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An Obituary: Francis Wacziarg

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February 20, 2014 at 02:47 PM

The Future of Design fondly remembers Francis Wacziarg – the man who made the non-hotel experience a part of the Indian traveller’s itinerary and was synonymous with restoration in India. Neemrana Hotels, which he co-founded with Aman Nath, began as a journey to salvage a dilapidated 15th century fort. From that they moved on restore about 20 other properties all over India – in Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu and Kerala! A Frenchman who came to India in 1970, fell in love with the country and never went back, Wacziarg passed away on 17th February after a eight year long battle with blood cancer.  

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After completing an MBA in France, Francis Wacziarg came to India in 1970. Initially, he was the commercial attache at the French consulate in Mumbai. Subsequently, he headed the representative office of the Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP) in New Delhi. On gaining Indian citizenship after an active 20 year affair with India he joined Aman Nath, with whom a book had been co-authored, to found Neemrana Hotels Pvt Ltd. He was a founding member of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) and a trustee on IFA (India Foundation for the Arts), and has also been the President of the Alliance Francaise of New Delhi. He was actively involved in promoting the arts and culture with an emphasis to building bridges between different people and varying cultures. As the Founder of The Neemrana Music Foundation, Wacziarg was working to put India on the world map of western and Indian classical music. 

A prominent figure on Delhi’s cultural scene, Wacziarg led the movement to restore heritage properties across India to convert them into non-hotels! Just a few days ago, he along with Nath, had been awarded the Life Time Achievement Award by the tourism ministry for their work in promoting heritage tourism. Their transformation of the 500-year-old Neemrana fort palace from ruins to a flourishing property has inspired several heritage owners to do the same.  

Several villas, havelis, forts and palaces in a state of extreme neglect – starting of course with Neemrana – have seen magical transformations; through meticulous restoration procedures done by the duo. A love for history is the starting point of all their work. “The aesthetics of a monument hotel or of the colonial designs brought by the Portuguese, the Danes, the French and the English are unmatched. We have “non-hotels” from all these colonisers from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Each has a subtle difference in how they use space on the different topographies they were built on – the Himalayas, the Sahyadris, the Arabian Sea coast or the beaches of the Bay of Bengal. They were all there to be loved. We only pre-empted and facilitated it,” said Nath about their restoration efforts. 

The striking feature of a Neemrana property is a concerted effort to restore with minimum interventions. When the property demands more, and there is space and scope to go beyond restoration and reconstruction, they also create extensions; using the same style and materials. The interior scheme of the hotel, then suggests its own aesthetic – as it responds to already existing structures and spaces. This marriage of the old with the new generates a new energy. It lets one wake up amid 500-year-old walls with quaint doors, windows and bathrooms that don’t resemble any other. Frequent visitors to Neemrana properties who try different rooms find each experience unique and therefore hugely rewarding.

"Standing at the foot of eternity, one must understand that even though we are specks on this planet, it is the smallest joys which can offer us all the fruits of the cosmos. This awareness can open within us a new, positive approach to experience the unexpected diversity that India unravels. Life is not all about escalating into 'luxury' – which is a passing illusion of possession called maya. To get 'more' from 'less' is what India can teach from its vantage point in philosophical evolution. Eventually, it is simplicity which is the ultimate style.” It is this philosophy that probably marks every Neemrana property. It is this lesson we should learn from an outsider who was more “Indian” than many Indians!

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