The moment I stepped into the drawing room of Aman Nath‘s house, I was instantly transported to another world, a world of books, paintings, motifs, artifacts, and sculptures. The space clearly stamped the owner’s interest and passion in no uncertain ways. It was easy to understand the love, devotion and hard work that Aman Nath had put in, to rebuild and convert 30 odd heritage structures, (most of them abandoned and in ruins) and restore them to their old glory. It was his unwavering passion for culture and heritage that made it happen on the ground. “No other company in world has ever re-built so many valuable heritage properties so far. This includes colonial buildings of French, English, Scottish, Dutch and Portuguese era. We have also re-built and converted Rajasthani, Sikh colonial, Maratha heritage, and Islamic colonial buildings,” he said.
A researcher on art, architecture and paintings, the turning point in Aman Nath’s life came during one of his journeys to the hinterland of Rajasthan to document Marwari paintings and frescoes. He co-authored a couple of books on arts and crafts of Rajasthan with Francis Wacziarg. He bought a small Haveli in Rajasthan for himself, and together with Francis, who later became his business partner, restored it. They converted a 15th century Neemrana Fort into a heritage hotel in 1986, after restoration work in 1991. It was the start of the journey of creating a brand called Neemrana Hotels. “Francis joined Neemrana Hotels five years later when he got the Indian citizenship. Once we got together things moved much faster,” Aman Nath recollects. “Francis was like a twin brother for me, so close and we thought alike,” he recounted. He further added, “Had he lived longer, he would have contributed a lot more to this world.” He quickly pulled out a small book that he published immediately after the demise of Francis in February this year– Some personal tributes for Francis Wacziarg with music and words of remembrance – and gave it to me. The parting note of his tribute to his long time friend and business partner goes like this:
“Francis’ India-story began with Gandhi, but it could also continue on that path. It was Gandhi who had said that the fragrance always remains on the hand that gives out the rose. Francis was that French fragrance for India, and, in a very transparent sincerity, also the ‘khushboo’ of the Indian ‘ittar’ for France.”Early days
Born in Delhi to parents who were originally from Lahore, Aman Nath did his early schooling in Modern School Delhi. After completing his Master’s in History from prestigious St. Stephen’s College of Delhi University, Nath joined Advertising field as copy writer. He also worked as Art Editor and Art Curator. Writing, especially documenting history and heritage, was his passion. Books like ‘Arts & Crafts of Rajasthan,’ ‘Jaipur: The Last Destination,’ ‘Dome over India,’ etc. really standout among his writing on the subject. “Jaipur: The Last Destination sold more than 30,000 copies. It was the first Indian book that Christie’s distributed globally,” Nath said. The ‘Dome over India’ was actually done for the Rashtrapati Bhavan on the special request of President KR Narayanan. “The President called me for lunch when he was six months short of his retirement and asked me to do a book on Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was unbelievable and challenging. But I did it before his tenure ended. Copy of this book is presented even today to every head of state who visits the President,” he mentioned. The book was widely reviewed and the British Journal of Architect had commented that a book of that nature cannot be produced in England in today’s time. He also did a book – ‘Horizons: The Tata-India century,’ for Tata’s on the death centenary of Jamsetji Tata. The book carries a handwritten citation by Ratan Tata, which Nath showed me with pride. A true ‘Karmayogi’
Our conversation started on disagreement over the tagline of this column – Day In the Life of – for which I wanted to gather information. “In a Karmayogi’s life, no two days are similar. Each day in my life is radically different,” he said. He suggested me to change the tagline to – Life in the Day of. He tried to convince me with his personal indulges the week before. “I voluntarily and willfully seek experiences,” he said explaining the way he spent a whole night with fishermen in a small fishing boat in deep sea in Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu. He showed me pictures on his tab of how he kept himself awake the whole night guarding the boat while others slept.
He is a kind of person who considers “food and sleep” are interruptions in a ‘karmayogi’s’ life. “I and Francis used to work of 18 hrs a day,” he says. Nath’s day starts abnormally early. He wakes up around 3.30 in the morning. If there are no social events or parties in the evening, he is a kind of person who loves to retire early. Love for Kerala
He became eloquent about Kerala and his love for its people and cuisine, when I revealed my moorings. It was not accidental why Nath chose a Kerala name for the first room he renovated and restored at Neemrana – Malabar Mahal. Neemrana Hotels now operates two heritage properties in Kochi – Vasco Da Gama’s House and a 17th century Tower House in Fort Kochi. He also loves Kerala cuisine. “I like ‘puttu’ ‘idiyappam’ ‘meen curry’, etc.” He summoned his chef for the last 25 years, Sankaran Nair, a native of Kerala, who cooks all Kerala delicacies for him to ‘testify’ before me his master’s preferences. “Sir likes simple food that too in small portions,” Nair explained to me in terse Malayalam.
In food, he likes coastal food, but he has no favourite eatery. “Why should I eat outside when I get such good food at home,” was his refrain. When quizzed about favourite holiday destination he quipped, “life itself is an intense working holiday for a Karmayogi.” Any favourite writer? “I like good crisp writing. Don’t like fat books because they are difficult to carry during travel,” he said. “I don’t hero-worship anybody. For me Sankaran Nair and Vikram Seth, who is a good friend, are equally important,” told Nath when asked about people who have been an inspiration.
As a parting statement on India’s tourism marketing, he expressed his displeasure on attempts to sell luxury as India’s niche. “You cannot flaunt luxury as Indian niche when 700 million are poor, 40 per cent of children are malnourished. It is senseless to build 60-room hotels with swimming pools in every room where potable water is not accessible to many,” he said.