For me, iconic Mumbai-born Bharat Tiles (commonly shortened from Bharat Flooring and Tiles) has become synonymous with the design landscape of the city. You will find the presence of the 100-year-old company’s ceramic patterned tiles from the city’s worn government buildings and bustling train stations to the most stylish design destinations, cafes, stores and hotels across the metropolis.
The story of Bharat Tiles dates back to the Freedom Movement of India. In 1922, Pherozesha (also known as Phiroze) Sidhwa was studying to become a lawyer, when he met freedom fighter Jamshed Mehta who told him, “India needs to be economically independent. India needs industry, not more lawyers.” The freedom fighter and philanthropist offered to teach Pherozesha how to make tiles. Thus was born the Bharat Tiles and Marble company. Situated on a plot of land across the harbor from Mumbai, the company started with an order for the iconic Readymoney Building in Fort. However, the first lot of tiles made were thrown into the sea because they did not match Pherozesha’s high standards. This lot of tiles, worth the then-princely sum of 50,000 Rupees, was later found to be fine with only the polishing lacking, but Pherozesha had to borrow money and start again. The Readymoney Building still has the tiles Pherozesha made in many parts of the building.
After this early hiccup, the company grew and grew, and replaced all British imports of tiles. This alarmed the existing merchants to the extent that they filed suit against Pherozesha claiming that he was importing tiles and repackaging them to appear as if he made them. Pherozesha won the suit, and this further bolstered the company’s reputation as making tiles “equal to the best made in the world.” The tiles went on to grace palaces, Raj Bhavans, railway stations, the newly built movie theaters, and many of these tiles still exist in Mumbai’s buildings.
However, the company still had its ups and downs. It almost shut down during WWII as the British seized every bag of cement for war efforts. Later on after the 1970s, cement tiles became cheap and generic and the company’s high quality standards meant it could not compete on price. The company made ends meet by renting out factory premises as warehousing.
In 1990, the first Kala Ghoda fair was held with a focus on Mumbai’s heritage structures. The organizers asked Pherozesha’s daughter, who was running the business at the time, to prepare some cement encaustic tiles as samples to show how tiles were made in the old days. Digging up the old processes and molds, she made some encaustic patterned tiles and displayed them at the fair. The response was warm, and the company soon received orders to provide tiles for restoration of historical buildings. From this nascent start, the Heritage line was born. Another chance meeting led noted interior designer Tejal Mathur to use the tiles for the trendy Pali Village Cafe.
Today, the company is run by Pherozesha’s grandson, Firdaus Variava, and is enjoying renewed interest from design aficionados injecting vintage charm into Mumbai’s (and the rest of India’s) most stylish design destinations — from Abode Hotel to Pali Village Cafe in hipster Bandra and The Pantry.
The company has also been collaborating on contemporary tile collections with up-and-coming designers Sian Pascale, a yoga teacher and ceramic artist, Alice Von Baum, a textile designer, The Busride, product and interior designers, and Shonali Mahajan, an interior designer. — Rohini