At his showroom in Fort, Mumbai, Firdaus Variava deftly flips through swing panels, offering me a quick primer on the products manufactured by his company, Bharat Floorings and Tiles (BFT). In just a matter of minutes, I learn about BFT’s pastel shades, their designer collaborations and a new line of terrazzo, which turns recycled rum and beer bottles into glassy mosaics.
As he paces across the showroom, you see that the 45-year-old chairman of BFT is clearly at home in the company of these handmade cement tiles. He talks about tile manufacturing both as a sommelier would about a well-bred Bordeaux and as a comics geek would about the rarest issue in her collection.
He even has a theory about cement. “Everything has its own beauty. It lies in the way you use it," he says, adding, “The top chefs in the world take the simplest ingredients of the best quality and work with them. They are not interested in doing funny things with them—like going molecular. That’s what BFT is about—we use simple materials to make enduring works of art."
Being raised in the family that set up the company, one expects Firdaus to have such a philosophy. I soon learn, however, that here, cement is not just a material but a canvas for history, both the company’s and the nation’s.
Firdaus’ enthusiastic tour of the showroom ends in an office where we are greeted by his mother Dilnavaz, the non-executive chairperson of the company. Dilnavaz, who ran the company from 1999-2012, is a force to reckon with and has been largely responsible for shaping the brand’s heritage association in recent decades. Dilnavaz and Firdaus share a common passion in BFT. When they travel abroad for either business or leisure, end up visiting an establishment related to product manufacturing or design from that country. Dilnavaz has seen local terrazzo manufacturers in the Netherlands and Portugal’s famed azulejos (a form of painted ceramic tiles) are obviously a favourite with the family. Firdaus remembers honeymooning in France and visiting Cimenterie de la Tour, which has been making handmade cement tiles since 1932.
Tracing the company’s origins, Dilnavaz says it was founded on the swadeshi ideals espoused by Mahatma Gandhi. “My father, Pherozeshah Sidhwa, was studying to become a lawyer, when Jamshed Nusserwanji Mehta, a friend of the Mahatma, told him that the country didn’t just need political independence but also economic independence. Jamshed ran a tile factory in Karachi and that inspired my father to start one too," she says. In 1922, Pherozeshah and his nephew, Rustom Sidhwa, set up Bharat Tiles. They had a plan—to make cement tiles as good as, or even better than, the world’s best.
Among the world’s best at the time were the striking legacy tiles manufactured by Minton & Co., of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England. Imported extensively by the British for use in public and private buildings across India, Minton tiles were synonymous with good taste. But they were expensive. Very soon, the British were seeking out Bharat Tiles for its pricing, elegant patterns and easy maintenance. “My father and cousin wanted to make tiles that would last as long as the building," says Dilnavaz, with a laugh meant to dismiss the several poor constructions we see today.
With World War II, fortunes changed for tile manufacturers. The British army needed large amounts of concrete to support the war effort. As a result, cement supplies to tile manufacturers were cut. Bharat Tiles had to diversify into grinding wheels and warehousing.
Production of the “Raj tiles", which once competed with Minton, came to a halt as well. A couple of years after the war ended, the nation gained its independence. By this time, cement supply had been restored but tastes in tiling had changed. In newly-independent India, mosaiced terrazzo and chequered tiles were all the rage, right up to the 1980s, and Bharat Tiles caught up on that front too.
Dilnavaz was the company’s head of warehousing. Once, while overseeing operations in one of their warehouses, she discovered some brass stencils that were used by Bharat Tiles to produce the Raj tiles. This was the same year that the company consolidated its shares and was renamed Bharat Floorings and Tiles.
Dilnavaz brought the heritage range back in use and launched it at an exhibition to coincide with the first edition of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in 1999. “It was an attempt to sensitize architects, interior designers and the general public to the fact that floors are important. Floors are perhaps one of the most long-lasting elements of a building and could be works of art in themselves, as had been the case in the decades between 1922 and the 1950s," she says. The exhibition provided a history of their various floorings, including carpet patterned tiles, art deco floors and terrazzo.
The heritage range was first used for the restoration of the clock tower of the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, the Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai and the Rugby Hotel in Matheran.
For the son, the BFT story is both a matter of pride and great responsibility. In a city where numerous establishments, right from the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum to the restaurant Bombay Canteen, are paved with their tiles, Firdaus knows he has big shoes to fill. If Dilnavaz can be credited with reviving BFT’s vintage legacy, Firdaus is setting his sights on the contemporary use of those designs.
In 2010, an interiors project for a restaurant gave Firdaus a glimpse of the future of the company. A restaurant that specializes in European cuisine was set to open in Bandra and its interior designer, Tejal Mathur, sought out BFT. “Tejal wanted to make the restaurant look like her granny left her with this beautiful bungalow, while the space was originally a hairdresser’s salon with walls of white ceramic tiles," says Firdaus, laughing. He recalls Mathur picking off-beat colours from the BFT catalogue, putting together muted greens and browns, and thus the flooring for the Pali Village Cafe came into being. Firdaus says, “It was one of our earliest restaurant projects and I could see how our heritage range could be used in a ‘modern’ way."
The association with India’s history and swadeshi has led Firdaus to present an exhibition from 8-11 May at the Chatterjee & Lal art gallery in Mumbai. Now, BFT even has an archive, put together by corporate archivist Sanghamitra Chatterjee, which documents their tile designs and the numerous buildings where they were used.
Firdaus joined the company nearly 12 years ago, after completing an MBA from the Mason School of Business at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, US. But he believes he also acquired some valuable business lessons when he worked with a diamond trader, Bakul Parikh, in Singapore. “I wanted to join Bharat Tiles early on, but my mother thought I wasn’t ready at 23. So I went to work with Bakulbhai, who taught me everything I needed to know about business—be suspicious of everyone, don’t trust anyone, don’t loan money and don’t let anyone owe you money—unless you really know them well," Firdaus says.
When he started out, Firdaus says he would build relationships with architects and builders. But the future of BFT, he says, is designer and art collaborations for the making of a “progressive company". “The floorings and tile market is now saturated with brands who will make ceramic copies, and for cheap, of the patterns we have at BFT," he says of the challenge ahead. He talks about the need to explore tiling designs in different ways, from wallpaper to upholstery. “I like design. I may not be a good designer but I can facilitate good design," he says.
It is in the spirit of these collaborations that Firdaus got BFT to partner with some of India’s glamorous contemporary artists, Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra, who go by the moniker Thukral and Tagra. Meeting them at a design fair in Delhi, Firdaus suggested a collaboration that ended up becoming Memoir Bar, an interactive installation made by sinking “memories" written on chits of paper into cement tiles. Memoir Bar was showcased at the 2016 Dubai Design Week, with tile-making sessions held both in Dubai and Mumbai. This is swadeshi with a twist, says Firdaus.
The showroom, a mix of swanky gold-bordered floor tiling juxtaposed with the earthiness of the heritage tiles, was also part of Firdaus’ revamp of BFT. “My mother doesn’t like the new showroom at all! She thinks there is no heritage on the floor," he says, as Dilnavaz nods her head.
Mumbai, obviously. I also like Madrid. It’s one of the warmest cities I have been to.
Favourite Indian artist
Hard to choose. Thukral and Tagra have a funky vibe to them. Also, Badri Narayan and Jitish Kallat.
An influential book
Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘21 Lessons For The 21st Century’. He’s thinking about the future.
If you weren’t running BFT
Then, my first passion would have been writing. I wanted to be a journalist.