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The lady who dressed Taj | Condé Nast Traveller India | India


At 8.45am, her office on the second floor of the Heritage Wing in the flagship The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, would be a beehive of activity. Elisabetha Kerkar would be instructing her team in her soft but precise manner on placing orders with lampshade suppliers, curtain manufacturers, carpenters.  One hundred fifty lampshades for a hotel under refurbishment, in pleated chiffon for the suites; for the rooms in a less expensive fabric. Her lampshade maker was given the sizes and the fabrics to custom-make each shade. Selecting from a range of lampstands provided by the leading lamp companies for each category of room, she made sure that unique pieces were selected. On the softboard beside her table were pinned a range of swatches of various colour shades she had selected for the different room categories. Orders were placed to procure upholstery from fabric manufacturers in precisely these shades. When the upholstery fabric was manufactured to flawlessness, it was sent to the upholstery tailors with her patterns, for fabrication into curtains and sofa covers and dining chairs.

Meanwhile, in one section of her large and well-appointed office, her team of architects and draftsmen would be mapping floor plans of suites, rooms, restaurants and banquet halls, measuring out living areas and dining spaces and bedrooms, and the sizes of the dining tables and chairs, queen-size double beds, consoles, cupboards. Kerkar designed the furniture herself with her team and orders were placed with furniture suppliers to manufacture them in the wood varieties she selected–largely teakwood, some rosewood, cedar. By 12.30pm, when she and her deputy Nazim Shums would step out for lunch to her favourite restaurant Sea Lounge and be seated at her table near the entrance, much of an entire hotel’s refurbishing orders would be underway. 

Swiss by birth, her European sensibility was quick to appreciate Indian aesthetics. A lover of Indian antiques, she constantly visited her favourite antique shops to scout for treasures, be it Chor Bazaar or AK Essajee in Mumbai. Whatever exquisite object that caught her fancy was purchased for display in the appropriate hotel, in a public area or restaurant or corridor. Even while on annual holiday – not more than a few days given her schedule–her eye was on the lookout for anything suitable for the hotels’ interiors. Once, while on holiday in London and on a visit to Harrod’s, she spotted some beautiful Chinese lanterns which she immediately procured for the Chinese restaurant in the upcoming Taj Bengal in Kolkata. 

“When she had to design the interiors of a new hotel, say Lucknow or Kolkata, she would stay in the city for a month or two and go around sightseeing its monuments and market squares,” says Nazim Shums, who worked with her for 30 years. “She had an eye for beautiful aesthetics and would absorb influences to replicate in the hotel interiors. She would visit private homes and notice their beautiful furniture, chandeliers and antiques and would enquire where in the city they could be purchased. This was the time when some royal and aristocratic families fell on hard times and were willing to part with their antiques and objets d’art and they trusted her reputation to sell them to her for the Taj.” 

According to Sujaya Menon, art lover in Chennai, “Each hotel reflected the local aesthetic. Taj Bengal displayed terracotta sculpture of life-size musicians in the lobby sculpted by Shyamal Roy of Bishnupur. Portuguese Catholic wooden antiques of the Mother and Child and angels and clergymen were put up in Taj Fort Aguada. Taj Coromandel’s distinct South Indian touch came across with an old wooden temple chariot and gilt Tanjore paintings in the lobby and a beautiful bronze Nataraja. The lobby is the guest’s first impact of the hotel and indeed, of the city.” 

Says Shums, “While renovating The Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi, Kerkar would drive down from Delhi to Makrana to see the marble craft of the pietra-dura artisans here. After visiting many of the marble artisans’ workshops, she selected the most beautiful gem-inlaid marble slabs for the lobby of The Taj Mahal Hotel. When the artisans finished working on the marble slabs, they were brought to the hotel with the artisans to be fitted in the lobby, along with carved marble railings for the marble stairway and a marble water fountain. This provided employment and wages to hundreds of artisans, motivating them to carry their traditional craft forward. While selecting marble, she would not accept a single flaw and had the entire flooring redone if it was not up to perfection.”

When the old Tata palace, Petit House in Mumbai, was being dismantled, Kerkar went to have a look around the magnificent house and spotted the beautiful columns that she immediately bought for installing in the Crystal Room. Says Shums, “She loved wooden palkhis, petis and chests and would buy every good piece that she saw. She visited the brass market in Old Delhi every time she travelled to the city and would rummage for exceptional pieces.”

“When the Lake Palace became a Taj hotel, Kerkar had to renovate the suites that were earlier occupied by the royal family,” recalls Saraswathi Mahadevan, former Executive Housekeeper at the Lake Palace. “She was fascinated by the haveli-style wall paintings. Through local sources, she found out the best artisan Suresh and assigned him and his team to rework these fading wall paintings.”

“The ceiling of the Sajjan Niwas Suite was covered with tinted glass inlay mosaic, and it was said that when the maharana lay in bed and looked up at the ceiling, he could see the reflection of the moon outside. Similarly, in the Khush Mahal Suite, the arched windows were made up of small squares of coloured glass – yellow, orange, magenta, green – that would reflect the sun’s rays at dusk in brilliant hues. Kerkar sourced and commissioned the local artisans to rework and restore the panels and retain the original beauty of this 18th century royal palace. On completion after months of hard work, Kerkar would throw a tea party for the entire team of artisans, craftsmen, housekeeping staff, contractors and labourers, congratulating them for their good work.” 

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The Sajjan Niwas Suite at Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur
The Sajjan Niwas Suite at Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur
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Mahadevan recalls that Maharana Arvind Sinh ji gifted Kerkar a precious and large silver antique of a sculpted chariot drawn by horses from his ancestral collection which she displayed prominently in the lobby of the Lake Palace. “The placement of every piece of art in a suite or public hall was planned by her and housekeeping staff were instructed not to move them to any other area. We therefore took photos of each room and suite after they were appointed to her satisfaction and put up the photos in our back office so that her aesthetic was maintained. She was a stickler for perfection.”

“When Rambagh Palace became a Taj hotel, Kerkar loved the gold-leaf painting that was in the seven original royal suites on the first floor, using 24-carat gold paint, on the ceiling and arches,” says Salil Dutt, former General Manager at the hotel. “The newer Maharaja and Maharani Suites, created for Gayatri Devi and Sawai Mansingh when they got married in 1940, also had antique gold-leaf work on the ceiling paintings, as did the Suvarna Mahal restaurant. Rambagh’s regular guests loved this traditional painting style. Kerkar sourced out the best gold-leaf artisan, Rajender, and commissioned him to rework the gold-leaf painting. He would work conscientiously for a few days, and then disappear until he was phoned and called to work. When she smelled alcohol on his breath, she gently chided him to give up his ways for the sake of his wife and young family, to which he responded affirmatively. This would happen periodically. It took all of two years to complete the gold-leaf work in all the suites. Rajender received enough commissions from the Taj to become a full-time artisan.” Mahadevan recalls how in the evenings, Kerkar would relax in her room with her knitting needles, watching her favourite television serial while knitting sweaters to give to children in an orphanage in Mumbai.

The Grand Presidential Suite at the Rambagh Palace, Jaipur
The Grand Presidential Suite at the Rambagh Palace, Jaipur
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During the late 1960s, Kerkar and Rodabeh Sawhney, the sister of JRD Tata, were scouting the growing number of art galleries in Mumbai and Delhi to discover artworks by contemporary Indian artists. Says Mortimer Chatterjee, gallerist and art consultant to the Taj, “Chemould and Pundole Art Galleries in Mumbai were set up in 1963 and the Taj Art Gallery simultaneously. It was here that Kerkar built a rapport with young artists. Among the early works acquired were by Jehangir Sabavala, whose father was a manager at The Taj Mahal Palace. Laxman Shreshtha had a personal relationship with the Tata family–some of his prominent artworks were purchased. A significant number of Husain’s paintings were acquired. Ramkumar is another favourite of Kerkar, who acquired about a dozen of his significant works. Works of Vasudeo Gaitonde, Jamini Roy, Anjolie Ela Menon, KH Ara, SH Raza, KK Hebbar and many other artists were acquired. The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai exhibits around 200 high quality artworks. Taj Mahal in Delhi, Taj Bengal in Kolkata and Taj West End in Bengaluru are also art repositories of the best contemporary works, purchased decades ago for a few thousands.”

Knowing that the interiors of the Taj’s growing number of hotels would provide the best exhibition space, contemporary Indian artists visited Kerkar with their artworks. Her keen eye was able to spot talent and genius when she saw it. These artists became India’s foremost artists with their artworks sought after by collectors in India and abroad. Says Chatterjee, “The Taj’s collection is among the foremost in the country and in the list of the 20 best collections of Indian art worldwide, it would find a mention.” 

Kerkar also lent her touch to the most stately residence in the country. “Very few may be aware that she contributed, in a large measure, to the redecoration and refurbishment of the Presidential Suites, the Guest Wing, and the ceremonial areas of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, leaving her indelible stamp of good taste and excellence in the President’s House…,” says P Murari, Principal Secretary to the former President of India, the late R Venkataraman. “With her in-depth knowledge of design, she matched the grandeur of the original work, mostly designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens himself, followed his philosophy and his concept. President Venkataraman’s vision and eagerness to present it to visiting Heads of State from all over the world was realised. When the Guest Wing became functional, it was Prince Charles and Lady Diana who were the first to occupy the redecorated Presidential Suites. They conveyed their appreciation and compliments to me about the beautiful décor. This is to acknowledge Elisabetha Kerkar’s lasting impact on two great heritage buildings of the world. The Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi and The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. Few heritage buildings in the world can match them in terms of their size, history and magnificence.”





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