When Delhi-based interior designer Adil Ahmad renovated the the Raj Niwas Palace in Dholpur, Rajasthan, there was one thing he knew he didn’t need to touch: the old tiles that adorn its walls. “From floor to ceiling, there are these 20ft high walls covered with tiles, like wallpaper. With their jewel tones, they are reminiscent of our traditional minakari (enamelling) work, and almost have a three-dimensional feel to them,” he says. “I loved working around them.”
Square beauty: (left) Interior designer Adil Ahmad left much of the tile-work intact while renovating the Dholpur palace in Rajasthan; (right) tiles from the upcoming exhibition which opens on 8 August at Delhi’s InterContinental The Grand.
Ahmad recently purchased 60 antique tiles for personal use from a collection that will be exhibited and go on sale at the annual fund-raising event for People for Animals (PFA), an animal welfare non-governmental organization.
PFA chairperson Maneka Gandhi, who has been a collector of tiles for many years, says 10,000 antique tiles will be on sale. Among them is one with the classic peacock feathers splendidly unfurled in hues of blue and green, set against finely cracked, dull-white ceramic. Then, there is the calendar-art Lakshmi, with a chipped nose, seated on a rose-red lotus that matches the colour of her sari; there is also a charging green lion in profile, its tongue protruding like Kali’s.
The tiles will be on display from 8-10 August at Hotel InterContinental The Grand, New Delhi. The larger tiles are priced at Rs2,000 each and the smaller ones at Rs1,500.
“We sent teams all over the country — places such as Baroda, Udaipur, the south — over a two-year period and they procured the tiles from old havelis and houses that were being pulled down. They were mostly used in hearths and the walls,” says Gandhi. All the tiles are about a century old, and were mostly made to order and sourced from countries such as Britain, Portugal, Germany and Japan. “There were only two kilns in India during the colonial times, in Saurashtra and Gwalior, which actually makes the decorative tiles on sale from these kilns rarer and, therefore, more valuable,” says Gandhi.
Not surprisingly perhaps, there is no dearth of tiles with religious imagery and motifs. Anila Bal from Gurgaon, who works in the retail and designer wear sector, bought tiles from PFA with images of Krishna, Lakshmi and Ganesh that were made in Germany. And Ahmad’s purchase include ones with “Radhey Shyam” written across them. “I’ll put them at home where I can benefit from the good vibrations,” he says.
Gandhi sees the tiles as “major art” meant to be hung on the walls. She is in the process of framing several of them. However, many designers and decorators feel that antique tiles can still be used for the decorative purposes they were originally meant for, albeit in a more creative fashion. Put a tile anywhere, says Delhi-based fashion designer Rahul Jain, and it makes a statement. “I came across this antique tile from Madhya Pradesh,” he says, “mounted on a centre table with a glass top. It was exquisite”.
The use of tiles in furniture is an old practice. In 19th century Europe, when they first began to be mass produced, tiles were used to adorn furniture in middle-class homes. “You will find them on a lot of old Parsi furniture in Mumbai,” says Gandhi. Today, designers use antique tiles on chairs, doors, and tables or as decorative accents on walls.
Fashion designer Rohit Bal has used tiles as inspiration for his clothing line. His love of antique tiles springs from his fascination for old architecture. “After all this time, the tiles still retain their original colour,” he says, as he recalls some of the countries from where he has bought tiles over the years — France, Spain, Morocco, Egypt and Turkey. Bal has stored away his most valuable antique tiles and prefers to work with contemporary tiles made using the same age-old techniques that produce the look and feel of old tiles. “Iznik in Turkey has been a centre of tile making for a few thousand years now,” he says. “And tiles are still made the same way there, and then lacquered and hand-painted.”
The biggest problem with antique tiles is that there are not that many left. “We are limited by the fact that old tiles of the same design and pattern are never available in large numbers,” says Ahmad. He believes that the Raj Niwas Palace probably has the best extant tile work in the country. Mumbai-based designer Sandeep Khosla, who along with partner Abu Jani works extensively with contemporary tiles, agrees. “I would love to work with antique tiles, but the problem is that you can’t get enough of them,” he says.