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Heritage hotel eye on French connection
- Team including Neemrana co-chairman scouts for Chandernagore properties to restore

Tourists headed for Bengal may soon be able to sample the signature Neemrana brand of heritage and hospitality in Bengal’s French connection: Chandernagore.

Francis Wacziarg, the co-chairman of the Neemrana chain of heritage hospitality addresses, was part of a French team led by consul-general Jean Louis Rysto that visited Chandernagore on Sunday to scout for properties that could be restored.

The Neemrana Group specialises in acquiring old properties of architectural value across the country and turning them into heritage hotels.

“We are present across India but we have nothing in the east. As the French had a key presence in Chandernagore, this can be a good starting point,” said Wacziarg, who landed in India as a student in 1970, “fell in love with the land in 10 minutes” and became an Indian citizen.

Some of the landmark Neemrana properties that Wacziarg has helped restore are the 15th century Neemrana Fort-Palace in Rajasthan and the Pataudi Palace in Haryana.

Wacziarg, a founder-member of Intach, has also joined hands with conservationists and restorers Vieilles Maisons Francaises (VMF). “Unesco has asked us to build a network of people keen on restoration across the world,” said VMF president Philippe Toussaint.

They are in the process of registering a society called French Heritage in India, which aims to list French heritage properties in India and help in their renovation, if needed.

As the team scanned Chandernagore for properties on Sunday, the one that caught Wacziarg’s eye was a mansion called Gopalbabur Bari in Charmandirtala. “Spread over 96 cottahs, the house was constructed in the late 18th century for the ruler of Ramnagar and derives its name from an employee into whose hands it passed,” said Ujjwal Mondal, one of the oldest residents of the town.

Mondal and his Belgian wife Neline are helping Wacziarg identify heritage properties.

Also in the recce team was Indo-French heritage expert Jean Marie Lafont, who has been touring Murshidabad, Serampore, Bandel, Chinsurah and Chandernagore to “resurrect” the connection between Europe and India.

“If tourism has to spread, it has to shift to the countryside,” he said.

For Wacziarg, the goal is to have a base and “grow round that place like we did in Gujarat”.

But can decadent Bengal be preserved like other places?

“Traditionally India is a nation of builders, not preservers. When we started work on the Shekhawati havelis in Rajasthan that have walls adorned with frescoes, we had appealed to the owners of these houses who live mostly in Calcutta. Despite a letter from G.D. Birla, all we managed to raise from the community was Rs 150.”

But he is happy that Indians are now eager to preserve history.

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