“It is all this that makes The Grand Hotel a great one. And more than all this, the fact that it is embedded in the memories of six generations. That it shared the momentous events of modern India. That it bore witness to two world wars; the heyday and passing of an empire; famine, flood, fire and riot; a bloodied Independence and a comparitively bloodless revolution. That it has watched both triumph and disaster and, taking the poet’s advice, treated “these two imposters just the same”. – Bachi J Karkaria, To a Grand Design.
Like many refugees who came to Calcutta from Bangladesh in the 1940’s, my paternal grandfather had a tough life. On a very meagre salary as a government official, he had to support a family of more than 20. This included his brothers, sisters, their families, cousins and even friends who crossed the border looking for food and shelter. It was a life far far removed from any luxury hence one day, when my grandfather, courtesy his job stepped into The Grand Hotel, it was nothing short of paradise for him. The white marble, the sparkling crystal chandelier in the lobby, the grand piano, the well-dressed ‘shahebs’ and ‘mem-shahebs’, it was a new world. And I remember how many years later when we were crossing The Oberoi Grand one day, his eyes were gleaming when he recounted that experience to me. The charm of the Grande Dame of Chowringhee has always been magical.
The Oberoi Grand had humble beginnings as Mrs Monk’s Boarding House on 13, Chowringhee Street. A few years later, it was acquired by the Armenian prospector-jeweler from Isfahan, Arathoon Stephen when the original boarding house burned down. Mr Arathoon was an astute businessman. He installed the city’s first hydraulic lift in the hotel which obviously garnered a lot of attention amongst the elite. They flocked to the hotel to see this new wonder and the enterprising Mr Arathoon cashed in on this as well. He started selling soda and refreshments to those who waited their turn for a ride in the lift. Very soon, The Grand became the talk of the town. Arathoon Stephen started to add more floors and built a verandah over-looking the promenade and the river which was then much closer at hand. This elegant landmark came to be known as Calcutta Colonial.
In 1937, entered Mr Mohan Singh Oberoi, called the Conrad Hilton of India. He took over the Grand Hotel that had been closed for five years by fears of cholera in its water supply. The outbreak of World War II was a turning point for the Grand. Mr Oberoi prevented the British army from requisitioning the Grand by offering to reserve it for officers and feed them cheaply. Under Mr Oberoi’s leadership, the hotel, later called The Oberoi Grand slowly started to regain its past glory. In the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s, Prince’s, Calcutta’s most scintillating nightclub was the place to be seen at. Prince’s gave way to the Pink Elephant in the 1980’s and La Brasserie started in place of Garden Café, which at that time had bird cages and real life birds. La Terasse came in the late 90’s and took the place of La Brasserie.
Fast forward to 2017, The Oberoi Grand has reinvented itself once again. Threesixtythree, the all-day dining restaurant is the hotel’s newest star. The iconic Chowringhee Bar’s modern avatar is The Bar and together, it is a perfect marriage of a modern restaurant with a Victorian building.
What is it that makes The Oberoi Grand so special especially for us who live/have lived in the city? Is it only because of the luxury, the opulence and the extravagance? Bachi Karkaria in her book writes about that. “Calcutta and the Grand. A strangely symbiotic relationship between one of the world’s greatest hotels and one of the world’s most desperate cities. Or perhaps not all that strange. One celebrated as the ultimate in luxury, the other condemned as the ultimate in squalor, yet beneath these two diametrically different facades, the same large, warm, beating heart“
The Grand Tour, a 45 minute journey at The Oberoi Grand delves into the history and iconic areas of the legendary hotel. Beginning from the lobby, the tour continues through the hotel’s key spaces and stories. The complimentary tour is conducted by the Concierge Team only for the room guests and provided on request only. Simply register at the time of check-in and contact the Duty Manager for timings.
Thank you Mr Varun Chhibber, Ms Aparna Banerjee Paul and Mr Nabeel Rehan for the experience.