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With Vision, Design And Courage Black, White And Technicolour Turn To Gold

Rajen Bali

I was late by one year at The Park Hotel, Kolkata. It opened in 1967, but I ‘discovered’ it only in 1968. Actually, at that time, I did not know much about the hotel as such, but was a regular on many Sundays for the immensely popular jam session at the Mad House in The Park. Park Street had many musical attractions at Trinca, Blue Fox, Mocambo and other places, but the music and atmosphere at the Mad House was something else.

Along with many other industries, for assorted reasons, the hospitality industry in Kolkata was also not in a great shape. Over the years, The Park too had become a shadow of what it once was. Then came the turnaround.

It was the opening of The Taj Bengal in 1989 which sent a loud and unambiguous message to the hospitality industry in the city – “Modernise or perish.” This triggered off a massive modernisation/upgradation drive not only in the hotels/restaurants but in other customer-service establishments too. Everyone must have heard the clarion call but it appeared that The Park took it much more seriously than the others.

By then, there had been a generation change in The Park Hotels. With the sad passing away of Mr Surrendra Paul, his daughter Priya Paul had had taken over the reins of the Park Hotels in her capable hands. She also had an extremely talented team to support her. It included Vijay Dewan in Kolkata and Deepak Bali in Delhi. Priya had a very clear vision of what she wanted to do with her hotels and the vision included in making her hotels stand out with their distinctive identity based upon the most contemporary/futuristic design, good taste and elegance. The best hotel designers in the world were called in. The Park Hotels were on a zooming trajectory, design-driven super-successful.

I was fortunate to witness the metamorphosis from close quarters, in The Park, Kolkata and some other Park Hotels.

Hotel events like entertainment and food promotions were then in their infancy in Kolkata. The Park took the lead and introduced Supper Theatre to the highly appreciative Kolkatans. It also took to Food Promotions in a big way. Over time, I remember my first tastes of South African Food, Sailana Cuisine and Seychelles Food in The Park. Later on, I experienced the first-ever Bhutan Food Festival in The Park.

During the makeover years, Chef Dhar ruled over the kitchens for many years. Later, Shaun Kenworthy and Davide Cananzi also made significant contributions. But an invaluable contribution to the cause of food, not only in The Park but also in the city of Kolkata, has been by the ‘thinking-chef’ Sharad Dewan.

The March-of-The Park in the hospitality fields of Kolkata was a Triumphal March. Each asset that was created was a landmark – incorporating great Courage and combining the very best of Design-Elegance-Taste-Functional Efficiency.

Let us talk a bit about the ‘Courage’ part. Vijay Dewan was showing me their newly opened business wing, The Residence. I found that the carpet was white. ‘Will you able to keep the carpet from getting dirty and remaining white?” I asked. “Come stay with us and find out how we keep it spotlessly white,” was the answer.

Form White to Black. I was invited for lunch to the newly opened ‘Zen.’ To say that I was shocked to see the restaurant done all in Black, would be an understatement. I mean Black used as a color?  My quizzical looks were answered by the usual inscrutable smile by Vijay Dewan.

Over the years, I have found Vijay Dewan a totally in-control person, almost no overly emotional public displays at all. But the giveaways are the twinkle in the eyes and the shadow of a smile. Both were unmistakably present when he was explaining the efforts which had gone in to collecting the artefacts in England for ‘Someplace Else’. Obviously, there was also the feeling of extreme satisfaction of a job well done, on his side, and absolute unadulterated appreciation from my side. ‘Someplace Else’ has deservedly gone on to become an institution. For many, an important reason to visit Kolkata.

Pink Elephant at The Grand had ruled for many years as the undisputed disco-to-go-to in Kolkata. Then ‘Tantra’ was created at The Park. Ever since then Tantra has ruled the roost.

Each asset created at The Park over the years was an undisputed hospitality-landmark. ‘Atrium’, ‘Saffron’, the remodelled ‘Zen’, ‘Aqua’, ‘Roxy’, ‘Galaxy’, ‘The Bridge’ and ‘The Street’- all have gone on to create a niche for themselves in the city’s hospitality scene. And, deservedly so.

How time passes. Suddenly it was Golden Jubilee time for The Park. It appeared that all of Kolkata was there to celebrate the event. It was miles and miles of smiles all over. Priya Paul – ebullient and enthusiastic, as ever, basking in the glory not only of the important event but also the unmistakable respect-and-affection of the Kolkatans. Vijay Dewan was his usual in-control self. But was the smile broader and the twinkle in the eyes had more glitter. Deepak Bali had a look of satisfaction of a job-well-done. Pramode Bhandari was beaming benignly at one and all. Chef Sharad Dewan was his usual thinking-and-delivering self.

Everyone was happy. The happiness heightened by extremely generous availability of the drops-that-cheer and good food of many kinds.

But I thought that all the happiness was heightened by a huge sense of Pride. Pride in The Park, Priya Paul and her Park Team.

After all, With Vision, Design and Courage, Black, White and Technicolor had turned to Gold!