The Taj's ‘Delhi Dialogue' programme redefines luxury by personalising it to suit individual tastes, says Shonali Muthalaly
My butler's determined to buttle. He holds out a glass of champagne and smiles firmly. I'm not quite sure what butlers do outside Blandings Castle. Champagne, however, I can work with.
So, while he points out the highlights of my lavish room, which include a wickedly dark slice of chocolate cake bearing my initials (bless his heart), I take healthy glugs of bubbly and smile incessantly. When he finally shimmers away, I grab my bag and run out the door.
I'm kicking off a weekend of bespoke luxury at the Taj Palace Hotel in Delhi. As it turns out, contemporary opulence is not all pillow menus, bubble baths and decadent massages. Like sparkling wine, they're all too accessible now. Luxury, by its very definition, has to be more elusive. More aspirational. And in today's world — flush with material comforts for those who can afford them — that means luxury needs to be more cerebral. Which is why Taj's ‘Delhi Dialogue' programme is keeping me on my toes.
The chain has tied up with some of the city's most respected voices in the world of spirituality, art and design so they can offer a personalised Delhi experience. Programmes are tailored according to the interests of guests who have little time and lots of money. (At roughly Rs. 20,000 a day, these bespoke tours don't come cheap.)
Curator Sunaina Anand, founder-director of the Art Alive Gallery, sets the agenda on day one. Her brief is to create an intimate journey through Delhi's art scene, tailor-made for each guest. Ours begins at Sanskriti Kendra, where we're talked through the exhibits, moving from a terracotta museum to one that houses what Sunaina calls “everyday objects of exceptional refinement.” She points out century-old baby rattles, portable temples and even a fierce tiger-shaped vanity case, equipped with everything a princess could ever need, from kohl applicator to anvil.
Our next stop is Chittaranjan Park to meet the elusive Paresh Maity, one of India's finest contemporary artists, at his home studio. He bounces around enthusiastically guiding us through the house. “See, my first camera — and it still works! There's the painting I bought from Raza. Oh, and be careful with your jacket, my canvas is still wet.” It's a little surreal, especially since the interiors are engulfed in a fog of sweet frankincense, lit to mark sundown. Maity is an endearing host, happy to prattle about art techniques between posing for photographs and insisting we eat huge quantities of Bengali samosas. “Feel at home! Eat another. You won't get this at the Taj,” he chuckles as he signs across the glossy books of his work he gifts each of us.
Tour of Buddhist sites
Day two begins on the Taj Palace lawns with Shantum Seth, the country's foremost guide to sites associated with the Buddha. His programme is the “path of peace”, built around the Buddha and Gandhiji. We begin with meditation on the Taj Palace lawns, still wet with morning dew, where Shantum leads us through levels of stillness, aided by chants and a Buddhist gong. Yes, it does sound frightfully Beatles-in-Rishikesh, more hippy glamorous than spiritual. But Shantum is an inspiring teacher, passionate and unabashedly sincere, so the process turns out to be intense and surprisingly uplifting.
An ordained teacher in the Zen tradition, he has been leading various pilgrimages ‘In the Footsteps of the Buddha' since 1988. However, since this is a Delhi-based path of peace, we begin at Gandhi Smriti, where Gandhiji was assassinated. After listening to Shantum tell the story, we're so moved we recklessly promise to read Gandhiji's ‘Experiments With Truth,' and he promptly gifts each of us a copy. We head to the National Museum next, where Shantum — aided by exhibits, his laptop and a vast array of photographs — explains why the Buddha was so remarkable.
Of course, the weekend includes plenty of conventional luxury too — some of it charmingly thoughtful. Like cognac, chocolate and bestsellers set on my bedside table at night. A champagne tour of the majestic Taj Tata Suite at the Taj Mahal Hotel on Mansingh Road, followed by custom made guava cocktails at Ricks bar. A tasting menu at Wasabi by Morimoto featuring a string of courses designed like precious jewellery, from tender edamame beans dusted with fresh black truffle to airy macaroons flavoured with a whisper of wasabi.
Luxury, as it turns out, is not just about expensive toys and heady extravagance. As people tire of surfeits of surplus, it's inevitable that they will move towards a style of bespoke luxury that's both intimate and explorative.
After all, when you travel — whether on work or a holiday — what you ultimately remember are people, stories and moments of connection.
(The photograph that accompanied this article was replaced due to editorial reasons)