This special series invites you into homes of interesting people in interesting places. Read the other stories here.
The road behind Nagavara Lake in Hebbal Kempapura disappears and a large compound bordered by rough-hewn chapdi kal (granite slabs) comes into view. You wonder if Siri is disoriented or whether this nook escaped discovery by Google Maps, but there’s no one to ask. Yet, driven by instinct and guided by sensibility, you approach the gates, which open like a portal to another realm. It’s like you dropped down a rabbit hole and time-travelled to the house of a Chola chieftain.
How they got here
Hospitality entrepreneur and environmentalist Bimal Desai and his wife Lavina are nature lovers and theatre buffs. Tired of living in the heart of Bengaluru at Race Course Road for over 40 years under the glare of tube lights, they yearned for an oasis amidst nature. The houses there were cheek by jowl and Bimal’s only escape was Cubbon Park for his daily ritual run and quality time with his dad on a park bench. It was this love for Bangalore’s premier lung space that saw Bimal waging a lone crusade to protect Cubbon Park, culminating in Justice Saldhana’s landmark judgement in 1996.
Having been in theatre since college and majored in set design from Chicago’s North Western University, Bimal is a well-known actor-director in the city’s theatre circles. A perfectionist with a hawk eye for detail, he’s done over 30 plays and won praise for his signature set designs and obsession about every nitty-gritty, from colours, to costume, light fittings, décor, paintings, crockery… Yet beyond the spotlights, Bimal always wanted to live in a forest. The family business was beedi making–ironically he’s called ‘BD’–and he often stayed amid sal and kendu forests of Madhya Pradesh. In 2007, he bought a barren 2.5-acre patch near Hebbal. Nagavara Lake once lapped the edge of the property but after a nala (drain) was built, it cut off the lake and the waters receded.
Designing the dream home
For three years, he didn’t build anything, but planted 482 native trees while scouting for the perfect architect. “The inside goes outside and the outside comes in,” was Bimal’s mantra. Being an admirer of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, he was directed to his deputy Channa Daswatte. It took BD a year to track him down. Channa insisted that Bimal visit him in Sri Lanka and see his work. Bimal looked at just one property and was sold. Channa flew in from Sri Lanka and stayed for three days with Bimal and Lavi to understand their needs. The sketches were ready in two months though their dream haven Zanti (a Sanskrit derivative for shanti or peace) took over four years to build.
The impressive driveway with a water feature has a Mangalore tiled roof pavilion guarded by stone elephants on the left for meeting guests, typical of Lankan resorts. To the right is the residence or private zone, styled like a thottimane (courtyard home), reminiscent of their ancestral home in Nadiad with ornate doors from Gujarat. The inner courtyard has temple trees and a stone statue; the living lies on the left with a verandah connecting it to the guest pavilion. The dining, kitchen, puja room and two bedrooms are on the ground floor with three bedrooms a level above. The highlight is Channa’s suspended staircase that achieves an arresting vertical balance and rhythm with Burma teak open risers and slim MS round iron bars providing clean, long lines. BD insisted on an open sacred centre, so that anyone passing by could see it. Besides light streaming in through French doors, he also wanted rain pouring into the house, so a sky-lit corner was created in the puja space and protected with a mesh that let rain shower on a temple tree inside. Sri Lankan timber benches from jackfruit trees provide seating.
The pillars in each verandah are different–the front ones are locally sourced rough-hewn granite while the backyard ones from Chettinad were bought by Bimal 23 years ago. The construction was unhurried. Bimal smiles, “Work halted for four months until I found the right pillars for the inner courtyard from an old home in Mysuru.” For the verandah tiles, BD spent six months looking at various floral and geometric patterns in Chettinad but nothing clicked. One day, he happened to see renowned Sri Lankan artist Laki Senanayake’s line drawings of a tile that had been rejected by a client. With Channa’s permission, he bought the design and went to Athangudi to work with a tiler for weeks in Chettinad’s sweltering summer. It took three days to mix and match hues before a sample was sent for Channa’s approval… ‘Sexy!’ was his one word reply, and the verandah was completed!
Bimal loves minimalism in architecture and prefers furniture and accents to add drama. Enter, his 20-year-old collection of pillars, doors and windows sourced from Chettinad to Chor Bazaar and antique furniture from Kolkata and Sri Lanka. An old swing from Gujarat serves as a garden chair while a rustic bullock cart with brass trimmings adds relief. Once, while driving in from the airport, Daswate noticed many Bangalore houses used chapdi kal as boundary walls. He decided against a wall design and incorporated this local idiom, using 10ft high stone slabs. To break the monotony Bimal spent one week chipping the tops off for a jagged edge. Broken chapdi stone was used to pave the outer courtyard.
The home’s allure lies in its sprawling outdoors which turned into a dreamy venue for their elder daughter Sahana’s wedding in 2019. An immense pool circled with stone steps created an amphitheater-like setting with the nuptial mantap at the centre. A richly carved stone pavilion that once served as a roadside resting place for weary travelers was salvaged from Tirunelveli district. Another large pavilion with cast-iron pillars originally manufactured in Edinburgh was transplanted from Mumbai. Channa designed a striking wall mural made entirely of assembled leftover tiles; a smaller version adorns the guest pavilion. Like the chairs, the cushions bearing Tamil-like Sinhala script, were sourced from Sri Lanka. Bimal’s love for art is evident throughout the house – batik panels on the ceiling are by Ena D’Silva while pen and ink artworks by Laki Senanayake dominate the living room and bedrooms. Bimal’s room is incidentally called ‘Laki Room’ with an entire wall dedicated to his work! Black and white photos of Hampi by Saibal Das grace the hallway, a theme that echoes in his hotel Four Points by Sheraton in Whitefield. Each bathroom is unique, dressed lavishly with vintage fittings and polished antique cupboards.
Today, the trees tower over 30 ft creating a natural sound screen. Everything seems to slow down and soften to a rustle of leaves, twittering of birds and gurgle of water pouring into a koi pond. There’s a sense of quiet, like a Zen garden. The expansive lawns are punctuated by water features and Chola-era statues and pavilions. Frangipani, temple trees and heliconia herald the Balinese style gardens where the swimming pool is set. A Nandi statue sits in quiet repose. The fervent planting continues and the four Miyawaki forest patches have grown swiftly in just two years. The Desais still maintain their old residence but stay here with their younger daughter Jogiya.
If theatre is BD’s passion, sports and music keeps Lavi going. This cheery Mangalorean once played hockey for the state university but now claims she’s a ‘domestic engineer and caretaker’. “The kitchen is my domain. I just wanted a big spacious one with a six-burner Smeg to keep me happy. During the pandemic, I realised how blessed we were to have this space to call home. I could swim, walk around in the open spaces among trees… we were safely cocooned in a world of our own.”
Their loving dog pack–Rusty, the old pug, two indies Whiskey and Rani and two playful Mudhol hounds Coco and Brandy prance about the compound in joyful company. The couple sips their morning tea in the pavilion watching kingfishers and wagtails flitting about and regularly stave off requests for shoots and offers to turn their home into a boutique resort–it is after all, their last resort!