Satish Purohit interviews Firdaus Variava, Vice Chairman of Bharat Floorings, whose recent commissions include Isha Ambani and Anand Piramal’s marital home in Worli, Mumbai
Jamshed Mehta, a colleague of Mahatma Gandhi and a leader in India’s freedom struggle and the builder of modern Karachi, spoke about achieving economic freedom from imported British goods and inspired Pherozesha Sidhwa to abandon his articleship as a lawyer and start a tile manufacturing establishment, along with his nephew Rustom Sidhwa. Thus was born the Bharat Flooring Tile Company. The patriotic trademark of the company, stamped on the back of every tile, was a map of India (including what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh). When the Bharat Flooring tile company first started in 1922, in Uran, there was no electricity, water or telephone service. The only links with Bombay (now Mumbai) were the fishing boats which plied when the weather was fair. The Sidhwa family owned large sheds at Uran, to manufacture liquor from mogra and rose flowers, oranges and other fruits. Since the sheds lay idle after the British introduced prohibition, the tiles were produced in those sheds, and travelled from there to all parts of India.
These tiles became known for their beauty, durability and easy application across the country. Once upon a time they were de facto flooring material in India but over time the art of making cement tiles has become a lost art. A lot of people don’t use cement tiles or know about it.
People long for texture, certain roughness because everything is so standardized these days. In this world of standardization you are an island of handcrafted beauty. A certain kind of person would resonate with your products. What is your understanding of what drives the demand for your products?
I think there are a few people who are looking at doing something different with flooring. Most of our business comes from small commissions. We don’t undertake big projects considering our production is all handmade. It would be difficult to do huge projects. We are not making lakhs of square feet a day. We produce in a month what a ceramic plant would produce in a day. Also, it takes about a month for the tiles to be delivered and it takes another month for the tiles to be installed.
Why does it take a month to be installed?
The tiles are actually laid and then polished. By the time the whole thing is over it takes a month or so. It is like working with the natural material so it takes time.
Do you get the orders and then you start the production?
In most of the cases we have stocks, though not much. But mostly if it is customized then we make to order.
Have you worked on high-rises
We have done apartments in high-rise buildings. However, we don’t do the entire buildings. We have also done five-star hotels around. But we are not a builder’s product. As they cannot afford us or it doesn’t suit their aesthetics. They are looking for something quite plain and simple which is reasonably priced. We are not at all in that market.
What is roughly the cost differential between your product and a vitrified tile brand?
A vitrified tile mostly priced below Rs 100 per square feet. Our prices start from Rs 100 sq ft. The installation cost in case of vitrified tile would be Rs 65 per square feet, while our installation cost is Rs 120 sq ft. So, we are priced almost 2.5 times higher than an average vitrified tile product.
Cement tiles tend to age quite well, those old terrazzo floors they still shine and they are beautiful. Tell us something about the lifecycle of the product…
In our consumerist society, nothing is built to last for more than four to five years. Earlier, people would ask us how long a product would last. And when our response was 50-60 years, they would respond that it would be fine if it lasted even five years. The general perception is that in every five years, people’s tastes change. The life of our product is similar to that of a cement building. My residence is a Shapoorji Pallonji building that is over 70 years old, and it still has our tiles. It was in a dilapidated state so we changed the whole flooring. I asked the other residents if they would like to change the flooring but they did not let us take out the tiles.
But why would you of all people want to change a Bharat Tiles flooring?
Because now the main lobby has been changed to stone, so I suggested that we change the whole look of the building and make it more swanky. However, the residents were against making any changes.
You would’ve done a lot of five-star properties. Could you mention some of them?
We have done Hilton, Radisson, besides we have done a lot of boutique hotels. We have also worked on a project in Sri Lanka as well. Our end customer is anybody who is going to be using the tile himself. It is not someone who is selling that property to someone else. However, from a builder’s perspective, the attitude is that I am giving you this flat. Now, if you want to make it any different you may go ahead and engage an interior designer. Most of the times, our job involves working on other people’s houses and bungalows.
If you have a client who gives you a pattern…
Our tiles are highly customizable because they are made in small batches at our plants in Palghar and in Delhi and not mass produced. We can customize our product as per people’s desire. People are looking for something different made to their taste. Nowadays, a lot of designers are looking for flooring options that are not standardized. There are basically two types of designers. There are those who want to get the job done faster and then there are designers who is trying to craft everything in the house. The latter type of designers are more concerned that your house should be featured in a magazine, along with work there should be some name and fame involved for both the client as well as the designer. Over the years what we have been catering to a clientele that wants more that what is ordinarily available because they are very particular about what they want. Even a small colour change in the tile makes a big difference to them. We have the skill to create tiles exactly to their specifications. This applies to restaurant designers as well who wish to create something unique. Nowadays, the market for restaurants is exciting. It is quite competitive. The people who run a restaurant are very particular in terms of ensuring that their property stands out distinctively from others in the market.
Strictly from a craft perspective, is there a difference between machine and hand-produced tiles?
If one looks at any two of our tiles, one is likely to find variations because of the hand-crafted element. This variation is not there in a printed vitrified tile. Also, in a printed look the variation that you introduce always looks fake. In a hand-made cement tile, there is always some natural variation.
Are repairs easier with your tiles compared to a vitrified tile?
In case of terrazzo floor and cement tiles, there is 10mm of this material at the top. If there is something, which is just a scratch or something that is spoiled, you can repolish it. That is the most common repair we do. If there is some deformity, you can do a cosmetic filling, which unfortunately looks like a patch if one looks closely.
Internationally, do they still make cement tiles?
In fact, our country is following international trends. All these top designers go to Milan where the biggest fair is organized. Besides, they also go to France. There the biggest trend is cement. A lot of these designers are looking at international trends and bringing it back to India. The big trend internationally now is terrazzo. Abroad terrazzo is fabulously expensive.
How many times would you put the cost of imported terrazzo?
I had visited an individual in Italy who makes such tiles. He quoted a ridiculous price of Rs 500 sq ft.
Is this because of the exchange rate?
No, there is a labour rate too. I met a lady in Spain who makes such tiles. She said that the problem in these countries is that you have to pay minimum wages, and there are stringent statutory requirements. She further said that by the time she pays her labour bill she ends up paying a hefty sum and she passes it on to her customers. She told me that ceramic tiles are killing the industry. Luckily, in India the labour prices have not gone up so significantly. Having said that, in the next 5-10 years we will be find it very difficult to keep our prices down.
When that time comes, how do you plan to counter the rising costs?
We will have to increase the price of the tile. We will try and save on cost of installation. For example, we will either try to make pre-finish tiles that won’t have to be finished onsite, which would translate into a big saving as finishing is expensive at the moment.
You also do seamless terrazzo floors. What range would it start from for a developer, contractors?
For seamless terrazzo floors the costing is somewhere around Rs 300 sq ft. But that’s an all inclusive rate, including installation charges. People are not looking at catalogues, they want something special. The ask for something offbeat. For instance, one of our recent projects was for Gulita at Worli Seaface (Isha Ambani and Anand Piramal’s marital home). We have done a 10,000 square feet of terrazzo for them with various patterns and curves.
How do you execute such patterns?
Terrazzo by concept is quite simple. Instead of making it in a factory, we bring all the material to the site, we have steel dividers we pour the material into a mould in a bigger size. And then we polish the whole thing. The biggest constraint is that it requires a lot of craftsmanship; you need to ensure that all the steps that you make flooring have to be executed properly by a qualified individual. It is difficult to find such qualified craftsmen. Because of the industrialization of the flooring industry, an individual who is called a kadia, his mainstay now is installing ceramic tiles. These people don’t have a patience to execute the labour involved in making a cement tile. Also, most of the individuals who did this work would come from Rajasthan and South India. These individuals are quite rare now.