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Travel less, see more

At a time when most things seem to be going against the city, it comes as a surprise that a leading London-based culture travel company meant mainly for the well-heeled and well-read traveller, will start tours in India that will include visits to Calcutta. Here, to quote the brochure, “so much evidence of the Raj survives…the classical architecture of Calcutta can be spoken of in the same breath as St. Petersburg”.

Operating on the principle of “Travel less, see more”, Martin Randall Travel was started in 1982. Its CEO, after whom the company is named, is here to make sure everything is just so, along with his local agent, Banyan Tours & Travels, and train the guides (of which there is a paucity here) as well. On Friday afternoon, Martin Randall — typically in a linen suit and a brownish thatch going grey — said he had wanted to work in an art museum since the age of 14. He could not land a permanent job in any, so at 24 when he had to choose between “penury and hope”, he joined the travel business.

He did not like it there and decided to launch his own company that would combine his technical knowledge gleaned through stints in four different travel companies and his interest in art and architecture. Randall had studied art history, the focus being on the English and Italian Renaissance. In 1982 he floated a company in which he had to double as the lecturer, and it was soon the market leader in cultural tours. But someone made a large investment in it and Randall was axed.

Six months later he launched another company, which soon overtook his first venture, and now Martin Randall Travel’s “principal competitor is my own company”. It organises 220 tours and events annually, and specialises in Western classical music festivals — music performed in its place of origin. For example, Bach will be performed in Germany. It played a “pioneering” role in concentrating on a geographical terrain. Till recently, all tours were confined to Europe and the Mediterranean or North America. The company resisted “long haul destinations” because it did not feel it would be up to it. And it had to be paying. It did “dabble” in India in the early 1990s but the itinerary was “dreadful” as it was similar to what everybody offered.

But from October 23 it starts anew its trips to India, and naysayers notwithstanding, it is already 90 per cent booked on an average. Each trip has a guest limit of 22, and 70 to 75 per cent of them are British and “cultivated” Australians. These tours (never whistle-stop) are expensive, but are focused, and what with the accompanying authorities in particular fields, Randall says they are meant for “people (mostly 60 plus) who want to learn and hear analyses.”

Three of the tours will cover Calcutta — Ashoka and Buddhist India accompanied by historian Charles Allen; Bengal by River and The British Raj with lectures by architectural historian Gavin Stamp and David Gilmour, biographer of Lord Curzon.