The Legacy of the Luxury Hotelier

Khushwant Singh


Called Oberoi Intercontinental (collaboration with the Intercontinental), the hotel, overlooking the lush green fairways of the Delhi Golf Club, would have its foundation stone laid by Ishran Devi as per Sikh rites. Ishran Devi, who would be accorded this honour for all subsequent hotels, placed five asharfiyan (gold coins) in the pit and dedicated them to the Punj Piyares, the first five converts to Sikhism. The story from the pit to the construction to the opening of the rupees forty-five million magnum opus called the Oberoi Intercontinental is one heck of a roller coaster ride, but the following statement of Bikki, who had reached from Calcutta to Delhi to witness the show first hand, is epic. 

‘One day I reached the hotel and the Sikh guard opened the door with a salute that would have shaken a parade ground. I knew the show was ready to roll.’ And before anyone knew what was on Mohan Singh’s mind, he had already bid for land in Bombay, which incidentally was still under sea. The time was now ripe for a Bikki imprint on the Oberoi group. 


The Beginning of the Bikki Imprint

‘Delhi was a breeze as compared to the Bombay hotel,’ says Bikki, recollecting the entire story that went into acquiring the property, reclaiming it from the sea and the permissions to set the tallest building in Bombay. Bikki, by now had returned from his foreign sojourns, and had started taking an active interest in the family business. This would be the pillar that Rai Bahadur was looking for to take forward his legacy and dream of a hundred hotels. 

‘Can you imagine that my father bid for land, which was still under the sea and so desperate was he to have a hotel with a sea front that he bid an exorbitant amount,’ he says. He recalls how both he and his father had checked into the Spanish Suite of the Taj, which was emerging as a big competitor with the best hotel site in Bombay, and typed a staggering amount of Rs. 2650 per square foot for a 8,364 sq. metre plot. 

Bikki laughs and recalls his conversation with his father. Bikki was jolted after reading the figure and told his father that he was overdoing things. Rai Bahadur’s response was a lesson well learnt. ‘When you’ve set your heart on the best, you should not leave even the slightest chance for someone to beat you to it.’ It is irrelevant today that even Sir Dorab Tata, when he heard of the figure had exclaimed the words ‘Rai Bahadur, have you gone mad’ as the nearest bid was a thousand rupees lower. Still apprehensive about the deal he asked his father that whether they would make it, to which his father responded ‘of course we will! I want five hundred rooms, a shopping centre, escalators and lots of marble.’ 

This was enough cue for Bikki to get on with the job, and he was soon in New York negotiating with the ITT Sheraton group. Writes Bachi Karkaria: ‘As it worked out, it was Bikki who complimented the project with an adjacent hotel that leap frogged over even his father’s extravagant vision.’ That was much later, but the Oberoi Sheraton, when it was formally inaugurated on 7 April 1973, turned heads. The drained finances, the shenanigans, the political maneuvering all was forgotten when Nagwa Faoud, an Egyptian dancer performed her celebrated Oriental Dance. The finance minister of Maharashtra, who inaugurated the hotel, had beamed at Rai Bahadur, for not only giving Maharashtra its finest jewel, but also the highest in India. Oberoi Sheraton was named Oberoi Towers once the lease was over and not renewed.  The Oberoi group was ready for its international sojourn. 


The International Journey

The Oberoi Group was making its mark all over the globe, as it was only logical that after having brought internationalism to Indian hoteliering, it was time to take Indian hoteliering to the international arena. It was also the advent of the thought that the group needed an institute to train staff in all aspects of hospitality in sync with the Oberoi philosophy. This saw the birth of the Oberoi School of Management in 1966. The school, which germinated at the Imperial, grew at the Intercontinental and then flourished into a sprawling institution at Maidens, which still remains the corporate office of the Oberoi Group. 

While the annexations of new hotels was going on, it was largely Bikki at the forefront with his task force negotiating, spotting properties, and cultivating liaisons to expand on his father’s dream. The first to fall was Nepal, and as the list kept growing, be it in India, Egypt, Africa, Middle East, east or west each property acquired had a Bikki stamp in some form or the other. 

Writes Bachi Karkaria: ‘If Rai Bahadur was clear on the priority of class, Bikki was to set his standards even higher … Mohan Singh Oberoi asked Bikki to create a hotel, which would figure amongst the best in the world. Bikki like a good son would not disobey his father, but before he would put the Oberoi hotels as one of the finest on the world map … The first in this journey for Bikki would be the Oberoi Towers, followed by the Vilas chain at the end of the twentieth century and beginning twenty-first, which would go on to become the world’s best. Bikki recalls the incident when his father asked him to make a new hotel next to the Oberoi Sheraton in Bombay and how stunned was he with this proposal. “Daddy, we’ve just opened this hotel. We don’t even know if it will be a success. How can you possibly ask me to build another?” 

“It will. Will you?” asked Mohan Singh. As the story goes, Bikki did not respond to his father then, but when he responded it would be his father’s turn to be stunned. … The Oberoi in Bombay had redefined style. With its atrium, its tinkling piano, its pampering in the rooms, a quite opulence in the granite and splendor in the glass… it was now said that if for the father, building the hotel was a mission, for the son, it was a passion that often lost sight of the bottom line. The Oberoi Bombay cost rupees six hundred million, three times more than the older one. “My father always told me if you don’t have passion, don’t do it. Never give up. If you start something in business, complete it”’. 

The Oberoi story was on a roll till 1984. A year of turbulence in the Oberoi family, which hit the eighty-six-year-old Mohan Singh Oberoi hard, affecting him emotionally as well as health wise. It was also the year when Prithvi Raj Oberoi aka Bikki would take charge of the Oberoi story, under the given circumstances. Nineteen eighty-four was the year when Bikki’s elder brother Tikki would pass away, high life extracting its price finally. It would also be the year when his father would suffer a stroke, the same day India’s then prime minister, Indira Gandhi was assassinated (31 October).

Khushwant Singh