Elizabetha Kerkar: The pioneer of ‘India Modern’

With tales, recollections and images, right here’s toasting the inside designer and artwork connoisseur who handed away two weeks in the past, abandoning a shocking legacy at Taj Lodges

Everybody has a narrative (or 50) about Elisabetha Kerkar, the inside designer who gave Taj Lodges its distinct design identification within the latter many years of the 20th century. For Naomi Menezes, a detailed good friend, it’s a couple of small, weather-beaten 300-year-old Portuguese map of Goa that Elisabetha restored, mounted and framed. “She requested me if she may use it in a roundabout way. The following factor I knew, it was blown up into an 18 ft x 6 ft print and mounted in the back of Fort Aguada’s Anchor bar,” says the spouse of Lenny Menezes, then normal supervisor at Goa’s first five-star seashore resort, underlining how Elisabetha had a watch for the bizarre.

For Saraswathi Mahadevan, former govt housekeeper at Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur, it’s Elisabetha’s fascination with the fading haveli-style wall work that she’d found whereas renovating the suites occupied by the erstwhile royal household. “She went to the native market [something she did in every city and town she visited, to scout for talent and treasures] and located Suresh, an artisan with the experience to revive them,” she says. Elisabetha, who all the time learn up concerning the historical past and tales behind the properties she labored on, additionally performed up every room’s distinctive options, such because the glass inlay mosaic on the ceiling of the Sajjan Niwas Suite — the place the maharana is alleged to have lain on his mattress, having fun with the reflection of the moon exterior — or the ‘joyful’ colors at play within the Khush Mahal Suite. “She acquired the workforce to revive the squares of multi-hued glass within the jharokhas [arched windows at the 18th century palace] in order that when the daylight got here in, good oranges, magentas, yellows and greens stained the flooring and partitions,” says Mahadevan.

The haveli-style wall paintings in the Sajjan Niwas Suite at Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur

The haveli-style wall work within the Sajjan Niwas Suite at Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur
| Photograph Credit score:
Special Arrangement

With Midas’ contact

However the single reminiscence everybody shares: how Liz, who handed away on September 19 on the age of 82, as a perfectionist. At eight am, wearing trousers and chic handmade kurtas, she could be at her desk in her massive, well-appointed second ground workplace within the Heritage Wing of The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai. By eight.30 am, she would start work, putting orders with carpenters and tile makers in her accented English, drawing up patterns to ship to cloth producers, finalising color palettes (her helpful softboards by her facet, with swatches to make sure the suppliers matched the hues picked by her exactly), and overseeing her workforce of architects and draftsmen as they mapped out ground plans and measured double beds and eating tables for properties underneath refurbishment. Elisabetha designed the furnishings herself, and acquired them made by hand-picked suppliers.

A completely different facet

  • Evenings typically discovered Elisabetha in her room, knitting cardigans and scarves (which she distributed to orphanages and outdated age houses each Christmas) and watching her favorite TV cleaning soap, The Daring and the Stunning. “She additionally liked animals and donated generously to Individuals for Animals,” says Mahadevan, who remembers how she had the safety guards on the Mumbai Taj make a kennel for the stray canines within the neighborhood and he or she would feed them the leftover meals from the lodge.
  • The petite Elisabetha was additionally aware of what she ate. “One thing that we had in frequent was that we had been all the time attempting to drop a few pounds,” reminisces Christina Jamal, former resident supervisor at St James’ Courtroom, London. “I might learn magazines and take a look at fad diets. Each time she visited [the Taj Delhi, where Jamal worked at the front desk in the early days], she would ask me what I used to be on after which order it from room service. Fairly quickly, each time Elisabetha was as a result of verify in, the F&B supervisor, Ronnie Lobo, would verify with me about my present weight loss plan, so he may inventory the meals!”

“You’ll see her sitting with the painters, telling them the precise proportion of color so as to add to get a particular shade. She would even go personally to the Johnson & Johnson manufacturing unit in Mumbai, to provide them tile designs and sit with them till they acquired the samples proper,” remembers MM Parvathy, who retired as Director Operations for Taj Vivanta and labored intently with Elisabetha when she redid the interiors on the Taj Coromandel in Chennai. She had voluminous handwritten information and maintained “detailed numbered catalogues for the whole lot, together with door and drawer handles [designed by her and made in brass by local artisans]. So if we advised her explicit drawer in a specific room wanted a brand new becoming, she would inform us which quantity to get.”

Elisabetha’s elephantine reminiscence was legendary, too. “She used so many artefacts throughout so many motels, however she may recall the place each was positioned, not simply within the public areas but in addition within the suites,” says Parvathy, whereas Mahadevan provides, “Each time she walked right into a lodge, she would stand for a minute and scan the foyer to make sure the whole lot was as an alternative. If something was amiss, everybody from the overall supervisor on would get a dressing down.” The housekeeping employees, who weren’t as blessed with reminiscence, took images of every room and suite, and put them up of their again workplaces in order that they might guarantee “her aesthetic was maintained”.

Elisabetha Kerkar

An Indian at coronary heart

Swiss by start — Elisabetha met and married Ajit Kerkar within the mid-50s, when she was a younger artwork pupil in London — she flawlessly merged her European sensibility with the Indian aesthetic. “I’ve all the time considered her as one in every of India’s first design administrators. She understood India and its creative potential, and gave Taj Lodges its character, creating what we all know right this moment as India Fashionable,” says Chennai-based gallerist Sharan Apparao.

Pals and colleagues bear in mind how she would scout for antiques wherever she went, be it Chor Bazaar and AK Essajee in Mumbai or the gullys of Banaras and Rani Arts and Crafts in Madras. “She would buy no matter objet d’artwork caught her eye and maintain it till she discovered the right area to show it in,” says Parvathy, recalling an intricately-worked picket palkhi that she picked up in Chennai however utilized in Mumbai.

Eagle eye for element

  • Throughout the renovation of The Taj Mahal Lodge in New Delhi, Elisabetha would drive down from Delhi to Makrana in Rajashtan to decide on white marble slabs and meet the inlay artisans who specialised in pietra dura (mosaic work with semi-precious stones). “Later she would have the vendor convey samples to her. However the whole lot was handpicked,” says Mahadevan.

In a latest interview with Condé Nast Traveller, Nazim Shums, Elisabetha’s deputy for 30 years, shared how, when she needed to design the interiors of a brand new lodge, she would keep within the metropolis for a month or two and go to its monuments and market squares. “She would [also] go to non-public houses and observe their lovely furnishings, chandeliers and antiques, and enquire the place within the metropolis they could possibly be bought,” he says.

This ensured that every lodge mirrored the native aesthetic. “Once we first opened Taj Coromandel, she frequented Kora Ramaswamy’s vintage store to supply objects corresponding to an outdated picket temple chariot that she positioned within the foyer. She introduced within the distinct South Indian really feel with gilded Tanjore work and a lovely bronze Nataraja,” says Sujaya Menon, whose husband was the director of Taj Samudra, Colombo. Elisabetha returned to Chennai as soon as extra in 1997, to redo the suites in preparation for Queen Elizabeth’s go to. Regardless of working with horrible deadlines (“The suite was completed by midnight — it was virtually just like the final polisher went in and out got here the Queen,” remembers Menon), the Queen “personally advised us how she a lot she loved her room [outfitted in royal blue, with Italian Crema Marfil marble].”

Ram Kumar’s ‘A Day in Summer’, circa 1965

Recognizing expertise

Away from her drafting desk and numerous lists, Elisabetha additionally made a reputation for herself accumulating artwork. Within the ’60s, she and Rodabeh Sawhney, the sister of JRD Tata, scouted galleries in Mumbai and Delhi to find up to date artworks. “The artwork scene was not as mature as it’s right this moment. However a bonus that she had was that there was a gallery [functioning from the 1950s] within the Taj itself. Because it was perceived to be one of many extra prestigious venues within the metropolis, it attracted quite a lot of high quality artists,” says Mortimer Chatterjee, gallerist and artwork marketing consultant to the Taj. “At a time when motels historically regarded in direction of prints, she was actively engaged in placing collectively a ‘museum high quality assortment’, taking inventory of the up to date artwork scene because it manifested within the nation and re-representing that in miniature on the lodge.”

Among the many early works she acquired for only a few thousand rupees had been Jehangir Sabavala, whose father was a supervisor at The Taj Mahal Palace, MF Husain and Laxman Shrestha. Summary painter Ram Kumar was a favorite, together with names corresponding to Vasudeo Gaitonde, KH Ara and SH Raza. “She was a pioneer. She created an surroundings the place up to date artwork out of the blue grew to become a essential addition to anybody’s concept of what subtle inside design language meant at the moment in India. And since the lodge occupied such a outstanding area within the metropolis’s aware, no matter it did grew to become, in a way, aspirational,” he provides.

On canvas

  • Elisabetha was a painter herself. “When DS Reddy was the Managing Director on the Taj Mahal Palace, she had gifted him a lovely oil on canvas of sunflowers. It was signed E Kerkar and that’s how I recognised it,” says Parvathy.

It’s possible you’ll not see lots of Elisabetha’s four,000-strong assortment of their authentic ‘hangs’ right this moment. After she left Taj Lodges, when her husband resigned as chairman and managing director in 1998, most of the work had been tucked away in storerooms for security. However put up the 2008 terror assault, a significant rehang overseen by Chatterjee introduced out the masters. “We created new narratives together with her assortment. On the renovated Harbour bar, we labored round abstraction, juxtaposing artists of the ’60s and ’70s like Ram Kumar, Ganesh Haloi, NS Bendre and Laxman Pai,” he says. Within the walnut-panelled reception space of the outdated wing, early Bombay modernists had been displayed, by the works of Sabavala and Ara. “Sabavala stayed on the lodge for a very long time after his return from finding out in Paris. And we had been lucky to have the ability to dangle works that he had painted on the lodge just about straight beneath the place he’d painted them round 60 years earlier,” says Chatterjee. To understand extra of Elisabetha’s assortment, verify into the Taj Mahal in Delhi, Taj Bengal in Kolkata or the Taj West Finish in Bengaluru. However, sadly, you possibly can see her inside design initiatives largely solely in archival images, due to the quite a few refurbishments Taj properties have gone by through the years. Listed below are just a few to look again at:

Gold leaf paintings at the Sukh Nivas Suite at Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur

Gold leaf work on the Sukh Nivas Suite at Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur
| Photograph Credit score:
Special Arrangement

Mick Jagger and Bianca posing beside a wooden chest at The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Delhi

Mick Jagger and Bianca posing beside a picket chest at The Taj Mahal Palace Lodge, Delhi
| Photograph Credit score:
Krause & Johansen

The beautiful columns that Elisabetha bought when Petit House, the old Tata palace in Mumbai, was dismantled. They were installed in The Taj Mahal Palace’s Crystal Room.

The attractive columns that Elisabetha purchased when Petit Home, the outdated Tata palace in Mumbai, was dismantled. They had been put in in The Taj Mahal Palace’s Crystal Room.
| Photograph Credit score:
Special Arrangement

Locally-sourced life-size wooden statues at the Taj Bengal

Domestically-sourced life-size picket statues on the Taj Bengal
| Photograph Credit score:
Suresh Cordo

Handmade marble chairs with pietra dura detailing at The Chambers, Taj Mahal Delhi

Handmade marble chairs with pietra dura detailing at The Chambers, Taj Mahal Delhi
| Photograph Credit score:
Suresh Cordo

The dining car of the Maharajah’s Express train

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