For almost half a century, Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi, the grand old man of the Indian hotel industry, always left his huge 70-acre farmhouse at Kapashera in South West Delhi in his black Mercedes at 9.30 am.
A stickler for time throughout his life, PRS Oberoi used to visit the Oberoi Intercontinental Hotel on Zakir Hussain Marg to meet his management team. Also called ‘Biki’, he called his managers to look after the affairs of Oberoi hotels and resorts across the world from that spot. Chairman Emeritus of the Oberoi Group, PRS Oberoi, died on Tuesday morning at the age of 94 years. He will be remembered for changing the face of the Indian hospitality industry.
The high point of Biki Oberoi’s tryst with the hospitality industry was the moment he convinced his father, Sardar Mohan Singh Oberoi (MS Oberoi), to assign architect and politician Piloo Mody to design Oberoi Intercontinental in the capital. That was the early 1960s, and many acclaimed architects of the country were keen to grab the lifetime opportunity to design the luxury hotel.
“Those were the days when the capital had just three class hotels- Ashok, The Imperial, and Oberoi Maidens Hotel. Then known as Wesley Road, just at a shouting distance from Delhi Golf course, the Oberois got the land to build their hotel in a very deserted area there,” informs Santokh Chawla, chairman of Fun and Food Village and neighbour of Biki Oberoi.
Well, the Oberoi Maidens Hotel at Shamnath Marg was good considering those days, but they wanted to build a bigger and better property in Delhi. Chawla says that the Oberoi family was emotionally attached to Maidens Hotel as MS Oberoi lived in the Civil Lines area from the 1940s to the 1960s. He even contested the first Delhi assembly poll from the Civil Lines seat as an independent candidate unsuccessfully.
“He (Biki) had a playboy-like image. Rai Bahadur MS Oberoi very reluctantly inducted him into Oberoi management when he started planning to build a hotel in Delhi. After his father’s death, he diversified his group in a big way,” says Harsh Vardhan, the founder and chairman of Vayudoot Airlines.
Once Piloo Mody, the childhood friend of Pakistan PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had designed the Oberoi Intercontinental hotel, the construction was started in a big way under the watchful eyes of Biki. Immediately after it started operations, Oberoi Intercontinental became the last word in luxury and class. The Chinese, Skylark, and Mughal restaurants of Oberoi became a rage. “Their service was class apart. I had seen Biki both in Delhi and in Trident in Mumbai, talking to burly guards at the gates and telling them in chaste Punjabi how to say ‘Namaste’ to guests. He was truly a father figure of the Indian hotel industry,” says Rajan Dhawan, a noted Delhi-based Tax consultant.
Those who have been lucky enough to stay in the Oberoi properties can’t stop gushing about their splendour. Every corner has a story to tell. The architecture of their hotels or resorts is the most prized.
Wesley Road was later rechristened the Zakir Hussain Marg.
It is said that Biki’s mother, Ishran Devi, laid the Oberoi Intercontinental’s foundation stone, but before doing so, she placed five gold coins in the pit for good luck. She was the life and soul of the Oberoi clan.
Biki often used to narrate the story of his childhood in Gujranwala (now in Pakistan). His father, MS Oberoi, and his mother, Ishran Devi, had to flee their native village, Bhaun, in the early 1920s to safeguard their children from the outbreak of deadly plague. They moved to cool climes of Muree (a hill station near Rawalpindi), where M.S. Oberoi lived for some time doing odd jobs before moving to Shimla to work.
Luxury hotels and resorts apart, PRS Oberoi was a very devout and proud Sikh. He would often visit Gurudwara Bangla Sahib for prayers.
“Biki Oberoi lived a full life. He was an icon, no doubt. His son and two daughters will lead EIH Ltd to new heights. Just wanted to mention that Reliance Industries Ltd owns about 19% of EIH Ltd, the company that owns Oberoi hotels,” Dr. Sudhir Bisht, who teaches management in NCR-based college, concludes.