Restoration project for the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue at Kalaghoda under the supervision of conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah
Restoration project for the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue at Kalaghoda under the supervision of conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah

Bharat Floorings & Tiles paves the way with landmark exhibition at Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai

Curated using rare archival material, Paving the Way celebrates the legacy of Bharat Floorings and Tiles since 1922, and aims to build a public conversation around the historic floors in the heritage buildings of Mumbai

Paving the Way, an exhibition that Bharat Floorings & Tiles (Mumbai) Pvt Ltd held until this weekend at Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai, drew attention to a hitherto untold story from the annals of Indian design and enterprise. Through historical research from diverse sources, documentation of unique projects, and rare archival exhibits, it recounted the history of an almost century-old company that is linked to many of the city’s heritage structures.

Back in 1922, nearly a century ago, Bharat Floorings and Tiles (BFT) set up a factory in Uran, near Mumbai, to manufacture handmade, artisanal cement tiles for the rapidly-expanding Indian market. They started, faltered, learnt, grew in size and repertoire – to turn into the silent behemoth we see today. The exhibition chronicles this story of a home-grown enterprise, and how it moulded itself to reflect the changing tastes and trends of the times.

BFT’s milestones form the five major modules of this exhibition: Tapestry in Cement; The ‘Moderne’ Home; Commercial Elegance; Floors To Your Taste; and Heritage Renaissance.

The modules deal with the different ‘genres of design that BFT has lent floors to. It begins with ‘Tapestry in Cement’, which tells of a time when BFT produced patterned tiles to stop Minton-style imports for economic freedom and growth. They were quick to respond to the growing Art Deco influence, as seen in ‘The Moderne Home’. In ‘Commercial Elegance’, we see how BFT’s offerings reflected a shift to sophisticated marble as Mumbai, then Bombay, came into its own as the country’s financial capital. This was a stark contrast to the exquisite and personalised floor murals created for the ubiquitous Bombay bungalow, as seen in the ‘Floors to your Taste’ module. Recently, in a revival of its heritage products, BFT has been collaborating with conservation architects to restore floors in iconic structures. The Heritage Renaissance module of the exhibition was enlivened by an audio-visual display that showcased the recent work done on the flooring of the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in Mumbai – a restoration project undertaken by architect Abha Narain Lambah.

Each genre was represented by a 3D printed façade wireframe of an iconic building and the tile patterns therein, as well as an actual sample tile from the BFT archive. Peppered through this chronological narrative were rare finds from the archives of BFT. Pages from the personal diary of the founder tell of the unchanging nature of entrepreneurship; pages from the Production and Sales register give minute details about the running of the tiling business circa 1937, down to the sand purchased that year! Vintage photographs, advertorials and an evocative poem by a founding family member, inspired by the tiles in her childhood bedroom, lend a unique flavour. The exhibition also incorporates hitherto unseen material from the HSBC Archives in London and a tile documentation project undertaken in Karachi that reflects the inspiration behind the founding of BFT.

May 11, the final day of the exhibition, began with a heritage walk to trace the still tangible histories of tile making, trade and design in late colonial Bombay. The walk to iconic buildings and locations within the Fort heritage precinct was followed by a visit to the exhibition. The day, and the exhibition, ended with a panel discussion – Beyond the Façade, a conversation between Mustansir Dalvi and Abigail McGowan, moderated by Sidharth Bhatia, wherein they deconstructed the choices before a home owner, a century ago. 

Indeed, Paving the Way is an intersection of the design story and business history – and the architects, designers and history/heritage enthusiasts were enthralled by the exhibits. It would be interesting to see how BFT takes this forward as their centenary year approaches

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