Suryagarh: A Postcard from Royal India

Home is where the heart is - whoever said that knows me all too well. And for a person like me who travels a lot, home is multiple places. Right from the ones that inspire my craft to the ones that make me feel comfortable and warm every single time I step in there. And among the many places I visited, Suryagarh stands tall, which is why you will have to forgive me for my utter devotion to this beautiful space.

Over the past two years, I must have been to Suryagarh over a dozen times, but it’s the first impression of the hotel that still stands strong in my mind. First, it’s a long, arduous drive from Jodhpur (the closest airport is roughly four hours from Jaisalmer- with two daily flights by Jet and Air India).

And after driving through the desert, you can’t see anything for miles other than sand dunes and camels. The drive itself is languid and breath-taking. You can slowly see your body and mind stripping itself of all the fast-paced city life. Armed with a playlist fit for a laid back life, the drive on the jeep is anything but ordinary.

Small towns crop up in regular intervals and you get a glimpse into the rustic world - maybe a few camels and a few women clad in colour-blocked saris talking in whispers. It is cathartic. And just as you’re sinking into the whole theatre of it, all of a sudden, you see the magnificent Suryagarh looming in the horizon.

The Grand Welcome

As you approach the hotel, lancers in an open jeep guide you into the palace where you are greeted by local kalbeliya dancers. Add to that, a few regal horses and the hotel’s adorable dogs Nala and Simba (More on them later!) and you’re mesmerised already.

By Indian standards, it is a “small” hotel. But, it’s heart is bigger and it’s beauty incomparable. That’s why it will be etched on your mind long after you have left the place. Because, truth be told, no other hotel in Jaisalmer, is quite like Suryagarh.

Designed for Kings!

The lobby designed by Raghavendra Rathore is a visual treat. However, it’s the stunning courtyard in the centre of the hotel that defines the character of this hotel to me. The perfect chilling place where you sit with friends and family, have a few drinks and settle into the beauty. In a way, this courtyard is the living room of the hotel. In no other hotel in the world have I spent such little time in the room, and forgive me, the rooms are stunning but it’s the courtyard that takes your breath away.The rooms are beautiful and luxurious. I personally love the bathrooms that are as large as the room complete with a large tub and all the fancy trimmings. Each room comes with a comfortable sitting area and a powder room, such a wonderful detail. The suites and havelis are something else altogether, with a sit-out overlooking the desert. And let’s not forget the private pool that comes with them.

The Team

If Suryagarh is home, then I’d like to say that the team behind the hotel are like family and treat you like one. The only way you’ll know if you have made the right choice of a hotel is when you interact with the staff - the warmth and the dedication shine through. It’s always the smallest things. I loved Chukka dahi with papad the first time I was there and the minute I enter the place, they bring it to me. It’s not just the fact that they remember these tiny details about a person, it’s also a fact that they act on it. That’s why there is that comfort I experience every time I walk in there. Someone asks if you want to have some chai and always with a smile, just like at home.

The Outdoors and the Indoors

For a hotel with 77 rooms and multiple havelis, Suryagarh has event spaces that can accommodate much more, making it an ideal place for tasteful weddings. The lawns come with a waterbody to lounge around. With the hotel façade in the backdrop, this waterbody, makes for a stunning sight especially at night. It’s perfect for a Sangeet or a welcome dinner - a laidback evening. What defines it from the other venues is the fact that you can actually see barren land on one side and the entire hotel’s façade on the other. Quite a picture!

Concrete meets grass with a beautiful baradari set against the lake in the celebration lawns. Set on multiple tiers, it is beautiful for a an outdoor dinner. My personal favourite is the step-well which is perfect for a mandap. It seats about 250 guests and has a small garden attached to it. The hotel also has multiple courtyards which are perfect for smaller functions and dinners - so it’s a complete destination in itself. Languid and laid-back but packed with ideas and energy.

The Culinary Experience

The palace comes with it’s share of renowned masterchefs, each of them known for their grand menus - which is a mix of locally grown produce created with international flavours in mind. They offer fabulous old-school dishes and desert favourites which are unique and compelling. And their three restaurants: The Draksh bar, Nosh the coffee shop and The Legend of Marwar (a beautiful pink room) serve some amazing cocktails, great appetizers and mouth-watering desserts fit for royalty.

The Little Things

It’s the little things that make Suryagarh what it is ☺ They offer unique, yet fun experiences like a picnic by the oasis or a midnight drive to the haunted chudail trail. Every morning, you wake up to this beautiful folk singer singing in the courtyard, breakfast is available in bed though I recommend making it to the restaurant (don’t be surprised to find the hotel’s pet pigeons and turtles roaming around the pond. The fabulous spa comes with traditional therapies that can cure any kind of pain. They have an indoor pool and salon which takes luxury to the next level.

If you have dreamt of a beautiful intimate heritage wedding, I’d say Suryagarh is your best bet. The logistics are slightly painful (with all that’s on offer, this one’s do-able), you may need to charter flights or have your guests drive down. But once there, it is well worth all your time, money and love. For me, Suryagarh is the perfect “boutique”palace to have a larger- than-life wedding.

“How I Planned My Sister-In-Law’s Wedding”

You’ve read about our wedding of the month, Sheetal + Nirav and part one of their spectacular day. Now, read about how it was conceptualised and pulled off by Sheetal’s sister-in-law aka wedding planner, Anisha Vaibhav Narang. 

So around April 2015, my family and I were in Mumbai for my sister-in-law, Sheetal’s roka with Nirav Bajaj, who was based in Mumbai. The roka was on a Sunday and that morning I met with the groom’s sister, brother-in-law and some other friends at breakfast and while we were talking, I just introduced myself as a wedding planner. It was just in jest mostly and I also mentally charted out a new career for myself. But at that breakfast, everyone took what I said quite seriously and it defined the next few months of my life. I now have newfound respect for anyone who says they worked on a wedding - be it in terms of doing the décor or design, the food, logistics, hotels or more - it’s not an easy job! Plus, I learnt so much about weddings and how people come together to create a dream. It’s not one person’s job, that I know now.

Firstly, the thing I realized about weddings, especially in India is that there is SO much emotion and drama around it. Society for ages has told fathers that they will attain moksha or nirvana if and when they perform their daughters’ kanya daan. Mothers bring up daughters knowing they are paraya dhan and have to be ‘given away’ one day! Yet on the actual day no one can control their emotions… this is what it comes down to. 

The planning, the drama and the biggest day of someone’s life. So here’s how I planned my sister-in-law’s wedding as a planner, suffice to say it was a beautiful experience, but also one that came with a lot of responsibility.

1. Budget

If you are a Sheikh’s daughter then it doesn’t matter, but otherwise you need a budget to start off. And from time to time, we need to ascertain whether one is working within the outline or not.

There are two ways to look at this: First, you need to budget for the entire wedding. Next, you budget for individual heads like food, hotel and logistics, décor, clothes etc. You can move your budgets around, spend lesser on say food or use more on decor or go deep on favours etc. The idea is to maintain the budget - just add or subtract, 20% on either side of what has been budgeted - that’s your ideal number. Do remember: there will always be something that hasn’t been accounted for, or unplanned or unexpected that ups the budget, keep space for that.

2. Guest List

This is your god of gods. Really, I mean it! This has got to be fool-proof with no scope for human error. Why? This is who wedding is for and about. If you miss any detail, maybe a guest did not get a room of his choice, or worse did not like the food or the planning etc, you are responsible. You have to put down every name you plan on calling for the wedding. This too this will change till the last day, thanks to RSVPs. In which case it’s always handy to have multiple guests lists of various categories: One for immediate family, one for extended family, third cousins, friends, close friends and colleagues.  

3. Wedding Size

What decides the size of a wedding? The destination. Is it in the girl’s city? Is it in the boy’s town? Is it a destination wedding? Is it in the city they grew up in? The size is determined easily once you know this - the city they live in means that the guest list is bigger, you have to call everyone. 

But if it’s a destination wedding, it’s only reserved for close family and friends. People you wouldn’t mind waking up to and literally living with for 2-4 days. The Jaisalmer wedding had both - we had a reception in the city where the family lived and the wedding at a destination.

4. Wedding Type: Religion, Culture & Events

So for the most part, the religion of the boy and girl will define this. If the religion is the same, it’s effortless. If it’s mixed, then perhaps a combination of some kind mutually agreeable to both parties in terms of rituals to be performed. It can even be mixed Hindu weddings like Punjabi-sindhi or Marwari-tamilian, etc. Religion could be similar but cultures and rituals might just be different.

Usually it’s both parents who sit and discuss this, sometimes the bride and groom define what they want. This is also important for planning since it will define exactly how many functions  are there, what comes after what etc. 

Also, every event has to be planned with arrivals and departures in mind - so main events on the first or last day and fun ones in the middle. The wedding has to be action-packed without disappointing anyone.

4. Food

This is the biggest thing that people come for, the biggest thing people talk about, and the biggest thing that people take back. These days, there is immense pressure to better or excel what is usually being done, vis a vis food, ultimately impacting guest experience.

Ours was a 300 guest wedding and in order to have a delightful culinary experience we decided to use two service providers. One of which was the hotel where the wedding was happening, i.e. Suryagarh, Jaisalmer. The other was one of India’s most renowned caterers, FoodLink, Mumbai.  

We had hi-teas, multi cuisines, innovative bars like the rice bar that offered everything from a bisibelebath to a risotto. Punjabi specials with everything from street food like the traditional chaats to the chole kulchas to spiked golas and even light Mediterranean snacks followed by a rich Mughlai-Marwari dinners.

The reason we used two caterers was to manage the work load, given our functions were back to back and to improve quality and turn out of each event. We kept in mind known food allergies of family and friends, spice levels, vegetarian or non vegetarian preferences, sugar free needs, the usual but important specific food needs of people. We ensured that guests always had easy accessibility to food and are never hungry.

5. Hotels and Logistics

So many things are at play here, especially if it’s a destination wedding. There are hotel preferences, likes and dislikes and each side to be put up at different places. Also along with the guest list, arrivals and departures have to be coordinated accordingly and check in and check outs planned. For us the logistics were complicated. 

Airport arrivals came only in jodhpur, and then guests were picked up and needed to drive 4-5 hours to get to jaisalmer. So that meant, families would travel together and people have to be clubbed together. What we did was hire a local transport in charge, who provided us with luxury buses as well as about 50 taxis. That took care of things.

Wedding Tales, headed by Noor Khan, Bangalore were hired to do the running around and co-ordinating for the entire 3 days. Everything from airport pick ups, to organizing the respective car rides for each guest, to check ins, to two and fros between both our hotels was taken into consideration.The team also helped in setting up salon and spa appointments for our guests before events, packed up our welcome gifts and organized sight-seeing for guests looking to go out.

6. Décor

Again like food, there is no end to how much you can do and what all you can do here. What is important though is to ascertain whether you want a wedding designer or a decorator as many people are good wedding decorators not necessarily designers. And the one we used was the latter. We had a beautiful backdrop, that of the hotel in an otherwise barren almost desert like landscape. And Devika Narain did a splendid job of this. 

The bride liked the unique, opulent, royal decor and so keeping her taste in mind, magic was created given the landscape without taking away from the natural beauty. As a wedding designer, Devika managed to incorporate many elements from the wedding card in the décor, right down to the boxes for the gifts. Many guests noticed the attention to detail and appreciated it because the entire wedding followed the same design theme - from food tags to even easels with menus. Like they say, god is in the details.

7. Photography

Nothing captures the essence of a dream wedding more than a picture one can see even 10 years later or a video that one can watch with their children. While this is also an important part of wedding planning it’s relatively easier to handle. Or at least it was in our case. We engaged the services of Joe Radhik, one of India’s top wedding photographers and filmers. He came with a team of about 8-10 people who took care of creating a lifetime of memories for us. 

We got that organised too, we created a list of must have pictures to take: one for the wall kind of picture, the families together or  just friends etc. We gave the photographer a low down so they know that whose emotions are to be captured.

8. Small Things

Do destination weddings work without lists? Not really so we have exhaustive ones for even the littlest of things. We are in a desert area where nothing is available - so we had to carry everything, back-ups and extras included. Right from pooja items to every small thali had to be packed up.  My husband and I travelled to the destination two weeks before the date and made sure everything had arrived and was checked against an inventory. For example, even the suhag ka dupatta was taken in, because let’s face it, every religion, custom or tradition is specific and unique to each family. Additional medication, specific family medicines, medicines for kids, tagged and carried. Plenty of packing materials, feminine care products were also taken care of.

9. Make up & Outfits

These are the people who work towards making family, friends and most specifically the bride look like a million bucks at weddings - yes, makeup artists are super important. They need to be booked at least 4-6 months in advance. So whether you want a more glamorous look or a simple natural one, it’s important to pick the right makeup artist for the day because there is no going back on the day.

The most most fun part of a wedding is the shopping for clothes and other related things like jewellery, trousseau etc. Again something that needs to be done at least 3-4 months in advance as that’s how long either designers or tailors take to create the outfits if the bride’s dreams. Plus those months one can’t fluctuate too much in terms of weight else clothes that are made to order won’t fit. Which is why one usually also does a trial just a month before the wedding. Knowing these timelines can help because everything needs to be right on the d-day.

10. Entertainment

Everyone from a JLo, to Harshdeep Kaur, to Shah Rukh Khan have performed and entertained crowds at weddings. Even classical artist perform at weddings so we had to figure out the right entertainment for this wedding.

We had Harshdeep Kaur at the mehendi function, local Rajasthani manganiars at the desert and the famed Ghazi Khan and his classical performers at the sit-down dinner after the wedding. Again these people need to be booked months in advance. Also while doing this, each artist has technical requirements for them and their teams in terms of what kind of speakers they need, audio settings etc.  

Well, this is exactly how I planned Sheetal’s wedding and it was a delight. I learned about big things and enjoyed the planning for the little things. In the end, it was a beautiful experience both for the bride and me. 

By Anisha

Xoxo

Unplugged | Designing without flowers

Every Sunday, Devika writes about ideas that inspire and things close to her heart,Unplugged! 

Big news: We’ve finally moved into our new office. I have a proper space and if you thought that would be the end of what seems to be the greatest project of my life, you’re mistaken. Tiny details emerge. A doorbell needs to be installed coz people just come walking in. We need mousepads, boards and pens every day because they are missing (I’m certain someone is hiding these in a corner as a joke!) and we’re already running out of space as ribbons and fabrics and bought on a whim. To top it all, it’s super-hot outside and even though it threatens to rain every day, the weather is good enough to melt any half-decent soul. And between all of that, we’re in the process of conceptualising and planning for the coming season. *makes a zen face!

Having said that it’s great to finally have a space of your own. I get a warm fuzzy feeling every morning when I walk in the door and enter this place that is bursting with creative energy. The wedding season will be upon us soon and I am thankful to get home each day, put my feet up and watch a movie till I fall off the couch in my sleep.

I digress, we’re here to talk about designing without flowers. Below are my ideas for things that won’t die in this weather and will make any space look cheery in this heat:

Origami

I love paper and there are some unique things you can do with it. Read: origami. For a recent wedding, I partnered with an NGO and had some wonderful kids make birds and boats for me. Not only did it make my décor feel purposeful, it added a super fun detail to the Sangeet. For the not-so-adventurous ones, I recommend large paper flowers as a backdrop or paper art in cream and gold- elegant, yet fun!

Play with light

I love chandeliers, bulbs and lamps. I love draping bulbs and fairy lights, they instantly make a setting more intimate and cozy. In February, Suryagarh, brought out these gorgeous green glass lamps to create an interesting buffet display for dinner- I have never seen something as stunning! A good lighting system just takes care of everything!

Fabrics

Oversized / Embellished / Fun cushions and beautiful drapes can make anything look pretty. The wispier the material of the drapes, the better it looks because it accentuates the space and the decor. Cushions always add character to the setting, make them to match your theme in terms of colour and texture and you’re set. Layering and working with textures and prints to create a dramatic setting always works.

Go local

I love walking around the local market outside my house, when I am feeling uninspired. I find the most interesting things there and love to add them as details in décor. They could be household items or even fashion accessories, everything can become something, if used right. So my weddings were peppered with tambourines, pinwheels, bangles, pickle jars, pompoms, trunks and even fruits. Dilli Haat, Janpath and Kinari Bazaar in Delhi are heaven for quirky things- Crawford and Chor Bazaar in Bombay are great too!

Simple as these ideas sound, they make any special event even more gorgeous. So go out and try these ideas today. In my opinion, they’re not just great decor for weddings but wonderful ideas for home decor as well. 

So anyone can try their hand at them. As for me, I’m going to spend the day pottering about in my small garden and picking out flowers to take to my new and improved office tomorrow.

Sheetal + Nirav: Part One

Palaces, deserts and royalty, Rajasthan is  a beautiful place to host weddings. Especially Jaisalmer, a city where I planned my first few weddings and a place that gave me my most-loved, award-winning wedding experiences. That’s why when I got a call from Sheetal to tell me she was planning her wedding in Jaisalmer, I was both excited and scared. It’s always exciting to work in Jaisalmer, the city feels like home. But I was apprehensive about creating another unique experience at the same venue, yet again. To be honest, it can be very challenging but that’s the charm isn’t it? Creating newer experiences using local ideas.

Sheetal and Nirav were special from the very start, a couple who were so tuned in to what they wanted and were willing to give me a free hand to achieve it. Sheetal, the bride is knowledgeable and well-informed, someone who knows her mind. Armed with a background in fashion and a Pinterest-worthy closet (one day maybe, I will get her to share images of it!), her attention to detail will beat mine any day.  Nirav on the other hand, is the most chilled-out groom I have ever met. They were so different from each other and yet so connected.

I often write about couples and forget to mention their families. Excuse me if I sound cheesy, but this wedding was the coming together of some of the most beautiful people I have ever met. From the first day, Sheetal’s parents, brother and sister-in-law (Anisha- who you will hear about later!), felt like family.

The wedding began with a Sangeet and that’s unique because the usual rulebook works with a specific chronology of events. Somehow, welcome lunches, cocktails, Mehendi evenings and a host of other functions are preferred over a groove-all-night-long Sangeet. But having that party on Day One is a sign that things will be fast-paced and exciting. No, this wasn’t a slow build-up of sorts, this was an energy-filled beginning to a beautiful love story.

Day two was the Mehendi, a chilled out afternoon that continued at the dunes where guests enjoyed the sunset and came back to a chilled-out dinner.

When planning a destination wedding, balance is key. Your guests should not feel rushed with one hectic event after another, neither should it be so slow that they get bored. The most important thing is that everyone needs time to chill, chat and take in the experience. Sheetal and Nirav’s wedding was all that and more!

Sangeet: Modern Mughals

Sheetal’s only brief for this day was that she wanted it to be glamorous. As for her outfits, she wore a mirror-work lehenga and wanted lots of shimmer for the evening to compliment her look. That’s how two things I love the most came together to make this evening special: lots of sequins + Ikat fabric. 

The lehenga was my Pinterest board this time around. The colour palette moved from muted gold to fresh greens to purple table covers. Inspired by the patterns at the Jaislamer fort, I created cut-out jaalis with candles in between them, they became the backdrop for the bar and the stage.

The bar was entirely covered with small pieces of mirror mosaic to match her dress. The ceilings of the lounges were draped with chiffon and finished with flowers made to resemble Wisteria. Dinner tables came with purple ikat table covers filled with lush purple flowers. The outdoor Sangeet had beautiful lighting with retro bulbs used to create an installation that swayed prettily in the evening breeze. I also made sure we had a piece de resistance at the Sangeet, a tree made of bulbs to stand up as a centrepiece, a conversation-starter. By the end of the night, it was instagram-worthy and served as a backdrop for every photo-op.

Mehendi: Of Earthy Vibes and Desert Songs

If the Sangeet was all about evening glamour, then the Mehendi next day was a contrast, it was lush, vibrant and beautiful. The inspiration was the oasis in the middle of the desert, a place where one find the elixir of life, water. It is also a place where plants thrive, animals prosper and people rejoice. As for Sheetal, the opulence of the oasis appealed to her, it was grand and flamboyant. And so we had afternoon lunch under the tents next to the oasis with lots of vintage desert elements like charpoys, kilim rugs and colourful lanterns.

The colours of the afternoon were simple - muddy olives, sandstone yellows, dirty mustards and laid-back cactus greens. I also used prints that were inspired by the birds and flowers commonly found in palace gardens. The lawns were dotted with block-print tents, low seating and hand-embroidered cushions. A marketplace was set up like a grand souk with parrot readers and bangle-makers, the puppet show was an added attraction.

The centrepieces were a mix of flowers and fruits that guests could pick on and eat. Most often at Mehendis, the men feel left out. It is indeed a woman’s ceremony but hey, it’s a destination wedding and that means entertainment was for everyone. So, to keep up with those standards, we got the boys a maalishwala, lots of kite-flying and a person who made them block-printed pocket squares.

The day came to an end with lots of dancing, live stalls serving mouth-watering Indian fare and fun drinks to suit the mood of the day.

Stay Tuned For Part Two Of Nirav & Sheetal’s Lush Desert Wedding.

Two Designers, Two Beautiful Campaigns, One Love!

My love for handcrafted design - that’s an obsession I’m never getting out of. All of that ingenuity coupled with beautiful designs, skilled artisans, local artists, age-old design sensibilities and traditional ideas that take on contemporary life - it’s a feast for the eyes. Going back to your roots and making them your identity in a modern way, that has always been fascinating for me. And as you already know, I’m a big fan of Sabyasachi and Sanjay Garg (of Raw Mango), two artists who completely reinvented the landscape of traditional design. They bring back nostalgia in the form of clothes and ideas recreating a new world for people like me who want to wear a bit of history, a bit of passion and art. 

And this week, as I browsed their newest collections, I was left with a feeling of awe. And a feeling that these two collections, no matter how different they are, are going to change my wardrobe and my views towards design once again. Because both of them touched the most beautiful inspiration board that one can work with - vintage florals and botanicals. And now these age-old ideas have been resuscitated to create a whole new world of modern living through nature’s bounty. They help Indian women create a new identity for themselves and that means experimenting with fabrics, textures and textiles from the past. 

In a trend-obsessed world, Sabyasachi’s new Mughal Garden collection is a place where timeless identities are created, nurtured and made to thrive. It’s stunning and such a welcome relief from his earlier collections which felt almost the same in terms of motifs. It was getting monotonous because everyone is wearing the same lehengas and the same designs - copies were being made and his craft was being shredded to bits by cheap rip-offs. Change was on stand-by for a while. And this collection came to breathe a new life into our closets. 

Botanical prints are in and I’m so happy because I’ve been in love with them forever. The lehengas are gorgeous, blouses are handcrafted to perfection and the jewellery by Kishandas & Co made the look regal and becoming. Much as I loved the collection, I just wish Sabyasachi had experimented a little more with colour though. His colour palette is earthy and raw, but it needed a bigger push, a bigger change. Has he shifted his design sensibilities enough to give us a whole new world to play with? Not really! As much as I loved this collection, there is something missing, a certain richness that his outfits always come with. 

That said, I will not take away from the genius that he has been with this collection, giving botanicals a new recourse, creating a new bride who loves simplicity and delicate florals. This fresh modern view of vintage botanicals will always be part of his journey and I’m caught up in its magic! PS: I love the wallpaper more than the outfits in this campaign. * I’m guilty as charged!

Another designer on the other hand, Sanjay Garg created a capsule collection for Bungalow 8 with sheer florals and Chanderi offerings. Sanjay comes with his own plan - his saris are so delicate and feminine, so easy to wear and his new collection takes this idea a step further! The transparency of the saris melded into the rawness of the floral blouses - it looked shabby chic with a luxe touch. I liked that Sanjay once again went off the beaten track from his rich Benarasi fabrics into a world that’s botanical and nature-centric. I cannot wait to create a wedding around it :D. There is such delicateness and romanticism attached to these beauties and am hungry for more!

So, what are you loving in design these days? Is there inspiration round the corner? What has touched your soul these days?