From Mumbai to London – the story of the founding of Jamavar

The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts are today recognised around the world for their excellence and luxury operations. Their story has always been individual and unique. The Leela Hotels were founded in 1983 by Captain C. P. Krishnan Nair, who named the group after his wife.

Captain Nair, as he was often referred to, was not a traditional hospitality professional. He originally joined the Indian independence movement at the age of 13. He traveled to Bangalore in 1942 to join the Indian Army. His confidence impressed the recruiting officer and he was recruited as wireless officer, and posted in Abbottabad (in present-day Pakistan). He would later rise to rank of Captain in the Maratha Light Infantry. In 1950, he married Leela, the daughter of industrialist A.K Nair, after whom he would name his future hotel chain. Nair resigned from the Indian Army in 1951 and helped to set up the All India Handloom Board. He was instrumental in developing and exporting the “Bleeding Madras” fabric, a subtly fragrant, hand- woven cotton printed with vegetable dyes, which became a fashion rage in the United States.

In 1957, Nair was part of a delegation of the All India Handloom Board to West Germany, which involved visits to Frankfurt, Cologne, Munich and Hamburg. Following his stay at the Kempinski Hotel in Budapest, he realised the need for a luxury hotel chain in India that could measure up to international standards. Nair established Hotel Leelaventure Ltd. in 1983, and began construction of a hotel in Sahar on 4 acre plot of land that he owned, and an additional 6.5 acres that he leased. The Leela Mumbai, was launched in 1986.

In 1991 a second hotel was opened in Goa. The Leela Goa was designed to keep the overall architecture in mind and has taken its inspiration from Portuguese heritage. The luxury seaside resort is spread over 75 acres of land in South Goa near Cavelossim Beach.

In 2001 the group’s first modern Palace hotel was built with 357 rooms, inspired by the Mysore Palace and the architecture of the 13th century Vijayanagara empire, and is surrounded by seven acres of gardens. The Leela Group opened its second resort in 2005 – The Leela Kovalam in Thiruvananthapuram. By 2009, two more properties were added to this portfolio: in Udaipur (Rajasthan) and Gurgaon.

The Leela Ambience Gurgaon is the group’s first non-owned, managed property. The Leela Palace New Delhi opened in April 2011; the palace is inspired by the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens. The Leela Palace Chennai opened in August 2012, the city’s first sea-facing Palace hotel, that reflects the opulence of Chettinad dynasty.

“Our journey as a hospitality brand began with my grandfather Late Captain CP Krishnan Nair.” Explains Samyukta, “He was a former Captain in the army, known for transforming his own circumstances, and those of the people who worked with him. His long and diverse career saw him move from humble beginnings to a respected army officer, and then from a successful textile exporter to one of the leading hoteliers of the world. His journey began with one hotel on the outskirts of Mumbai which he named after his wife, my grandmother – Leela. In a short span of three decades, his vision transformed The Leela into a network of nine award- winning properties that celebrate India’s diverse geography and rich architectural history. My grandfather will always be my inspiration!“

In 2016, the group took a new turn with the opening of their signature Indian restaurant Jamavar in London. The design and ambience represent a fusion of India and London with its own style. So, what has prompted the opening of Jamavar in London?

“My father, Dinesh Nair, is passionate about cuisines and he is the driving force behind the entire F&B portfolio of The Leela Palaces, which is much appreciated by our guests across India and around the world. Over the last few years, we started seeing a growing demand for sophisticated Indian gastronomy beyond our borders, which prompted us to bring our signature Indian offerings to the forefront. London being the world’s melting pot, it was our first choice. “ Samyukta is very open in her answers and in her approach. There are no hidden sides but a genuine belief in what the group are striving to achieve.

“Jamavar London takes an authentic approach to Indian cuisine. On the menu are dishes that showcase the varied flavours of the Royal Kitchens of North India along with succulent options from the shores of the South. Behind every dish is a team of highly experienced chefs, each a culinary master of a distinct regional cuisine. Our Executive Chef Rohit Ghai, who has led several Indian Michelin starred kitchens in the past, travelled through India for several months. Inspired by the street food from the North and South, he has created innovative small plates, keeping the sophisticated palate of London diners in mind. Also, while in India his deep dive into the culinary wealth of The Leela has led to some of the most popular dishes of Jamavar’s siblings in India like Lobster Neeruli, Sidhi Ghost and Butter Chicken to be featured on the menu.

What are the hopes and aspirations for the restaurant and in London?

Celebration of cuisine is fundamental to The Leela Palaces, and Jamavar, our signature Indian restaurant, is the jewel in the crown. Jamavar London being our first foray internationally, we have worked hard to recreate the same standards of luxury and high quality that Jamavar is trusted for and loved across India, and hope that our efforts will resonate with London diners.

Opening in London is renowned to be difficult and especially for those that have not operated in London. How was the process and journey?

We opened under a tight deadline of five months and the journey had had both great moments and great challenges. We were first slated to open at the end of October but there were unforeseen delays. We had not planned for an opening during holiday season, which is usually not advisable given it is such a busy time of the year. But we opened on December 1, and honestly, we are both surprised and thankful for the positive response Jamavar London is receiving. “

Was the London opening a lead into opening a hotel at a later date?

The Leela has been voted the fifth best brand in a worldwide 2016 survey by the renowned Travel & Leisure USA, and we are deeply thankful to our guests for recognising us. Our immediate plans are to expand brand Leela into the Indian Ocean and the Middle East.

Hotels and Resorts are renowned for their design and they bring together heritage and legacy with the modern world. Their ethos and hotels do mark them out as being different to other. What lies behind their thinking towards the design of the hotels and the restaurant? The Leela properties are India’s modern palaces, inspired by the rich heritage and architectural history of each destination, and equipped with world-class amenities and services. Each property is designed to give our guests a deep sense of place. Once inside, museum-quality art and artisanal craft is showcased in public spaces, which we view as an ultimate gift of luxury to our guests. Every restaurant has a unique identity and is designed to encapsulate a complete dining experience that feeds all five senses. This same aesthetic and ethos extends to Jamavar London which is designed by Fabled Studio, London, and takes inspiration from the majestic Viceroy’s house in New Delhi. With accents that draw on the ancient games of India combined with the vibrant colours of Jamavar shawls, rainforest emperador marbles, dark timber panelling, as well as a mirror embellished bar in celebration of the Indian textile techniques, Jamavar London is a jewel that is befitting of its surroundings in Mayfair.

The Hotels are also famed for the service levels – and the service in London was exceptional – can you again tell me more about the overall approach to people and development?

Our art of hosting guests reflects the centuries-old traditions of Indian hospitality which believes in Atithi Devo Bhava that literally means Guest is God. We take pride in creating truly personal and authentic experiences for our guests, and showing a special regard for every guest who crosses our threshold. And, I must add, we look for every opportunity to convey the essence of India.

There is little doubt that the restaurant will be a success in London and set a new benchmark for others to meet. However, it also builds a greater awareness within London of the group. What strikes the listener from both the interview and their overall approach is that they understand that a guest’s stay is all about the experience and that an exceptional experience creates something special which in turns builds success and legacy.