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By all accounts Bharat Tiles should not be operating in 2013. It’s tottered on the brink three times, weathering a World War, government restrictions and the advent of ceramics, and still somehow remained one of the most iconic companies in India. That it’s managed to do so by making tiles, a decidedly fusty sort of product, is perhaps more remarkable still. “We’re open through pure force of will,” says the third generation owner, Firdaus Variava, whose grandfather Pherozesha Sidhwa founded the company on the back of the Swadeshi movement in Bombay in 1922.
Today, Bharat Tiles is enjoying renewed interest from design junkies who swear by the product for importing a bit of old Bombay panache into new world settings. You can spot their curlicued and geometric patterns everywhere from Pali Village Cafe in Bandra to The Pantry in Kala Ghoda and the recently-opened Pizza Express in Dhanraj Mahal. Indeed, walk into most office, government or private buildings in Mumbai—from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum to Mantralaya and the Mint, not to mention almost every Art Deco building on Marine Drive, Oval Maidan and Malabar Hill—and there’s a good chance you’ll be walking on tiles made by a company that hasn’t changed its process since it first began importing moulds from Italy.
In fact, even as trends have changed, Bharat Tiles has stuck doggedly to a seemingly anachronistic invention: the cement tile that, unlike the ceramic tile, is hand made and thus laborious to produce, and only polished once installed. “This is what scares most people,” says Variava. “That they have to wait 30 days to get their order.” Their most coveted designs, mostly Art Deco and Noveau-esque patterns that evoke times gone by, are also largely unchanged, and are generally tweaked only upon client’s requests.
Curiously enough, most of what we identify today as Bharat tiles, such as the pastel-toned ones against the kitchen counter at The Pantry, were only introduced back into the company’s repertoire after an exhibition in Kala Ghoda in 1990 brought renewed interest from the public. “We honestly didn’t think there was a market for it,” says Variava. Until then the company had slid into making homogenous tile blocks that had little noteworthy about them other than their resilience.
“They look better and better the more you use them,” says Ayaz Basrai, a self-described Bharat Tiles groupie and designer who has used the tiles in various projects, including film director Rohan Sippy’s home and the floor at Pizza Express. Basrai, who runs The Busride design studio, is incidentally collaborating with the company to produce new designs. The tiles work as display pieces unto themselves, says Basrai who recently made them the centrepiece of the new office of an international design firm’s Mumbai headquarters. The company wanted something that would represent the essence of the city, and Basrai instantly thought of the tiles. “In many ways, they are a signifier for Bombay.”
To see a selection of tiles used in various projects, click on the “view slideshow” button, above.