Not exactly a blast

Published: Nov 18, 2012, 10:12 IST | Anjana Vaswani |

If you've been wondering, like us, what those 'modular kitchens' advertised heavily during MasterChef Australia are all about, here's the answer. Although modular kitchen companies promise precision, and say you can have your kitchen up and running in 48 hours from the day you place your order, yet Mumbai residents foster a clear preference for the skill of the sutar. We find out why an import is struggling against local tradition

Dusty nylon attaché case slung across his shoulder, the twenty-five-year old commutes from Vile Parle to South Mumbai on a daily basis. On most days, he’s accompanied by his brother and business partner, but today, he’s on his own. Navalbhai is drawing up designs for a potential client, while we catch up with Rekharam during lunch hour at the home of one of his clients. The duo run a small woodwork business, that’s complete with official title and letterhead: “JN Furniture,” Rekharam tells us, peeping into our notepad to see that we spell it correctly. “Sutar,” he says, when we ask for a family name. That’s what they do, that’s who they are — sutar — carpenters, right through the generations.

 Zarina Ahmed in her kitchen at Colaba
 Zarina Ahmed in her kitchen at Colaba. Pic/Shadab Khan

Starting off in broken English and then reverting to fluent Hindi, Rekharam tells us how he joined the family business as a teenager in Rajasthan, hammering his first nails under the watchful eye of his paternal uncle. After graduating from such minor tasks, he was taught to construct frames for doors and windows. Now, Rekharam and his brother make all kinds of furniture, and they can even e-mail designs and layouts to clients. Squatting, the carpenter retrieves a laptop from his bag. The well-maintained antique serves as an efficient repository for images of their work.

Rekharam Sutar
Rekharam Sutar

The carpenter delivers
For a 250 square foot kitchen, Rekharam estimates his labour charge alone would be Rs 50,000, specifying that he can source the materials for clients or they can order their own materials should they prefer to (as most do). He adds, “Earlier kitchen designs were intricate; they involved more detail. Now, the emphasis is on planning rather than design.” Typically, a kitchen takes 45 days to make, he tells us, stressing that his team can also work with “bhusa,” the compressed board that foreign companies offer, and this would save clients cash as well as time – “about 15 days less,” he estimates. “These boards come with pressed laminate on both sides, but with ply, we have to do the pressing by hand,” he explains, pointing out that despite the time and cost, generally, people prefer plywood kitchens and he testifies that these are indeed more durable.

Unimpressed with the import
Self-employed businessperson, Zarina Elias wishes she had contacted a carpenter eight years ago when she moved to her Colaba apartment. The modular kitchen she had installed by a Sion-based company, “started falling apart after the first couple of years,” she tells us, though, to us, it appears to be in good shape. She pulls open a drawer and shows us tracks that needed replacing. “There was no warranty, and after I paid the kitchen company to send over repairmen on two occasions, I just started getting a carpenter to fix hinges and tracks whenever they started coming loose. The company charges heavily for every visit and the cost of repairs is extra. It was a challenge for the carpenter to source the parts.”

Ironically, efficient after-sales service is one of the selling points that modular kitchen companies highlight. This is a problem Deepak Sapru, VP, Business Development and Communication, Sleek International, a modular kitchen company, can sympathise with. He recognises, “As of now, the acceptance for carpenters is higher. Only seven per cent of Mumbai consumers opt for modular kitchens.” With offices around the city, right from Fort to Mira Road and headquarters at Borivili (E), Sapru, whose company has been in the kitchen-manufacturing-business for 18 years, assures us that they’ve had extensive experience in the arena well before the advent of the modular kitchen concept and so, his views on the comparison between modular kitchens and traditional carpentered constructions is not one-sided.

Hardware that endures
Sapru is aware of the damage caused by fly-by-night companies posing as modular kitchen manufacturers, and of situations like Zarina’s, where companies simply don’t deliver on their promises. His company is working hard to change the perspective by offering 5-year-warranties (at no extra charge) on all their kitchens, regular maintenance every three months over this period and continued after-sales support thereafter as well as a spruced-up customer-care programme. Though he doesn’t advocate using freelance carpenters at all, and strongly recommends calling the manufacturer, he does admit, “We use a Japanese brand of hardware that would, for instance, be hard to match — impossible, in terms of performance, but hard even in terms of dimensions et cetera — and you won’t find it in stores.”

Pointing out that the hardware they use is all imported from top brands, Sapru lists, “Sige, Tecnoinox, Falmec, BC3 and Cocinas” as examples, and tell us they’ve even tied up with a top-of-the-line Italian company to source appliances. Though the average cost of such a kitchen is between Rs 2,00,000 and Rs 5,00,000, Sapru says, “We even work on tighter budgets. We’ve done basic kitchens for Rs 80,000 for some customers in the suburbs. When one customer from Powai approached us to just sheath her seven year-old-kitchen as the laminate and veneer was peeling off, we did that too. We changed the hinges and doors for her, so the exterior looks brand new, but the interior dhancha (frame) is the same.”

Material difference
Sapru’s also keen to point out, “While high-end foreign brands manufacture modular kitchens from compressed board, we don’t. We don’t use bhusa at all. We offer modular kitchens in a variety of materials including glass and steel, but as the Indian consumer prefers marine ply, for most of our kitchens we use this and make the shutters and carcasses locally, in Pune or Udaipur. In fact, almost 95 per cent of our clients opt for a solid wood base because steel and glass have a lot of limitations,” he explains.
“You’re restricted in terms of colours, for instance. And while hygiene levels are higher with steel, so is the cost. Besides, the sheer weight of steel becomes a problem. Kitchen cabinets are opened and shut frequently, so the hinges would be subject to too great a load if your cabinets are made of this.”

Up and running in 48 hours
Drawing a distinction between Mumbai and Bangalore, Sapru says, “Complete modular kitchens are actually more popular in Bangalore. Here, in Mumbai, most apartments come fitted with civil kitchens; we’re called in to arrange modular cabinets and storage. Manufacture of these modules we deliver and assemble is achieved by machines, rather than humans. So, we call it a fusion-kitchen here, part-civil, part-modular and assembled at site.”

A completely modular kitchen, on the other hand, may even be assembled in the factory by machines, to minimise the margin of error completely. These products typically take a month to manufacture, but should customers be strapped for time, Sapru says, a new product they’ve developed, “the Stat kitchen,” even makes it possible to set up a modular plywood kitchen, “within 48 hours, if you choose from a select range of 29 products we’ve imported that are built in accordance with standard international dimensions of kitchen cabinets.”

These insta-kitchens, he tells us, are hot-sellers in the UK, “where people often take their kitchen with them when they relocate. They comprise standard modules that are fixed together with nuts and bolts, so you can adjust them according to the space as per your needs.” Here, Sleek sold one of these recently. “We sold the first stat kitchen to the Marriott office as they had US delegates visiting this year and needed a kitchen, up and running, within a week.”

Foreign features
Speed wasn’t the clincher for Elias, though. She had opted for a modular kitchen because, “carpenters can’t match the design and planning services that these companies offer.” Planning the kitchen as per her requirements had set her back by about Rs 1,20,000. “That was 8 years ago,” she emphasises, sharing that getting a carpenter to construct a brand new kitchen for her parents’ home more recently worked out way cheaper. “But we showed the carpenter my kitchen and the modular kitchen at my brother’s home so he knew exactly what we wanted,” Zarina shares.

“Fit and finish is one of the top advantages,” Sapru says, “People want kitchens fitted with features like soft-closing drawers, but carpenters can’t install these properly. We can achieve the finish, as we have a team of carpenters working under the supervision of an architect.” Sapru stresses that their entire product range is far superior, right down to the very glue they use. “Local adhesives will wear off in a year or two,” he says, also pointing out, “Carpenters work in inches; we work in millimetres. They work according to andaz and manage differences with jugaad. What’s acceptable to a carpenter would be a disaster for us.” 

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