Aman Nath, writer, historian, conservator, antique collector, art curator, archivist, hotelier, pioneer, socialite … Aman is famous for his e orts in bringing back to life the glory of the Neemrana Fort Palace from its woeful near-ruin status, and then going on to renovate and restore many other heritage properties as 'non-hotels'. NRI Achievers sought him out to glean some glimpses of this fascinating story that his roller-coaster life tells. But before we get into the narrative, here is a brief background:
he Neemrana Hotels story started as a moment of passionate love at fi rst sight, when Aman Nath, art-historian, and Francis Wacziarg, a founder member of INTACH, who were seeking frescos, stumbled upon the magnifi cent palace of the erstwhile Maharaja of Neemrana in Rajasthan. Th e ensemble was in ruins, standing abandoned and habituated by bats and civets. What began then as a passionate journey to save a 15th century fort has not only become a profi table business today, but is also synonymous with authentic heritage tourism – a brand of hospitality that hinges on preserving and promoting history and architectural grandeur in its intended essence.
Neemrana Hotels has worked dedicatedly towards creating a niche for travellers looking to experience Indian history and its architectural treasures. Converting ruins – India’s dilapidated links to its past glory – Neemrana Hotels today off ers interactive experiences spanning the 14th to the 19th centuries. Guests at Neemrana Hotels’ properties get a chance to live the 'rich' life: a life brimming with books, music, architecture and art, a life in sync with the chimes of India’s past. As with life, being truly passionate with something always pays off . Today Neemrana Hotels operates 23 'non-hotels' across 17 destinations, ranging from four-roomed houses to nine-fl oor palaces. Th e business model is simple enough: they take properties on a long-term phases, opening up the restored portions to guests. Th e money earned is ploughed back into restoring the rest of the property. What can typically take 8 ~ 10 years to break-even in the hotel industry takes 2 ~ 3 years with Neemrana Hotels.
Properties are selected for aesthetic appeal and fi nancial viability before being restored. Restoration is oft en done with local masons and traditional materials like lime and mortar. Minute attention is paid to details: from the overall look and feel of the property, to its furniture and art. Properties off er comfort rather than luxury, and the service personnel are strictly from among the local people – encouraging the local economy, keeping costs reasonable and preventing attrition. Neemrana Hotels’ social contribution is measured by the change they have brought about in the fi eld of period restoration in India. Suddenly, old ruins were no longer places to be pulled down to make way for concrete and steel monoliths, but rather, gateways to peek into, experience, and relieve the past; 'time machines' as they call it. Many of these projects have been awarded and recognised for their conservation philosophy, including the Aga Khan Award for architecture for the restoration work done at the Neemrana Fort and the INTACHSatte award. Th eir work has since inspired a wave of heritage hospitality in India. By employing traditional craft smen and masons for building, carving, and restoration, Neemrana Hotels has helped create demand for threatened trades and has also helped sustain the livelihood of artisans.
Th e Neemrana Hotels story is an ongoing one, so lets leave it be at that, and get on to the story of Aman Nath. We met him for a freewheeling and informal chat about him, his life and what excites him. And here are glimpses of his life, as told by him in his own words:
CHILDHOOD: My parents came to India as refugees from Lahore after the partition. Their initial years in free India were spent in a refugee colony in Delhi, located near the Supreme Court. My father and elder brother were quite athletic and were Badminton champions. In those early days, my father and brother would hunt wild boars in the jungle, where Pragati Maidan now finds its place. They would then cut it up and distribute the meat to other colony residents, as only meagre rations were made available to them. All this was before I was born. I was born in 1950, in Pusa Road, in what was called the Western Extension Area (WEA).
As a child, I do remember playing cricket on the main Patel Nagar Road. We used to pitch the wickets bang in the middle of the road, and every 10 minutes or so when a car would come, we would pick up the wickets and move to the side. Today, parents are known to restrain kids from doing various adventurous activities, but we had a healthy and unrestrained childhood, climbing sewage pipes, trees and what not. My elder brother, my twin and I - we were like monkeys, engaging ourselves in various adventurous and physical activities.
SCHOOL, COLLEGE, YOUTH: We had subsequently moved to Nizamuddin. And I went to Modern School, Barakhamba Road. In those days we used to cycle to school - unimaginable in today's day and time, given today's disastrous traffic. In those days, we would bicycle in the middle of the road, as cars were a rare sight indeed. As and when a car would come, we would move to the side. In school, I used to do well, in sports, in painting, in debating, et al., and subsequently I also passed out with flying colours. In college, I sort of drifted from my moorings, and because I did not want to do math, got into History at St. Stephens. Though I did win accolades for my literary activities, I ought to confess I did not do too well academically.
But as a youth, I never felt contained in any box and always did what I felt was good for my growth and liberation – from being the first to wear wide bell-bottoms in 1968 – yellow at that – to winning literary awards for poetry or throwing the noisiest dance parties with quadraphonic music, I have no regrets of not having done anything.
EARLY WORK, ADVERTISING, INTEREST IN HERITAGE, FOUNDING OF INTACH: I would say that I was naturally endowed for the advertising profession. My style of provocative, original writing, sort of dovetailed ith my job from the very first day. I recall doing a campaign for DCM Data Products, a computer company where Shiv Nadar and Arjun Malhotra gave me the initial brief, and I still have that work. And then, I did many other campaigns, for Pan Am, etcetera etcetera. When Francis Wacziarg and I got down to doing our first book on Shekhavati and we went to Oxford to publish it, we got all the National Trust papers for Pupul Jayakar. INTACH was in the air then, but its first name was INTACT – 'Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Treasures.' Later, the intangible 'Heritage' was also included, and it became INTACH.
THE HERITAGE HOTELS IDEA: You know, I was brought up in a refugee home very conscious of re-cycling all waste. The Neemrana initiative is quite simply a war against national waste, recycling its heritage to make India proud of itself – as also for the world to enjoy India experientially – in great simplicity and honesty, not just laying out luxuries. WHAT NEXT? Ruins are strewn all over India. One can start from any corner. But wherever people or governments have the will, Neemrana would love to be there. We cannot restore our entire ruined heritage from a single pocket but what we have done is not insignificant. Now this healthy virus of Neemranification is spreading fast. LAST WORD? In retrospect, I am glad I was not born in Lahore, but rather as a member of a migrant family that had moved to Delhi from Pakistan. We were in a certain way like other diaspora. NRIs are different, they are usually from normal families and through dint of hard work in their host countries, they create wealth. One thing about the punjabi diaspora. They are dynamic, as opposed to the rajputs. The rajputs tend to live in the past, while the punjabi, who are very progressive, lives in the present and looks into the future.
Nomads must make family wherever they go, I could spend a whole life anywhere and being born in India certainly helps. We are not just easily welcomed everywhere but can hope to be reborn on each continent, to begin with. And then, if it’s not asking for too much, hope to help restore the heritage of each civilization!