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09.01.2017

“We have a very contemporary aesthetic that we’d like to introduce to Delhi,” Bharat Tiles’ spokesperson tells us when we call her. “We don’t just want to be known as those old-school tile people.”

History is good ground-ing for the present, as you will learn should you visit the company’s head office in Bombay. Over tea at the Bharat Tiles office, Vice Chairman Firdaus Variava starts naming the company’s clients, navigating in one breath the history of India from Mountbatten to Modi. “His Highness the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Governor of Madras, Bombay Stock Exchange, Bangalore Club." You already know his work -- he's also the tile-ist for the SodaBottleOpenerWala restaurants.

Firdaus is much like Jamiroquai in Virtual Insanity, the floor beneath him moving through time, beginning in the early 1920s. You’re looking at Pheroze Sidhwa, Firdaus’ maternal grandfather, his glass glinting with liquor made from mogra flowers, a centerpiece of his bootlegging business. When the British banned production of Indian alcohol, a freedom fighter convinced Mr Sidhwa that the country needed entrepreneurs, and he decided to start Bharat Tiles. “We had to put something in all those vacant alcohol sheds,” Firdaus smiles.

When the British banned production of Indian alcohol, a freedom fighter convinced Mr Sidhwa that the country needed entrepreneurs, and he decided to start Bharat Tiles.

Lean, (Za)meen, Machine

Bharat Tiles’ first client was industrialist Mr Readymoney, of Mumbai’s Readymoney buildings. “Legend has it that he got his name because he always had cash at his disposal,” we’re told, and the black-and-white checkered flooring for his building in Fort paved the way for Bharat Tiles.

“My grandfather hated how this first job turned out, so he removed all the tiles and threw them in the sea. He travelled to Italy to learn what he was doing wrong, and redid the entire job at his own cost.” After procuring this job, the company “had a field day” with a long list of clients.

Testament to these solid jobs is a stack of fragile documents that Firdaus Xeroxes for us. In one dated 1932, the President of the Stock Brokers’ Association says: “We have used their carpet pattern tiles and marble mosaic for our new Stock Exchange building; both of these are of very excellent quality.” Bharat Tiles was also in charge of the flooring for the then brand-new Mumbai Central station, where the tiles were crash-tested by the government with paan stains and the hurling of heavy trunks.

“Our quality was so good that British competitor tile companies sued us, claiming we were importing tiles instead of making them in-house,” Firdaus tells us. Problems such as these and the shortage of cement prompted Mr Sidhwa, now “addicted to entrepreneurship”, to abandon Bharat Tiles and focus on other entities.

In a document dated 1932, the President of the Stock Brokers’ Association says: “We have used their carpet pattern tiles and marble mosaic for our new Stock Exchange building; both of these are of very excellent quality.”

Mom & Pop Shop

Subsequently, Firdaus’ mother took charge and a decade ago, Firdaus stepped in. Just over six or seven years ago, Bharat Tiles started to make a profit again. Much of this, Firdaus says, can be credited to the second coming of the heritage tile. “We had a manager who used to work at the factory 30 years ago. He had a vague recollection of how these tiles were made using metal jaalis and we started producing them.” Although the first few batches needed work, they were the only options available to restoration artists in Mumbai, and soon everyone from Abha Narain to architects to Mumbai’s Cathedral School started sourcing from them.

The X Tiles

Firdaus is now in his 40s, but talks with so much juice that we’re convinced he’s just getting started. “We’re looking at geographical expansion, more collaborations with designers and oh, also, moving to wall cladding.”

This geographical expansion, and the aesthetic leap through time, brings them to south Delhi, where their new collections get a home designed by architect Suparna Bhalla. The studio is currently receiving its finishing touches; once ready, it will host a range of brand-new designs, which the company hopes will offer a vision of Bharat Tiles’ future. Code-inspired geometric designs will be housed alongside tiles that draw inspiration from Gond art, Mughal motifs and more. The colours will be “divided, yet connected with Bharat,” we are told us. A capital motif.

Getting there: Bharat Tiles, 86/B, Shahpur Jat, store opens to public on January 21. For more, see www.bharatfloorings.com.

version of this story first appeared in bpb Mumbai in September 2015.

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