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Understated, yet enchanting

No matter where you are, you keep looking out on pools of water bodies ... Yes, water, the life-blood of Bengal, has been made into the main design statement at this hotel, says GEETA DOCTOR.

ITC

Low-key ... restrained use of art objects, chaste use of materials.

THE dawn breaks early across the flat wet countryside around Kolkata.

By 5.30 a.m. the many village ponds, with their ancient terracotta faced temples perched by the side turn a pale gold as the priest walks down the steps stirring up the ancient Gangetic silt. In that half-light the landscape seems to have dived under the surface of the water tracing perfect mirror images. In this world of floating green, you can no longer tell whether it's the fish that's leaping up to catch the attention of the blue winged kingfisher, or if the fisherman has been trapped in his own conical net, or whether it's actually taking place the other way around.

In most ways nothing could be further away from village Bengal than the imperatives of an international standard modern hotel. Most hotels with their sleek polished exteriors to deflect the gaze of the unwanted multitudes, the growl and purr of their air-conditioning systems, are designed to lull the visitor into imagining that he or she could be anywhere on the planet. Certainly, the "Sonar Bangla" Sheraton, the ITC Hotels newest property on the outskirts of Kolkata, manages to do all these things. At the same time, Kerry Hill and Associates, the architectural firm from Singapore that was in charge of the design have created a space that instead of excluding the environment, invites the "privileged" visitor right inside.

You enter the space from a dull, almost bland corridor-like entrance and are instantly transported into an enchanting vista of cool water filled ponds that quiver and shimmer with shadows that change with the time of the days. The main lobby, the "Bay of Bengal", that has been kept small and intimate, is a few steps down from the entrance corridor, so that your gaze actually looks past it and beyond into the lily ponds that touch the glass wall. There is a delicate curtain or wooden screen pasted over with real silver "wark" or hand beaten silver that hangs from the ceiling to cut out the glare. It is just one of the many screening devices, from old fashioned colonial period louvres, to wooden slats and terracotta coloured bricks that have been built in front of the glass fronted inner walls, like le Corbusier's famous brise-soleil, or sun-breakers, that protect the facade of the building from the heat.

No matter where you are in the hotel you keep looking out on similar pools of water bodies, or small private stone and tropical leaf gardens, sheets of water flowing down stone walls, or just pools of still water with a stoneware jar that has been kept at one strategic point with a flat urli, or earthen ware bowl brimming with flowers. Water, the life-blood of Bengal has been made into the main design statement at the "Sonar Bangla". Even the use of silver screens pasted with the silver "wark" that appears in other areas, for instance behind the discreetly placed "Reception Counter", or the more dramatically decorated Pan Asian restaurant enhances this idea of a world filled with silvery undertones. Under the main porch for instance the visitor suddenly realises that the black stone platform that has just one delicately poised water-lily in the palest of pale shades of salmon pink, is actually a flowing sheet of water. The charm of the "Sonar Bangla" is that it continually springs these surprises.

"Kerry Hill deliberately underplayed the entrance so that the moment you actually come inside the hotel there's a Wow! effect. It's like entering an oasis from a desert," explains Ranvir Bhandari, GM of "Sonar Bangla".

It is a carefully designed microcosm of the Bengal landscape that has been re-created within the inner courtyard of the hotel. The concept is similar to the inward looking spaces that you find in the famous mansions that belonged to the zamindars of the old elite of Kolkata with the family apartments on either side, the main front portion devoted to the gods in one corner, with the well, the family kitchen next to it, a public hall, or meeting place for receiving the more formal guests at the centre and so forth.

It's also interesting to notice how many references the architect has made to the style and traditions of the Calcutta upper classes without falling into the trap of nostalgic revival. He has made use of the long covered verandahs that you might find at a club or in a tea-planter's bungalow and allowed these to remain open to the outside weather and environment through the use of French windows, or thick hanging blinds that fringe one end of the water body. The result is that when you feel suffocated by the air-conditioning inside the coffee shop, or lounges, named appropriately the "Bay of Bengal" and the "Darjeeling Lounge" you can step out and feel the hot moist breath of the Kolkata environment caress you behind the ears and neck and lead you to sit in one of the Japanese style "Tea" pavilions that have been built along one edge of the lily ponds.

"It's a new concept in business and leisure hotel that we have tried to provide here," continues Bhandari. "We want our guests who come here to unwind and experience the full range of our facilities, from our rooms that have been designed to encourage people to relax, that's why there is for instance a facility for sliding open the doors of the bathroom so that you can watch television while soaking in your tub, to our very special Spa, the swimming pool and eventually a mini golf course."

As he went on to enumerate them, there are also some of the best known of the ITC's food outlets, from a bakery cum delicatessen with all manner of chocolates and cream-filled cakes, breads, cheeses and pickled gherkins and artichoke in bottles, to pay tribute to old Kolkata haunts such as Fleury and Firpos; the Bengali equivalent of "Dum Pukt" with special recipes adapted to the steam cooked style of the restaurant; a western style eating place named "West View" where the guests get to choose their own combinations of foods to be grilled, baked or stir-fried in a superb setting where even the walls have attitude, with panels of thin red and orange Tiger Onyx, a rare stone that is found in Pakistan; a fashionable coffee shop that has been built to resemble the contours of a cricket pavilion at Eden Gardens, with woven cane-work on the walls; a "Peshwari" restaurant and what has become the talk of the town — a Pan Asian dining place that combines, Japanese, Thai, Korean and Mongolian food all under one roof. They also have the Kolkata equivalent of "Dublin", the place for night-lifers to hang out and needless to say it is suitably over the top with painted signs and lights.

The swimming pool area actually forms part of a whole different area of the hotel along with a gym, a special health food restaurant that is still to be opened and of course the Spa. With girls from Thailand who specialise in using their own techniques of massaging without oils and using reflexology in the most exquisite of settings, as well as our own traditional systems of ayurvedic treatments done by expert masseurs from Kerala, the Spa actually boasts of 100 different kinds of massages!

What seems strange for a city like Kolkata that is so full of art and craft, the "Sonar Bangla" is very restrained in its use of art objects. There are just a few reproductions of famous sculptures, terracotta panels, stone pillars and doorways from the Pala dynasty of Bengal that have been placed at various vantage points both inside and outside the hotel. These have been made by craftsmen from Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) and from Jaipur using the superb examples of sculpture to be found at the Kolkata Museum. In a sense this austerity reflects the chaste use of materials, Gangapur stone on the corridors and walls, creamy marble from just one quarry in Sicily, granite in some of the public areas, pale fabrics in shades of sage green, moss, sand, stone, silt, wood, off white cotton, jute, cane and leather in the bedrooms so that everything is understated, yet sumptuous. Only in some areas, such as the "Darjeeling Lounge", with its Chinese Red walls, and the "Pan Asian", that is all black and silver like a Chinese lacquer box, has the decorator flexed his nails. Indeed, if any one has to ask: "Why do we still need to use a designer from abroad?" the answer would have to be because of the details. Even in the bathrooms for instance, for all their international standard fittings, the small details such as the soap trays and face towel holders show the expert's eye — they are made of mother of pearl inlay of jasmine petals embedded in black metal.

The best time however at the "Sonar Bangla" is in the early morning. The frogs that have created an impromptu concert through the night are now dozing on the lily-leaf pads. All round us, the lilies, lotuses, white trailing fronds of aquatic plants are opening up their own restaurants to a buzz of water beetles and insects.

A black coat-tailed drongo like a late night dinner guest is chased across the water by two enraged house sparrows. The coconut palm trees reach up to salute the early morning sun.

As we sit inside one of the Japanese Tea pavilions on austerely placed wooden slats with just a wedge of cushioning, a bearer walks across the narrow ledge between the lily ponds. He holds a silver tray with a silver teapot of the finest Darjeeling tea, small glass jars of marmalade and hot muffins. Is this the nearest thing to heaven?

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