Once a sleepy village, it's now the poster city of new India. The interiors of The Leela Kempinski, Gurgaon have been carefully designed to reflect its evolution, says Gargi Gupta.A few hundred metres down the toll plaza on National Highway 8, The Leela Kempinski, Gurgaon is the very first building that you encounter as you drive into this poster city of new India. The location and its symbolism seem to have weighed on the mind of architect Achal Kataria, when designing the structure.
The Leela hadn't come on board when Kataria sat on the drawing board to design a contiguous structure for a mall and five-star deluxe hotel that would serve as the frontispieces for the 150-acre Ambience Island premium integrated township project, which includes the Ambience Mall, a bunch of luxury condominiums, a golf course, a hospital and a school. (The management contract with The Leela came after the building had been built.)
But if the five-star deluxe hotel chain had nothing to do with the architecture, the interiors are exactly as per its specifications. The Leela management brought in Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), a specialist hospitality interior design firm which has a long and distinguished portfolio of projects all over the world (among them the Taj Palace, Dubai and The Park Chennai), to make sure that the interiors met its standards of distinctiveness.
"My brief was for a building that would be in character with the surrounding structures, most of which have glass facades," says Kataria. So there's a lot of glass, blue-coloured and double-glazed, encasing the sleek, linear structure, with some grey and red granite to relieve the starkness. Inside the double-height lobby, there's more stone a light yellow Italian marble called Travantino, that gives the vast space a feel of spacious lightness.
"It's a symbol of the mustard fields that used to abound in these parts only a few decades ago," says Kataria.
The agricultural theme is also carried into the two ornamental stairs that rise from two sides of the entrance. "One stands for the rabi crop and the other stands for kharif. The water body below the stairs forms a stepwell and those are birds flying away," says Kataria, pointing to the underside of the stairs which has been detailed with thin strips of beaten metal lacquered in gold and green tints. They are meant to be seen at night, he explains, lit up from under, so that the gold and green accents are highlighted.
This is "Rabi and Kharif", an installation by Bhupinder, one of a group of artists brought in by Rajeev Sethi, well known designer and patron of Indian crafts, to create art works for display in the public areas around the theme of Gurgaon's transformation from a sleepy Haryanvi village on the Delhi border to the swish business destination it is today. The results of Sethi's efforts are interesting, though they do require some help by the hotel staff to decode.
Spurning conventional formats of a flat canvas hung on the wall, most of them are installations that are integrated into the architecture.
The reception area, for example, has an immense free-flowing aerial sculpture by Gopika Nath and Hitesh Rawat, constructed using new-age textiles and theatrical fabrics, embellished with tie-and-dye shibori and metallic embossings. Suspended from various heights from the roof, and layered, they represent mustard blooms, yellow fields and the open sky dotted with flying parrots.
The lift lobby has two installations called "Metamorphosis" and "Transformation". The former is a large asteroid-like rock embedded on the wall whose rough, unhewn surface has intricate patterns inspired by the Dutch artist MC Escher, while the latter, by upcoming artist Prakash Patidar, is an abstraction on the rhythms of nature.
Elsewhere, in the first floor banquet pre-function area Shambhavi Singh celebrates the "Kumbham", in a multi-media installation which puts the spotlight on the humble lota, a symbol of prosperity.
The corridor along the conference rooms has a work by the celebrated Thukral and Tagra, in their distinct mish-mash of Punjabi nouveau, cheap baroque and regional Gothic aesthetics, the muddle of styles reflecting the architecture of Gurgaon and much of urban India.
The Gurgaon cityscape and its inherent contradictions also inspire Vishal Bhuwania, whose large painted panels in red, ochre, and some green, completely cover the huge 14 feet walls outside the spa and along the corridor to the swimming pool.
But not everywhere is contemporary art; India's traditional crafts too get a look in, most luxuriantly at the super-exclusive invitations-only Club Elitaire, which is a picture of lavish opulence in rich green, ornamented with large-hand-cut and hand-dyed mosaic interpretations of Ganjifa cards.
Then Sethi has got the master craftsmen of Chennapatnam to specially create the jaalis that line the glass windows overlooking the courtyard, in the shape of mustard flowers and parrots perched against what seems like buildings. Madhubani master painters of Bihar were commissioned to handpaint a range of modular wallpapers, while the local Sanjhi art was the inspiration for the inlay-work in the apartments at the Residencies.
"We wanted to make a statement that Gurgaon was not just about call centres," says Vella Ramaswamy, general manager, "and change the perception of India."