Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How Harshvardhan Neotia is building a boutique hotels empire referencing the bhadralok culture

In the last three to four years, the Ambuja Neotia group has been opening a slew of hotels in some of the most scenic locales of Bengal and the north-east, extending Neotia's love of art and culture to a wider world of travellers

Published: Jan 9, 2024 01:52:03 PM IST
Updated: Jan 10, 2024 09:39:29 AM IST

Harshavardhan Neotia , Chairman of the Ambuja Neotia Group Harshavardhan Neotia , Chairman of the Ambuja Neotia Group
It’s a sunny December morning in Kolkata, when Harshvardhan Neotia strolls into the library of his beautiful Ballygunge home and leads me to a dining table where breakfast has been laid out.
There is chura-matar, fresh green peas sautéed in hing and topped with rice crisps, a quintessential winter’s delight. There’s dainty chilli-cheese toast, with green chillies adding to the bite of this Indianised snack of upper-class, Anglicised homes, reminiscent of burrah sahibs and their members’ clubs. And then comes the makha sandesh, soft as butter, crumbling at the touch of a fork, sweetened with nolen gur that is in season just now. “My wife gets this from Balram Mullick (one of Kolkata’s most famous confectioners), where they make it to specification so that it is not too sweet,” he says, urging me to try another one.

It’s hospitality that is somewhat reminiscent of the bhadralok—that Bengali gentility of the 19th century-early 20th century, who were erudite patrons of the arts (and food); families with long lineages that were a part of what we now call the Bengal Renaissance. They lived in their marble mansions by the Hooghly and made Calcutta one of the finest cultural outposts of the world. The Neotia family migrated to this world only around 100 years ago, but Calcutta and the older Bengali culture of refinement define Harsh Neotia’s life and business, including the present building of a veritable hospitality empire.
In the last three to four years, the Ambuja Neotia group with interests in real estate but also education, healthcare and hospitality has been opening a slew of luxury boutique hotels — the various “Kutirs” (the word kuti in Sanskrit connotes a hut, though these are far from that) in some of the most scenic locales of Bengal and the north-east. These include the Chia Kutir that opened in 2020 in the fabled Makaibari tea estate (the estate goes back to 1859 and produces some of the world’s most expensive Darjeeling tea), the most recent Taal Kutir (opened 2023) in Kolkata styled like an urban resort though it is a conventions and weddings hotel, and the Raaj Kutir (opened 2019), a raaj bari style boutique hotel in Kolkata that envelopes you in its aristocratic charm and brings back the Colonial past.
Harshavardhan Neotia , Chairman of the Ambuja Neotia Group The Taj Guras Kutir with stunning views of the Kanchenganga offers modern lifestyle with local culture.

There’s also the stunning Guras Kutir that also opened last year in neighbouring Sikkim (in Gangtok), offering majestic views of the Kanchenjunga and the Ganga Kutir and Ffort Raichak in 24 Parganas, one of the group’s earliest forays into hospitality in around 1997.
And three more are on the anvil in the next two to three years, including the Vanya Kutir in Lataguri, in the Dooars which boast of the Gorumara national park and a verdant landscape by the Teesta river, the Sagar Kutir in Digha, an unexplored seaside, and the Himya Kutir in Darjeeling. The investment for these upcoming projects is Rs 400 crore, whereas the cumulative investment in the kutirs as well as other hotels owned by the group that have been opening rapidly since the pandemic is over Rs 1000 crore. A tie-up with IHCL, the parent company of the Taj group of hotels, is in place to run the luxury boutique hotels.

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But these are hotels with a difference: They all serve up a sense of the older Bengali bhadralok culture, and reflect Neotia’s own sensibilities and interests, rooted in this. “I personally choose the art in all the hotels. Sometimes, works and collections that we have at home but have no place to display also go to the hotels to be in the public areas. It is a personal interest, I like to see a space and decide which artwork is suitable and can come into the space, as well as connect with the local history or people of the location,” Neotia points out, as he leads me on a tour of the library—housed, in fact, inside an entire bungalow, which serves as the more public area of his home, a complex with three bungalows for different members of the large, extended family.
The books are all dog-eared and thumbed through. It’s an eclectic collection of everything from the Rasa Reader on the history of Indian aesthetics to biographies and even airport reads. And then there is the art. A portrait hung above where Neotia sits has the appearance of a Van Gogh. But Is it?

Harshavardhan Neotia , Chairman of the Ambuja Neotia Group The Taj Ganga Kutir in Raichak, a hidden gem by the Ganga in west Bengal, offers serene views, Bengali food, and displays of regional craft cultures, including weaves.
“That’s Jamini Roy in his early years when he used to paint in the Van Gogh style. It was bought by my uncle.” A pupil of Abanindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, one of India’s most recognisable modernists, started out painting in the European style of the Impressionists (and post Impressionists) before switching to his trademark flattened works reminiscent of Indian temple and folk art.
“The books and art have been bought by five generations of my family. I thought of building this library for them since it represents a legacy and continuity with the past,” says Neotia, “even though my son, who gets tasked with carrying the heaviest bags full of books when we go on vacations, has often urged me to switch to Kindle!”
An entire wall is covered by a collage of works by different artists ranging from Jogen Chowdhury to Anjolie Ela Menon, Lalu Prasad Shaw and Madhvi Parekh. All coveted works by masters who had attended an art camp organised by the Neotias in 2004. And then there are other collectibles reflecting Neotia’s wide range of interests—such as the autographs of early 20th century personages, and tapestry with weaves ranging from jamdani to banarsi. In fact, as we make our way to the basement to see an auditorium where Neotia and his wife Madhu host their musical baithaks, I notice collectible art even in the elevator!

Harshavardhan Neotia , Chairman of the Ambuja Neotia Group Raaj Kutir in Kolkata is a paen to the Bengali bhadra lok culture and captures the spirit of the Bengal Renaissance.
In the City of Joy this sensibility and love for the arts is quite democratic—evident as much in the chatter of a taxi driver, as in palatial homes such as this. But with his hotels, Harshvardhan Neotia is extending this love to a wider world of travellers, invited to “experience” rather than just use hotels in a functional way. Even the Taj Taal Kutir, a conventions and wedding hotel, has art personally chosen and commissioned by Harshvardhan Neotia.
Installations have been brought in not just from his private collection but new ones commissioned to match these, including by the Calcutta-based artist and sculptor Narayan Chandra Sinha. Framed on the walls are also jamdani sarees and textiles from textile designer and art historian Rahul Jain whose ASHA workshop promotes Indo-Iranian weaving techniques from Varanasi, weaves once famously patronised by all the landlords of Bengal.
What will be interesting to see will be Neotia’s next collaboration though—with the other Kolkata cultural-hospitality behemoth, the Apeejay group helmed by Priya Paul, whose interest in art and the culture of Calcutta are equally deep rooted though whose contemporary sensibilities are very different from Neotia’s. The two are coming together to create a homes and hotel project next. It will be a unique and high-profile collaboration between two of the east’s best known business houses. Watch this space for more.