A Lingering Puff of Smoke

With the Hyatt Regency opening a nightspot after a decade, Sonal Shah reflects on Djinns, the hotel’s erstwhile party-starting genie.

At any popular nightclub, the most delicate dance is usually the one at the door. Delhi, with its deep class divides and social snobbery is no different: the city’s earliest dance clubs (Tabela at the Oberoi, Ghungroo at the Maurya), followed the template laid out by their exclusive predecessors abroad, as well as the capital’s own British-era social clubs, imposing fairly sstrict members-only policies.

Before Djinns opened in 1997, members’ clubs festered in the city’s hotels like a bad hangover. The Hyatt had Oasis, a dark, groovy cavern with a frosted dance floor — “a grown-up nightclub”, according to Nikhil Khanna, founder of Avian Media and a former society columnist. Oasis hosted toga parties and international DJs; Khanna remembers dancing there with Mick Jagger—to a Rolling Stones album hastily procured from a foreign guest’s room. The party sometimes overflowed into liquor-stocked cars in the parking lot outside the club. Fashion designer Suneet Varma called Oasis “India’s Studio 54”.

Named after William Dalrymple’s ‘City of Djinns’ , Djinns was positioned as a place to start the night rather than bury it.

But with lots of competition from ritzy clubs like Ghungroo, where DJ Sunny Sarid was introducing Bollywood playlists, My Kind of Place at the Taj Palace, and upstart Fireball heating up National Highway-8, Hyatt decided to shift gears.

Djinns was positioned as a place to start the night rather than bury it. Named after William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, it was a wholesale reproduction of the Singapore Grand Hyatt’s Brannigan’s pub. Aseem Kapoor, now the Hyatt Regency’s general manager, was assistant food and beverage manager in those days; he said the bar was a savvy attempt to break from the post-11pm party scene. “We wanted people to come at 7 or 8, and actually dine, then stay on,” he said.

The strategy worked. For almost ten years, this faux English “fun-pub” became a relaxed second home for its regulars, several days a week. Its patrons included a mix of “famous 500” businessmen—young sons of old money, like Gautam Singhania; entrepreneurs, including the Bijli brothers; and wheeler-dealers such as Rattan Mehta. There were cricketers and visiting Bollywood actors. Varma recalls introducing his cousin Karan Johar to pals at Djinns “around the time Kuchh Kucch Hota Hai became a mega success”.

Everyone milled about with comically oversize jugs of Long Island iced tea, which looked like “something out of Asterix”.

Djinns was also a fashion frat playground for mavens like Rohit Bal, as well as emerging designers such as Nikhil and Shantanu Mehra, Gauri and Nainika Karan, Malini Ramani, Siddharth Tytler, and Nandita Basu. “Back then,” Varma said, “Bandana Tewari—who went on to become features director at Condé Nast—was just a girl I used to groove with.”

Socialites, former and current models—Tanisha Mohan, Ramola Bacchan, Sapna Kumar, Lakshmi Rana, Nayanika Chatterjee— could be found on Djinns’ dance floor or in its “languorous little lounges,” as Anjoo Mohun, then hotel PR manager, described them. Designers often held events or post-show parties here, which involved “all kinds of codes to determine who would be invited,” said Varma.

Djinns’ lounge and nightclub elements—DJs, ladies’ nights, bouncers—mixed with the more casual lighting, pool tables, and live bands from Europe and the Philippines, made it feel a bit like a party pad. Everyone milled about with comically oversize jugs of Long Island iced tea, which looked, Varma said, like “something out of Asterix”. Siddharth Tytler liked that “you could talk, get to know people.” There was a sense of community, capped off each night, as Nainika Karan fondly remembered, by Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration”.

“Our bouncers were in the news more than anything else!”

Soon, the line outside Djinns became the most famous thing about it. Substituting an official membership with a strict door policy meant that Kapoor, often stationed at the entrance, was under strong orders from the General Manager to “control the profile of the guests.” As Friday approached, Mohun would feel “a growing trepidation about the calls at 11pm, 2am, saying ‘I can’t get in.’ There was a line around the block. Our bouncers were in the news more than anything else!”

Resident DJ Rummy Sharma’s cellphone rang constantly. Sharma, who had been at Oasis and “designed, played and shut down” the music at Djinns, told me he had never seen anything like “the craze to get in. We had to push the gates back further and further.” One night, he went out to fetch some friends and the entire cordon collapsed. Chaos ensued. “In Delhi, especially all the la-di-las, don’t have a culture of making a queue,” explained Sharma, who was given a dressing-down and barred from the gate.

Not everyone approved of this strict policing. Vir Sanghvi reported that people were made to wait when tables were available, to “make the place seem desirable”. Columnist Leher Kala wrote that many invitees to Djinn’s second anniversary party were barred entry, even as Robert and Michelle Vadra rubbed shoulders with the likes of Manpreet Brar and Arjun Walia inside. A night at Djinns wasn’t cheap (in 1999, its New Year’s Eve party cost Rs 10,000 per couple), yet “Six hundred people are turned away from the door each week,” wrote the local Guardian correspondent, reporting on Delhi nightlife in the wake of Jessica Lall’s murder.

“We had a little ceremony outside to bring the Djinns flag down.

With the spectre of Lall’s murder hovering over the city’s watering holes, Djinns’ regulars enjoyed the feeling of (relative) security, particularly the “gangs of girls,” said Mohun, who would descend on the pub on Wednesday Ladies’ Nights. In 2002, India Today described the carefree “low-slung pants and square décolletages” of women at the bar. Said Nandita Basu, “It was a place where you could let go of worrying about work and just be with friends.”

When stand-alone bars cropped up across South Delhi, with Dhiraj Arora’s Shalom leading the charge in 2004, the Hyatt decided Djinns had run its course. Sharma, who had left to play at the Ashok hotel’s Orange Room and other clubs, returned for the last set in 2006. “We had a little ceremony outside to bring the Djinns flag down,” he remembered. The GM, whose apartment was directly above the bar and vibrated when the party got going, must have heaved a sigh of relief.

China Kitchen came up in its stead, and the hotel, once as iconic for its nightlife as the Oberoi, the Maurya, or the Ashok were, took a decade-long hiatus from the capital’s wilder side. In the years that followed, Delhi punters expanded their horizons, rowing their Bimmers out to the mega-clubs of Gurgaon and Noida, and back again to intimate, faux-speakeasy venues in colony markets once known only for their kirana stores. “We didn’t really wonder why Djinns closed,” said Tytler, “we just asked, ‘what’s next?’”

With cocktails priced upwards of Rs 1,000, House A’s crowd would be self-selected even if the club wasn’t only for members

This March, the Hyatt Regency quietly opened House A, its own intimate, camera phone-friendly nightclub in a previously unused location beyond its courtyard pool. With cocktails priced upwards of Rs 1,000, House A’s crowd would be self-selected even if the club wasn’t only for members — on trend with the ongoing shift to smaller, secretive party venues, where the emphasis is on high quality drinks and “curated experiences”.

At House A, a long bar counter recalls Djinns’ expansive “Island Bar”, but unlike the rather tacky, kitsch décor of its predecessor, this must be one of Delhi’s best-designed nightspots, with pitch-perfect lighting, and rare bottles displayed floor-to-ceiling, like artefacts, behind the bar. During a press preview I was invited to, the bartenders, led by Instagram celebrity mixologist Jean Vital, demonstrated cutting-edge talent: producing fresh juices, syrups, and infusions; drinks pinned with personal notes; and infinite variations on the Old Fashioned.

Unlike at Djinns, which was squarely in the Indian tradition of mixed generation partying, at House A older patrons arrive early, while a younger crowd—the sons and daughters of Oasis or Djinns regulars, perhaps, or the scions of newer money—stay late. (This division may change with the late summer launch of House A Plunge, a Los Angeles-inspired day party scene around a shallow outdoor pool.)

It feels almost too secret, too exclusive, to make a lasting mark on the city’s wider drinking culture.

Member clubs never really died in Delhi, and in that sense House A is a closer descendant of clubs like Oasis, or Lap at the Samrat, than Djinns (membership is by invitation only and capped at the moment). In a place that checks so many aspirational boxes, perhaps a members’ policy is the only way to ensure what Somnath Dey, a former F&B manager who’s now at the Hyatt Ahmedabad, called “security and personal recognition”—something Djinns achieved seemingly organically. Or maybe it’s just a more refined way to create the aura of exclusivity than a Djinns-style survival of the richest test, administered by bouncers.

Until recently, a large part of what made a Delhi spot worthy of nostalgia was the frisson of exclusivity, of knowing that a crowd was clamoring to get in, perhaps even being part of that crowd. While House A is a wonderful place for its moneyed members to let their hair down, it feels almost too secret, too exclusive, to make a lasting mark on the city’s wider drinking culture. Perhaps, with nightlife now more diffuse and accessible, there’s also no reason to expect it to do so.

But who knows? Dey told me that from an initial no-bouncer policy, House A soon had to concede to some security at its entrance. “Because it is very hard,” he said, “to tell a Delhiite ‘No’.”

A version of this story was published by Condé Nast Traveller India.

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