A Cultural Renaissance Comes to Jaipur

Julian Broad

In India’s pink city, a band of globe-trotting creatives is refreshing Rajasthan’s artisanal traditions, introducing new ideas and updating old ones. Their headquarters? A charmingly old-fashioned hotel named Narain Niwas Palace.

There is the Jaipur we all know—a city of myth and magic bursting with extravagant palaces, dashing Rajput royals, and hidden ateliers where gems are sold in private, over champagne. It is impossible for a traveler not to succumb to the romance of this Pink City in Rajasthan, where our favorite things about India seem to percolate and accumulate: heritage, tradition, craziness, custom, and color.

Like everywhere else in India, however, Jaipur is changing. Expats are staying to build lives in the city, and young people are returning after studying abroad. With them has come an exchange of ideas, an infusion of global sensibilities. (Case in point: the photogenic new maharaja, 19-year-old Padmanabh Singh, known as “Pacho,” who divides his time between New York City and Jaipur and plays polo everywhere from Chile to California.) Then there is Instagram, which is helping connect a global art and design community to Jaipur’s extraordinary traditions of craftsmanship and skill. The artistic energy in the city is palpable—and the best place to get a taste of it all is at an old-fashioned hotel named Narain Niwas Palace.

A sprawling 1928 haveli, or mansion, Narain Niwas Palace has become a meeting point for this new generation of creative, jet-setting Jaipurites. Ever since Hot Pink, a now-iconic fashion boutique, opened on the property in 2005, the hotel has become a kind of one-stop shopping and hangout spot. Several of Jaipur’s most influential design talents live in apartments at Narain Niwas Palace, and the city’s hottest bar and café can both be found on the premises. Some 14 stores, selling everything from precious jewelry to cutting-edge homewares, are arranged around its shaded garden, where you’re likely to encounter peacocks picking their way among lily ponds and parrots squawking in the trees overhead.

I decided to start my exploration of Narain Niwas Palace at Bar Palladio, which, when it opened on the hotel grounds in 2013, instantly joined the ranks of the world’s most beautiful bars. The space is painted peacock blue with ornate, Mughal-style white motifs. “My aesthetic is a mix of heritage and tradition, an exotic East-meets-West, colorful universe,” says the designer of the space, Dutch fashion entrepreneur Marie-Anne Oudejans, who founded the womenswear label Tocca before relocating to Jaipur seven years ago. “Sometimes,” she says of the move, “you just need an adventure.”


A guest room at Narain Niwas Palace; the gardens of the hotel. Julian Broad

Other expats are making their mark too. Bar Palladio is owned and run by Swiss-Italian Barbara Miolini, who worked for 15 years at Italy’s Hotel Villa Cipriani before moving to Jaipur in 2005. At Idli (which also has a store in Narain Niwas Palace), Thierry Journo combines his French design aesthetic with the expertise of Jaipur’s craftsmen, using techniques like block printing and hand embroidery to create beautiful dresses and shirts for his brand. And there’s French jewelry designer Marie-Hélène de Taillac, who cofounded Hot Pink with the late jeweler Munnu Kasliwal and sells her delicate, Jaipur-made pieces on Net-A-Porter. De Taillac and Oudejans both live in apartments within the hotel complex, both of which Oudejans designed.

“Creative people have always come to Jaipur, but it’s less of a secret now,” says jeweler Siddharth Kasliwal, who is arguably the most famous Jaipur resident in New York and a regular fixture on lists of the world’s most eligible bachelors. He and his younger brother, Samarth, are great-grandsons of Maniram Kasliwal, founder of Gem Palace. The jewelry atelier has built upon the city’s history as a hub for cutting gems and in turn earned a reputation for producing dazzling designs loved by Manhattan socialites and Hollywood stars alike.

The average visitor may simply walk into Gem Palace, located ten minutes by car from the hotel, and browse through its interconnecting rooms bursting with shiny trinkets, but those in the know head straight upstairs to the private viewing salon, a hot-pink playhouse designed by Oudejans—I call it the Chamber of Fun—where the most prized pieces are stored. The brothers invite you in, then proceed to drape you in the most audacious baubles you’ve ever seen: family heirlooms, pieces that have been quietly commissioned by Arab royalty and Chinese businesswomen, designs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars commissioned over WhatsApp and by email. At one point, I was wearing Superwoman-style armor with ten strands of massive pearls crisscrossing my chest; at the center was a giant emerald with diamonds fanning out from it like the rays of a flaming sun. Even in a Bollywood film, it would have been over-the-top.


A Rajasthani portrait in the lobby; the entrance to the Narain Niwas Palace at nightfall. Julian Broad

This is what has changed in Jaipur: It is still a mecca for shopping for jewels, for textiles, for fashion. But you’re no longer resigned to negotiating with touts or second-guessing the quality and authenticity of your purchases. Nowadays, you’re likely dealing with a sophisticated international designer whose products command top dollar at retailers from Bergdorf’s to Harrods.

Take Tarang and Akanksha Arora, for instance. Their jewelry brand, Amrapali, is a red-carpet favorite in India and around the world, and the couple is often spotted on the social scene in Mumbai and New Delhi. In January, the founders of the brand, Tarang’s father, Rajiv Arora, and designer Rajesh Ajmera, opened the doors of the Amrapali Museum in Jaipur. It’s an exquisite space, housing nearly 4,000 artifacts collected over 40 years by Arora and Ajmera, both of whom were history majors. And there are real treasures: a book stand, used to read the Koran, made from a single piece of translucent nephrite inlaid with gold; a 19th-century gold and rose-cut-diamond hair comb from Rajasthan; a Parsi necklace of diamond-studded blue enamel letters that spell out HUMATA HUKHTA HUVERSTA (“Good thoughts, good words, good deeds”).

“A cool version of our cultural heritage is spreading across Jaipur,” says Akanksha. “There’s the Jaipur Literature Festival, and now the Sculpture Park at Nahargarh Fort, along with new bars and restaurants like La Palma and Shikaar Bagh, next door to Bar Palladio. You can really feel a change.”

Of course, Jaipurites are making waves in areas other than jewelry. Furniture designer Ayush Kasliwal and his wife, Geetanjali, an architect, create stunning home accessories under the name Anantaya. Everything on display at their Narain Niwas Palace store—from glassware to lamps and trays—showcases traditional Indian craft fused with a modern aesthetic. The couple has previously worked with brands like Crate & Barrel and Tom Dixon and on projects in Hong Kong and Boston, but they’ve never strayed far from Jaipur. “Jaipur has always had incredible joie de vivre—but it has now come into itself,” Kooliwal says. “It has its own sense of expression.”

There are many others who would agree, such as Mubashir Andrabi, who, with his two brothers, started Andraab, a line of spectacular shawls, stoles, throws, and linens handwoven in Kashmir but designed in Jaipur. There are the brothers Paritosh and Priyank Mehta, who in 2011 founded Trunks Company, which makes leather trunks to order. They are all part of an intriguing creative cycle: The city attracts people from across the world with an interest in its centuries-old crafts, who then create something fresh and inspire locals to see their own traditions in a new light. The locals do more, the artisans innovate, and Jaipur remains in the spotlight, drawing and nurturing more talent.

Not far from Narain Niwas Palace, I visited a new hotel that is also brimming with creative activity. After running several successful restaurants in Mumbai, in 2016 Abhishek Honawar teamed up with Siddarth Kasliwal to open 28 Kothi, a five-room guest-house, specifically to cater to the design community that stays in Jaipur for weeks at a time. Honawar’s wife, Naina Shah, made the ideal guest prototype—she works in her family business, which creates elaborate hand embroideries for top fashion houses in Europe.


Idli, a clothing boutique on the property. Julian Broad

Designed by French architect Georges Floret and Jaipur-based Lebanese interior designer Nur Kaoukji, 28 Kothi is the ultimate expression of the Jaipur Modern aesthetic. (Think lattice windows and a traditional hand-painted mural, combined with tons of natural light, creamy walls, and potted plants.) The new Café Kothi offers a menu perfectly suited to its guests: light, healthy meals using fresh, local ingredients—the pomegranate-and-chickpea salad is a standout. “There’s something about the space that just brings like-minded people together,” says Shah.

On my last night in Jaipur, I ended up at—where else?—Bar Palladio. It was a Sunday, and the weather was ferociously hot, but there wasn’t an empty table. The Kasliwal boys were there, as were the Aroras and Miolini. The conversation spanned American politics, Chinese art, London nightclubs, a recent all-out bash in Udaipur that must have easily cost a hundred thousand dollars. You could have been anywhere in the world, except that you really couldn’t. Where else could you drink a gin and tonic in a peacock-blue hand-painted bar, while wearing flip-flops on your feet and rubies in your ears?