Mumbaiwale: A beautiful but too-short show about city tile design elevates the ground beneath our feet
Read through this column fast. Today is the last day to check out Paving The Way, a small but beautiful exhibition at Colaba’s Chatterjee and Lal gallery, showcasing the almost-100-year-old legacy of a local tile company.
You might have noticed beautiful flooring in Mumbai – pretty mosaic in a bistro, luminous marble in a hotel, those repeated-into-infinity patterns on the landing of the Bhau Daji Lad museum. Or you may never have paid attention to where your feet have landed. Visit the show either way.
The exhibits, drawn largely from the archives of Bharat Floorings and Tiles from the 1920s to the 1950s, are a fresh new way to look at city history and heritage. There are examples of designs sure: cement squares in star and diamond patterns that look familiar once you see them, stylised florals with carpet-like borders you’ll remember from long ago, and motifs that call to mind Egypt, Morocco and Italy.
But there are also 3-D printed models of famous Mumbai buildings and the tiles they have – a nice inside-outside connection that we rarely make. There are old ads for the firm, iron moulds they’d use to handcraft each tile, videos, and meticulously maintained ledgers.
The bonanza, I’ll admit, are photographs of homes that installed these tiles from the 1920s onward. Most of these are tony, roomy, old-money South Mumbai flats and mansions that few of us will be invited into. They’re a refreshing look at how floors were designed before oversized blocks of marble took over. All the colours and designs are intact in these homes. The flooring and staircases show no wear patterns from overuse, nothing overwhelms or fades into oblivion.
“We’ve been conceptualising the show since October,” says Firdaus Variava, the fourth-generation owner of the company who worked with curator Sanghamitra Chatterjee of Past Perfect on the displays. “We thought we’d do a show for our centenary two years from now. But we looked at the material and thought, why wait?”
Why indeed? Variava wisely chose not to turn this into a dull exposition of company history. Corporate storytelling takes a backseat to illustrate what “design has meant to the city through the ages” he says. What role did tiles play while designing a space? How did different patterns align to the wide variety in architectural styles? Which colours and patterns were popular? “The big surprise for me was seeing how innovative they were all those years ago and how much they looked at the world.”
The tiles have endured, but a lot has been lost, says Variava. No craftsmen know how to reproduce the intricate terrazzo techniques of the time. No one in the company knows what Colorex, the much-advertised material, is, let alone how to recreate it.
Stick around after you’ve looked at the exhibits. The gallery hosts a discussion about the city and design today at 5pm.