The stately Southern Spice restaurant at the Taj Coromandel in Chennai may seem an unlikely place to give yourself over to lofty musings on, for instance, Maslow’s Theory of the Hierarchy of Needs. After all, everything about the place is primed for sating the most fundamental of physiological needs, as defined by the American psychologist. And, yet, as I dwelt on the fine details of the multi-sensory experience, drank in the artful ambience, and allowed myself to sink into indulgent luxury, I found myself rapidly attaining the state of supreme self-actualisation, the highest rung on that ladder of human needs and motivations.
That’s because a fine dining experience doesn’t need to advertise itself with drumrolls and the crash of cymbals. It finds expression in refined elegance and in subtle understatement. It is greased by the soothing unctuousness of discreet service. And the sensory experience is heightened by the tremulousness of hushed expectation.
The same can be said of virtually every aspect of the Good Life. When so-called ‘deficiency needs’ have been well met — in spades — the human mind yearns for a higher order of being. At which point, the transcendence into the Other World of luxury is defined not just by gratification of the senses, but in experiential journeys that broaden the mind and elevate the soul.
That’s the principle that underlies Taj Coromandel’s recent unveiling of its Destination Experience package for guests at its iconic property in Chennai . Having elevated luxurious indulgence to an art form, the hotel is adding yet more refined layers to enhance the Good Life experience of its pampered guests. And that finds expression in giving them a chance to engage with the culturally vibrant southern metropolis, but in a way that looks beyond the city’s stereotypical image of classical conservatism.
What the Taj offers , then, is a curated, custom-designed exposure to a slice of Chennai that fuses tradition with contemporaneity: one that, like a many-layered palimpsest, is revealed only to discerning visitors who are keen to seek out tucked-away treasures. It opens up exclusive access to private art collections; facilitates joyous interactions with artists, collectors and gallery owners; affords an up-close look at the fine-crafted work of French embroiderers who have put Chennai on the global design map; takes in a visit to the Kalakshetra dance school and its weaving centre; incorporates a walk-through of the Madras Museum to savour the famed bronze gallery; and lets you savour a walkabout of the traditional temple-courtyard neighbourhood of Mylapore, where centuries-old customs live on without the faintest suggestion of anachronism.
The visit to Vastrakala, the embroidery workshop founded by Jean-Francoise Lesage, who hails from a distinguished French atelier family and serves haute couture designers around the world, from Louis Vuitton to Christian Louboutin, is illustrative of the richness of this experience. Lesage, who oozes Gallic charm, has a compelling life- narrative to share: as a teenager, he opted out of the family’s fashion embroidery business in Paris, and was training to be an auctioneer. But while on a visit to Varanasi in 1985, he underwent a surreal experience that would reorient his life. One night, a power outage plunged all of Varanasi in darkness, but in the middle distance, he saw a lone bulb glowing. Drawn to it by karmic destiny, Lesage stumbled on an embroidery workshop, where a lone karigar was working on a delicate pattern, hunched over his wooden frame. Reflecting on that epiphanic moment, Lesage marvelled at the oneness of things: how the tools and the language of embroidery were much the same even half a world away. That led him back to his embroidery moorings, and to start up Vastrakala in Chennai, along with three associates.
Today, Vastrakala fashions finely-crafted home furnishing embroidery for estates and high-networth clients around the world. It also offers a glimpse into the future of personalised accessories: tattoos embroidered onto fashion footwear, for instance, representing the height of luxurious indulgence. Lesage is also associated with prestigious interior decoration projects: the redesign of the State Banquet Hall at Rashtrapati Bhavan, or the restoration of one of Napoleon’s thrones, which is today in a private collection in Paris.
The experience of interacting with the skilled craftspersons at Vastrakala is complemented by a visit to the weaving centre at Kalakshetra, the renowned school of dance. Here, kalamkari artists and weavers use traditional wooden-frame handlooms to spin out colourful accoutrements, including the famed Kalakshetra saris. There is a certain timelessness about the traditions that are preserved at Kalakshetra, which the engaging interactions with the artists only accentuate.
The Destination Experience offered by the Taj Coromandel has been artfully curated by Sharan Apparao, who founded Apparao Galleries and has established a reputation for catching emerging art trends early and for talent-spotting artists. Sharan’s own home is something of a private gallery, done up in Art Deco style and filled with everything from precious objects to kitschy street art. Framing the entrance to the apartment are striking fiberglass figurines of trans-sexuals, the work of George K., one of Sharan’s ‘finds’; they are part of his series of works on hijras, and are illustrative of the emerging trends in Chennai’s vibrant art scene, which are something of a revelation even to someone like me, who was born and brought up in the city.
A visit to the home of another of Sharan’s discoveries, artist N. Ramachandran, near the Artists Village in Cholamandalam, leads to another enchanting encounter, and an earnest discussion on the elusive nature of truth, which is a recurring theme in his works. Ramachandran has evolved his own distinctive rhythmic art idiom by the use of repetitive patterning and a minimalist grid structure, which compels a variable understanding of the concept of space. It is such admittance into the private world of the artist, and the chance to enter into lively interactions, that enriches the experiential journey.
Just as endearing is a chance to drop in on the aesthetically splendid residence of writer Nirmala Lakshman, and admire her private art collection. Here, a chromatically rich work by prodigious Sri Lankan artist Senaka Senanayake appears to pick up on the theme of flowers from Nirmala’s sun-dappled garden, which seems to merge seamlessly into the living room area. Other works by S.H. Raza, J. Swaminathan and Jehangir Sabavala elevate the other living spaces. The experience is the richer for the realisation that these are private collections, displayed in private living quarters, to which Taj’s guests have gained exclusive access.
But arguably the biggest revelation of one of Chennai’s best-kept secrets is the ‘home museum’ of Lily Vijayaraghavan, which houses her private collection of feminine body adornments. From elaborate and intricately sculpted foot scrubbers to ivory combs to kajal holders to mirrors to back scratchers to breast plates, each fashion accessory is testament to the excessive preoccupation with hedonistic sringara adornment that characterised women in an earlier time. Lily, an octogenarian who maintains an admirable sprightliness of spirit, says most of her art collection, which extends to stone pillars and sculptures and Thanjavur paintings and meditation mirrors, was picked up from scrap heaps over 40 years of diligent acquisitions.
That evening, over another splendid repast, my mind turned once again to indulgences of body and spirit. In equal measure, the items of body adornment, and the tireless quest to acquire them over decades, are indicative of a higher pursuit beyond the fundamental physiological needs. They are, in that sense, luxuries of the body and the mind. And in providing its guests exclusive access to these private worlds of art and acquisition, Taj Coromandel’s Captivating Chennai package of Destination Experiences redefines our understanding of luxury.
Taj Coromandel, Chennai. From Rs 10,500, doubles; 91-44-66002827; tajhotels.com) The hotel has 212 guest rooms, including 11 suites. Dining options are Southern Spice (traditional South Indian, where executive chef Alok Anand and his team crafted the elaborate menu by drawing on their experience of visiting private kitchens in the four southern states and crowd-sourcing traditional recipes from their glitterati guests); Anise (multi-cuisine all-day diner); Prego (Italian); Golden Dragon (Chinese). Prego and Golden Dragon offer private dining rooms. There’s only one bar, the psychedelically decked-up Chipstead, named after the erstwhile bungalow on the property where the Taj now stands. Chipstead has a dizzying range of rare whiskies, including Scotches with region-specific tastes from parts of Scotland. And Prego’s wine collection is rated among India’s finest, with meticulously chosen houses and vintages. Taj Coromandel’s Jiva Spa will open in June 2014, but for now guests have 24-hour access to the wood-panelled fitness centre, sauna and jacuzzi, besides the outdoor swimming pool.
The Taj Club opens the door to exclusive services and amenities for business and leisure travelers.
Destination Experience. Customised, curated art and cultural experiences that enrich guests’ their understanding and appreciation of Chennai’s rich heritage. Price per person: Rs 4,000 (half day); Rs 6,000 (full day). Includes transfers to and from venues, entry fees, guide fees and a South Indian meal at Southern Spice. Contact: 044-66