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Borrowing for its headline the colloquial term for the residents of Mumbai, this piece – written for Air India's in-flight magazine – meets one of the city's young entrepreneurs, Akshai Varde, whose custom 'bike designs fuse influences from home and abroad.

The Mumbiker

“In my mother tongue,” says Akshai Varde, “Vardenchi means ‘made by Varde’.” And this connection between the man and the custom motorcycles to which he gives his name is the most important thing you need to know about a business which, over the last 10 years, has grown from being almost a hobby, customising Royal Enfields, to a 17-strong company: it’s personal. “I want the motorcycles to be purchased by emotion,” Akshai maintains, “I don’t want people to buy them because it makes sense.”

There’s a thoughtful elegance to his speech that’s wholly reflected in Akshai’s approach to his craft: it’s never ‘bike’, for example, but always ‘motorcycle’, the noun placed in the sentence almost ceremoniously. Equally, of his designs he’ll say that, “each motorcycle is a property by itself; the way that everything fits on, and the language the motorcycle speaks is cultivated before we go into manufacture.”

While his background in hotel management has proved surprisingly relevant to building custom bikes – both have a culture of creating an experience tailored to the customer – Akshai doesn’t feel that his lack of technical training has been a disadvantage. In fact, being untrammelled by orthodox thinking, he says, frees him to pursue unconventional ideas and solutions.

Straight-line thinkers, for instance, probably wouldn’t try to marry the slim, 500cc Royal Enfield engine to a 300mm-wide rear tyre, but the concentric swing-arm pivot and driveshaft by which Vardenchi neatly achieves this feat is an elegant solution that epitomises the practical engineering flair that underlies not just Akshai’s creativity, but everything that the company does. After all, the freedom to imagine is one thing, but ideas have to be translated into reality, which is why Akshai has built up a team of young craftsmen at his workshops in Mumbai. From CAD designers – who, as engineers, undertake the necessary checks to prove a construction’s soundness – to metal workers, machinists, and airbrush artists, Vardenchi’s skills make the company self-sufficient in the manufacture of many of the parts it requires. Save for obvious things, like tyres and some wheels, “almost every single part of the motorcycle is fabricated by us,” says Akshai. “Right from the start I decided that, if we want an indicator, if we want a headlamp, we will manufacture it, because that will let us infuse the philosophy of our design into everything” – a philosophy, as he puts it, “that’s all about a personality you can fall in love with; about paint and chrome and aluminium. It’s about going back to handcrafted indulgence and luxury.”

It’s not surprising, then, that he identifies companies such as Bentley and Vincent as sources of inspiration, but Vardenchi designs draw on an even wider palette, from the US west coast to the
sub-continent. By way of illustration, Akshai points to a photograph of one of his designs that appears to be tattooed with zebra stripes but which are actually the calligraphic representation of a favourite prayer chanted by the customer.

Though Akshai will continue to design motorcycles around Royal Enfield’s single-cylinder engine, an agreement signed with Moto Morini in 2013 not only made Vardenchi a distributor for the Italian brand - which has long attracted a small but dedicated following, and therefore complements Vardenchi’s own niche offering – but also provides Akshai with a 1200cc V-twin platform upon which to build a whole new range of machines. However, whether he’s fusing influences from East and West, or the traditional and the new, “my dream,” says Akshai, “is to create a motorcycle that has the appeal of a classic but with modern technology...”

© David Roberts 2019