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The utter romance of an antique tile

india Updated: Jul 11, 2008 23:35 IST
Renuka Narayanan
Renuka Narayanan
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The very first exhibition and sale of ceramic tiles (10,000 of them, sourced over two years from old Indian buildings) will be on in Delhi in August, as the annual fundraiser for the NGO, People for Animals. Chintzy English roses, Portuguese and Dutch fruit baskets, German-made Ravi Varma-patterned Hindu deities, Islamic motifs: they’re all there, as mute, beautiful witness to a global obsession with this particular mode of insulation and decorative surface-cladding. Today an antique hand-painted tile can cost as much as USD 400. What makes it so collectibly delightful?

Antique tiles, like handfans or snuffboxes, are like focused beauty spots. They can be displayed individually or grouped in a striking cluster or used as subtle, powerful accents. Seeing a lovely old tile is like suddenly spotting a rare wildflower while out on a walk. Seeing a whole building covered with them is splendid majolica overload. (‘Majolica’ is the Italian word for the imported Islamic tiles from which medieval Europe developed its own ceramic style). Two of the most incontestably brilliant examples of tilework on the planet are the Jami Masjid piazza in Isfahan (Iran) and Registan Square in Samarkand (Uzbekistan). Their old rose, pinks, greens, yellows and of course, the blues are dazzling and beautiful beyond belief.

The global fondness for antique tiles is all the more intriguing because of their lack of ‘perfection’ They are frequently chipped or exhibit fine, spidery cracks or betray a splash on the side where the tilemaker’s brush slipped and his paint ran over the edge.

There may even be a faint burn or sooty furnace mark. Antique tiles are also usually thicker than all-of-a-kind, impersonal modern, industrial ones. Also, old glazes made of oxides and leads have a more jewel-like ‘depth’ to them than the flatter colours of the mass process.

Egypt, Iraq and China were the tile centres of the ancient world: one beautiful example of ‘Cheeni’ found in India is at the old Jewish synagogue in Kochi, where the floor is laid with blue-and-white Cantonese tiles of which no two are alike, contributed in 1762 by Ezekiel Rahabi, a merchant-diplomat with the Dutch East India Company: I think my own tile mania began there as a little girl.

It was medieval Iran, however, that became the mother of refined, decorative tiles, imparting her techniques to Europe, while great Central Asian cities like Bukhara and Samarkand also grew to be tiled wonders. Indeed, you could compare the last two to a taaus and a bulbul, Persian for ‘peacock’ and ‘nightingale’.

Samarkand, with its purple, green and blue wonders is the in-your-face peacock. Bukhara Sharief, ‘Noble Bukhara’, which still owns up to a ‘Hindu Caravanserai’ where the old kaafilas from Hind converged near the covered, domed market — Bukhara, with its graceful, understated Samanid terracotta monuments is the nightingale, seeming to hide behind understatement but subtly piercing the human heart with its exquisite beauty: differing ‘tile personalities’.

In India, forts in Punjab, Bengal, Bundelkhand and Rajputana show energetic tilework, with the incorrigible desi twist of a lotus, kalasha (pot of plenty), kalpavriksha (wishing tree) or chakra (wheel) motif.

Meanwhile, Babar raved about Gwalior Fort as ‘the pearl among the fortresses of Hind’ on account of its 15th century Man Mandir palace, made by Raja Man Singh, also called the ‘Chit Mandir’ (painted palace) for its multi-coloured animal and flower-patterned tiles.

Soon after, when the Portuguese took over Goa, ‘azulejo’ (from the Arabic ‘al zulayi’ or ‘burnished stone’) became the decorative rage, even on temples. By colonial times you had Dutch ‘Delft blue’ and English Wedgwood and sure enough an Englishman (called Minton) developed a patent and the age of the ornate, handmade tile cracked and crumbled away quietly.

What we see then in a show like this one in India are charming pieces of the past including samples of whimsy like tile transfers of sepia photos of Lord and Lady Dufferin (past Viceroy and Vicereine: perhaps they escaped from our navy’s training ship Dufferin?). You, dear reader, have plenty meanwhile to see. Check out www.peopleforanimalsindia.org for details.