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Even the combined effect of the overarching beautiful interiors, intriguing contemporary arts and the historical memorabilia cannot prevent you from being completely mesmerised by what lies beneath your feet at Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. The stairs from the ground to the first floor of the museum involves walking over a stunning and patterned piece of history – encaustic tiles from Minton’s. The Mumbai based Kahani, co-founded by Ruchita Madhok and Aditya Palsule, took it upon itself to document and research on the tiled world of many of the art deco and heritage buildings in South Mumbai. ‘Tiling Bombay’ is a digital initiative under a larger personal endeavour called ‘Storycity’ - a design-led editorial project that documents interesting stories and historical facts about contemporary Indian cities. The project has extensively covered Mumbai city so far.
‘Tiling Bombay’ by Kahani Designworks is currently an open digital archive on Instagram (@storycityindia) that documents and illustrates the tiled floors of the heritage buildings in Mumbai. So far, the project has covered tiles, and fascinating trivia, about places in Mumbai including JN Petit Library, Rajabai Tower at University of Mumbai, Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, David Sasoon Library, Great Western Building, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, St. Thomas Cathedral, Raja Bahadur Mansion, Royal Yacht Club at Apollo Bunder, and Elphinstone College.
Talking about the project, Ruchita Madhok says, “The Tiling Bombay project began as a simple visual documentation of material culture. Since its launch on Instagram, it has grown into a larger community project that encourages a deeper kind of curiosity about the well-known heritage sites we often take for granted. Whereas heritage tours and guides filter the experience for a person, this is a little nudge for everyone to “look down” and discover something for themselves.”
Madhok informs us that most of the tiles covered in the project so far are encaustic tiles from Minton's, Maw & Co. and other companies from England. It’s interesting to note that encaustic tiles are often compared to (or mistaken for) Athangudi tiles – the handmade tiles that originated in South India and were named after the place of manufacture in Chettinad, Tamil Nadu – due to similarity in their colours and patterns. However, these are completely different from encaustic in terms of their primary material, manufacturing process and shelf-life (which is much lower than encaustic).
Encaustic tiles are crafted with two or more different colours of clay which are “inlaid” together to create a particular pattern, before the tiles are fired. “So with encaustic tiles, it is the coloured clay that forms the design. Sometimes this layer is 1/4 to 1/3 of an inch thick. This makes Mintons (and other encaustic) tiles extremely durable and long-lasting,” says Madhok.
While encaustic tiles have been around since the medieval times, it was only during the mid-1800s that they became an important art form, thanks mainly to Minton’s Ltd. Minton was a company based in Stoke-on-Trent, England that manufactured many different types of tiles including ceramic, clay and encaustic. Herbert Minton of Minton’s started using metal presses for the tiles to get more reliable results. By 1840, they were employing a patented technique which involved using powdered coloured clays that dried much faster. Around that time, Minton’s tiles were supplied for churches, public buildings and palaces across the world, including our very own Mumbai.
In her research titled ‘In the Latest London Style: Decorative Tile and Terracotta Exports by British Manufacturers, 1840-1940’, architectural historian Lynn Pearson talks about Minton tiles being supplied to Bombay’s Law Courts of 1871-9, David Sassoon Library (1867-73), University Library (1878) and Emmanuel Mission Church (1867-9). The tiling contract for the grand Victoria Terminus’ (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) floors and walls, however, was given to Maw & Co. and not Minton’s.
Today, many of the heritage buildings have been or are being restored, and Minton tiles become an integral part of the restoration. The iconic Royal Opera House, which opened up last year after a massive restoration exercise of six years, has retained its original Minton tiles. The Royal Bombay Yacht Club in Mumbai, founded in 1846, had its original Minton tiles replaced with new handcrafted cement tiles by Bharat Floorings. The company created prototypes over many months to make sure that the floor was a close replica of the original Minton floor. Bharat Floorings has also been a part of the restoration of other historical sites including Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum (entrance at the ground floor), Bombay High Court, JB Petit Library and Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) headquarters. Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue (built in 1884) in Kala Ghoda with Minton tiled floors has just received corporate funding for restoration. It remains to be seen how the floor would be handled during the restoration.
‘Tiling Bombay’, like its mother project Storycity, has generated a new interest in an integral part of the city’s fabric. These tiles have a significant history and art legacy behind them which this project aims to unfurl. We also hope that the project raises relevant questions about the special care that these heritage buildings need.
As Madhok says, “One of the key points of our project is to emphasise that the floors were laid in a number of public buildings, many of which are still accessible today. So it’s really important that care and consideration is taken during the restoration process in these buildings, so that they continue to remain symbols of pride.”
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