The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Welcoming art with folded hands
- first five-star with a gallery

Those who despaired of any beautiful building ever being constructed in Calcutta should take another look at the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. First, the Hyatt came up next to the Salt Lake stadium. Now, ITC’s Sonar Bangla stands revealed in all its elegance. Perhaps the amazing grace of these two buildings will inspire a brand new Calcutta skyline along this stretch that will put Chowringhee in the shade. One shudders to think what this once-smart stretch in central Calcutta will look like when the flyover comes up. Both hotel buildings are light and uncluttered, unlike those huge, clumsy eyesores that have sprouted all over Calcutta.

The first thing that strikes one about Sonar Bangla is that in keeping with its name, it highlights elements one immediately associates with Bengal. Terracotta, stretches of water, water lilies in bloom and bamboo are leitmotifs of the complex. The most striking element is the louvre that screens the facades. It is made of terracotta slats that resemble the rustic bamboo screens so common in our part of the country. Memories of the Bengal of rivers and ponds are relived in the stretches of shallow water all around, reflecting the various low-rise buildings.

Besides its architectural beauty, Sonar Bangla is the first hotel to have an art gallery of its own. Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee himself has shown his enthusiasm about Welcom Art gallery, as it has a tremendous potential of introducing contemporary Indian art to guests of the hotel. This is not unexpected, given ITC’s history of patronising the arts and arts acquisition. So, Sonar Bangla opened with an art exhibition in the space allotted for the gallery. It is a huge and well-lit room, with glass walls that command glimpses of the lily pools.

Ina Puri, who is arts consultant of ITC’s Welcom Group of Hotels, curated the exhibition now in progress. It purports to showcase the history of art in Bengal. With works loaned from Galerie 88 and private collections, it begins with Abanindranath and his contemporaries and terminates with artists of the younger generation. Puri says it is not a commercial venture. “It is not an art walk. We want people to stop and see the paintings,” she adds.

She intends to ask senior artists to curate exhibitions here. Welcom Group has been acquiring art for the past 25 years and has Swaminathans, Tyeb Mehtas. Husains, Souzas and Ramachandrans of that period. These are being restored now. Habib Rehman, managing director of the Welcom Group, has a “deep and abiding” interest in young artists, she says. Now she is sourcing paintings and old prints relevant to Maratha history for Mumbai’s Grand Maratha Sheraton. The hospitality industry welcomes art with folded hands.

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