Bullets in the Husains? Art lovers await Taj report

MUMBAI (Reuters Life!) - While insurers assess the full extent of the damage to the luxury Taj Mahal Hotel after the recent militant attacks in Mumbai, art lovers are fretting about the fate of one of India’s finest repertoires of art.

The hotel, where gunmen took scores of guests hostage and battled commandos last month, includes some of the finest examples of modern and contemporary Indian art, including three large M.F. Husain panels commissioned for the main lobby.

There are also sculptures, chandeliers, photographs, and visitors’ books signed by kings, rock stars, business barons and heads of state.

“Nearly everything in there is of some value. Of great financial value for sure, but also of sentimental value as it is connected with the history of the hotel and this country,” said Sanjay Dhar, a senior vice president at auction house Osian’s.

Husain, arguably India’s best-known artist, is reported to have offered to paint again for the hotel, which began collecting contemporary art at a time when other Indian hotels were content with colonial-era hunting scenes and stern portraits of royalty.

Founder Jamsetji Tata shopped for the hotel in London, Dusseldorf, Berlin and Paris. He ordered 10 spun iron pillars that he saw at the Eiffel Tower opening exhibition for the hotel’s large ballroom.

Chola bronzes, Belgian chandeliers, antique chests, Baccarat crystal, ancient palanquins, sacred wooden icons, hand-woven carpets, a 10-foot (3 meter) high metal “tree of life” sculpture all found a home in the sprawling hotel which opened in 1903.

These may have suffered damage from fire, water and from the shooting and blasts caused by grenades during the 60-hour siege of the hotel, one of 10 sites attacked by gunmen, Dhar said.

Taj officials have so far declined comment.

Mumbai's Fire Brigade trucks are seen in front of Taj hotel in Mumbai December 9, 2008. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw


The Taj art collection is a roll-call of India’s biggest names from the 1960s to now, including V.S. Gaitonde, Jamini Roy, Krishen Khanna, Laxman Shrestha, S.H. Raza, Tyeb Mehta, Jehangir Sabavala, Anjolie Ela Menon and Bose Krishnamachari.

The collection was appraised over several months in 2002, before its centenary celebration. Reports at the time said important works were stacked in a storeroom and some abstract paintings were hung upside down.

INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, has offered to do the restoration of the Taj.

“We can do it ... we’ve already done some work for the Taj group,” said Nilabh Sinha, a director at INTACH, referring to the 19th century Falaknuma Palace which the Taj group leased in the southern Hyderabad city to convert into a luxury hotel.

The bill for restoration “would be high,” Sinha said, without fixing a value. The hotel reportedly has separate insurance for its paintings, chandeliers and furniture.

“The important thing is just picking up every broken piece and fragment,” Dhar said.”For the cleaning crews this may not be a priority. But it is important there are people in there that understand their value and see how much can be salvaged.”

The palace wing itself, built on reclaimed land overlooking the waterfront, is a prime example of Indo-Sarcenic architecture with a dominant dome and smaller cupolas, and elements of Rajput, Florentine and Moorish styles as well.

Chairman Ratan Tata of the Tata Group, which owns several heritage properties in India and the Taj hotel, has vowed to “rebuild every inch” and “bring back the Taj to its full glory.”

The luxury Trident hotel, also attacked, is due to reopen on December 21, with its Oberoi wing taking longer, its management has said.

Editing by Bryson Hull and Miral Fahmy