small Union Territory and it’s easy to get to the chief secretary. Karnataka had also been a good experience till recently. In Uttarakhand, we’ve had a property that was given to us by the government. Then suddenly one day they turned around and asked, “Which organisation gave this place to you?” We said it was given by the zila parishad. They said, “They were not the right owners.” We told the government, “How are we supposed to know that?” So we had to fight our way through. In Maharashtra also it wasn’t easy. We are running a property under a bed-and-breakfast scheme for over 10 years. We asked for permission to upgrade it to a heritage hotel. If that happens, we will be granted a bar licence. It’s been going through a number of collectors. In Gujarat, we have one property, the palace of Morbi where we had no problem. We’ve taken another property in Ahmedabad and all the permissions came in one month. Unheard of elsewhere. The trouble with tourism is that you need 45-50 permissions for everything; there’s no single-window clearance. You have to run from pillar to post.
What are some of the principles you keep in mind while restoring a building?
Wacziarg: We have a minimalistic approach. We like the old building to look old. You shouldn’t turn a grandmother into a bride! Otherwise it looks like a new building. But there are many approaches to restoration. I can’t say which is right or wrong, I can only talk about the principles we follow at Neemrana.
What keeps you going?
Nath: You have to be completely mad. We have 28 properties and each one has a crazy story behind it. But ‘Neemranification’ is about passion. We don’t have a business plan. It’s about remaining grounded in a country where there are many other priorities. Simplicity can be the winner, not just this fascination with escalating into more and more luxury.
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.