The Basrai brothers: Keeping the old architecture of Mumbai alive

  • Meenakshi Iyer, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 18, 2015 13:57 IST
The Brooke Bond Taj Mahal Tea House in Bandra is one of The Busride’s most recent projects

Housed in a bungalow on St John Baptist Road, the newly opened Brooke Bond Taj Mahal Tea House is a striking reminder of a Bandra that was. Not crumbling or hidden behind gardens growing wild, like some of the other bungalows in the area, but painted pristine white, with chairs in the front, like a proud specimen of heritage conservation done right.

Step in early in the morning, and a bright, sunlit patio welcomes you. It leads into a drawing room-like set-up with colonial furniture and patterned tiles. Further in, there’s a rocking chair in one corner and a chessboard in another. Settle down, get a cup of Irani mint tea, and the attention to detail becomes evident: golden filigree patterns on the walls, the white and indigo cutlery and coasters complementing the decor.

While the design is subtle, it doesn’t fail to echo the identity of its creators. Individually, Ayaz Basrai (36) and his brother Zameer Basrai (33) are Bandra boys who grew up not too far from here. Together, they are a force to reckon with — the out-of-the-box, and increasingly popular design studio, The Busride.

Zameer (left) and Ayaz Basrai at their office-cum-studio in Ranwar Village, Bandra.

Work and play

Over the last decade, the Basrai brothers have designed some of the hippest restaurants in the country. They started with Smoke House Grill in Delhi in 2006, followed by the Salt Water Café in Mumbai in 2009. Since then, they have designed the most distinctive hospitality spaces — bars, clubs and restaurants like Prithvi Café, Café Zoe, The Daily, Blue Frog in Pune and Bangalore — made art installations at the Lakmé Fashion Week, and created lavish second homes and resorts in Alibaug. Whether it is the intricate hand-drawn wall patterns on the walls of Smoke House Deli (look closely and you’ll notice it’s all done with permanent markers), or the stained-glass windows of The Bombay Canteen, the duo manages to create something new, and surprising, every time.

We first meet the brothers at Birdsong café, close to their office-cum-studio in Bandra’s Ranwar Village. They immediately come across as funny. As we talk about vision and sentiments that go in design, Ayaz says, “I hope you read about our sex change operations. We’re both actually women. It allows us all the insights and sensitivity.” They are also obsessed with design, and history. Their work is often seeped into the ambience of the surrounding area where their projects stand. Whether it is Café Zoe, which has a distinct industrial vibe inspired by the mills in the area, or the Taj Mahal Tea House, which is a showcase of Bandra the way it used to be.

Look out for stained-glass windows of The Bombay Canteen

“Very few people in the city have access to such old heritage bungalows. So when HUL (Hindustan Unilever Limited) came to us, we advised that it should be a heritage conservation project,” says Zameer. Over the next three months, the duo gave the Sanatan Pereira Bungalow a new lease of life. A family still lives on the floor above, and a bakery used to occupy the space now taken up by the teahouse.

Bandra love

This love for conservation seems to tie together everything about The Busride: from their own two-room office in an old Catholic home inside Ranwar Village to the Bandra Project, an ongoing initiative to preserve the houses, communities and character of Bandra’s villages.

Our second meeting is at this office in Ranwar. It looks visibly run-down from the outside, but on the inside, it’s like a lab, with ideas, in various stages of completion — written on bits of paper, as charts stuck on boards, and blueprints and cardboard models strewn about.

One such idea was The Bandra Project. “It started on our daily walk from home to office. We felt that things in the neighbourhood have changed drastically,” says Zameer. So, four years ago, the brothers started mapping Ranwar to identify its various problems. “The discussions ranged from parking issues to street furniture to making the village more pedestrian-friendly. A bunch of things came out from this exercise,” he adds.

Now, they actively work to create awareness around Ranwar’s bungalows — a graffiti-like map of the village on one of its walls; street signage system through stencil art. The latest, and the most interesting move, is a series called Bandra Dollhouses. “We’re identifying 50 to 60 houses in the neighbourhood and measuring them. We will then create miniature DIY kits, which can be built into dollhouses. Sales from these will go back to the families the bungalows belong to,” explains Ayaz.

The intricate hand-drawn wall patterns on the walls of Smoke House Deli are all done with permanent markers

But are people willing to see their homes turned into toys? “We have to create a pull model. It can’t be prescriptive. They have to hear about it from someone,” he says.

Will it generate enough funds to renovate all the bungalows? Perhaps not. Right now, they are aiming to create awareness and get some conversations going. And while they make their living from all the high-end commercial work, this one is a passion project. “It is hard to explain why it pains us to see old bungalows torn down. Maybe this is how passionately others feel about conserving dolphins or tigers,” says Ayaz.

--> PROJECT MAKEOVER: Here’s a look at some of The Busride’s multi-disciplinary works:

Design philosophy

Ayaz and Zameer Basrai have come a long way from imagery-driven pitches to becoming popular, go-to architects. “We had to do a lot of hard sell and numerous presentations” in the beginning,” says Zameer. Now, they have a solid body of work that makes clients give them a free hand.

The brothers conceptualise their stories individually on a blackboard and then bring it together. “We constantly ask questions and reassess our approach. Culture is a constantly evolving entity. What people find interesting today could be different from what people like tomorrow,” adds Ayaz.

Interiors of Salt Water Café, Bandra

The Bandra Project

In 2011, the brothers sponsored a student from National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, to conduct a detailed documentation of Ranwar Village. Issues like parking woes, traffic congestion, illegal hawking and lack of open spaces cropped up.

Instead of relying on MMRDA or the BMC, the duo decided to start work on a stencil-based street signage system. While these graffiti-like signs remained on some walls for a bit, soon, most of these started disappearing under more graffiti. After repeated experiments with maps, street signs and even an exhibition on their findings, the brothers are now focusing on making these experiments sustainable.

This map of Ranwar Village was one of the first few initiatives

Toying around

Similar to DIY building sets sold outside monuments like the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Eiffel Tower, Ayaz and Zameer are designing dollhouses modelled on Bandra’s old bungalows. For the first leg of this project, they have turned three structures into dollhouses — Jude Bakery, a small oratory in Ranwar and the St Andrew’s Church. Proceeds from the sales of these kits will be given to the families the homes belong to.

“It will be like a surprise income for people living in these homes. Living in old and dying bungalows is not as beautiful and glamorous at it looks from the outside. A lot of money has to be spent in its upkeep. That’s why most people prefer to sell out and leave,” says Zameer. With this project, they are also hoping to create resident pride i.e. be extremely passionate and involved with these structures.

Want to know more about The Bandra Project? Visit:

The DIY dollhouses will start at Rs 2,000

--> EYE FOR DETAIL: Look for these design elements next time you’re here:

The Bombay Canteen : “We thought it’d be fun to populate a ruin with another ruin. It’s like walking into a large warehouse and stumbling upon the wrecks of an old bungalow inside. We started thinking about this old bungalow being rudely plucked out by a giant crane, and started imagining all the memories, materials and incomplete things that it would have left behind,” says Ayaz. Next time you wonder about the broken stairway in the middle of the restaurant, you know what happened.

Jam Jar Diner : The restaurant is housed in a bungalow near the sea. However, like in a lot of places in the city, the sea is only visible through the gap between two buildings. “We went across the road with a line-marker, and started plotting the exact location on the existing roof that would allow a view of the sunset from the mezzanine, precisely between the two buildings,” says Ayaz.

Smoke House Deli : At all its outlets, the signature hand-drawn patterns stand out. Over 35-40 Reynolds markers were used at each outlet. You can spot motifs like suits and clocks at the BKC outlet, while walls of the Pali Hill outlet illustrate cakes and breads. “I still can’t get over the fact that the owner had the courage to pay people to scribble over his walls,” says Zameer.

Photos: Kalpak Pathak, Sanjay Ramchandran

Map of Ranwar: Vivek Seth

(The writer tweets as @CultureCola )

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