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Monsoon Special

Bobbing up and down through decades — the umbrella

Vishnupriya Sengupta | Updated on June 08, 2019

Cover story: The Kolkata-based umbrella maker Mohendra Dutt & Sons takes special pride in its range of lightweight and wind-resistant models

From being a mark of aristocracy to becoming an object of utility, this humble contraption has scripted a story all its own in India

The British may have taken the Kohinoor diamond, but they left behind an accessory that was originally perceived as a mark of aristocracy — the umbrella.

 

That was the time when the Bengali babu, with his well-oiled curly hair parted neatly in the middle, starched kurta and dhoti, was inconceivable without the ubiquitous black umbrella with a curved handle. It wasn’t merely a seasonal object that sprouted like a mushroom in the first spell of the monsoon showers. The accessory was a status symbol used by the elite bourgeoisie in rain and sun alike — and this during the British era.

Legend has it that Mohendra Dutt, a pakhwaj instrumentalist at the Bardhaman Raj Durbar in Bengal, accidentally emerged as the pioneer of umbrella manufacturing in India. The story goes that the umbrella adorning the throne needed repairs, but the noblemen at the durbar were reluctant to send it to England to get it fixed. Mohendra Dutt then took upon himself the task of repairing it — just to experiment — and succeeded. Thereafter, in 1882, he came up with the idea of a small umbrella workshop. More than 25 years on, in 1909, he first exhibited his creations at a fair in Dhubri, Assam.

In the subsequent years, he went on to receive a prestigious gold medal from the then Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, and soon started manufacturing and marketing umbrellas indigenously. In no time, Mohendra Dutt & Sons (MDS) emerged as an iconic household brand, especially in Bengal.

It was perhaps the 1955 filmShree 420, and its memorable image of Raj Kapoor and Nargis romancing in the rain with an umbrella as a symbolic prop, that marked its unfolding from an aspirational object of desire to a mundane object of utility, exploding the class divide between the royal prince and the solitary tramp.

Kapoor may have drawn inspiration from the 1952 film Singing in the Rain, where the long black umbrella turns into a protagonist of sorts, tap dancing to Gene Kelly’s memorable number ‘Come on with the rain/ I’ve a smile on my face/ I’ll walk down the lane/ With a happy refrain/ Just singin’ in the rain’.

The old umbrella has undergone a metamorphosis. Come monsoon, they bloom — like a sea of poppies — in all sizes, designs and colours, bobbing up and down as people scurry down streets awash with rainwater, manoeuvring their way cautiously through waterlogged and unmetalled roads pockmarked with potholes.

From the classic black to the automatic and brightly coloured, from the inflexible to the compact five-fold, from the fancy transparent bubble to the high-wind type — they come in different shapes, sizes and designs to serve a specific purpose, combining style and utility.

Mohendra Dutt would have been happy at this evolution. Today it is upon his descendants Kalinath Dutt and his son Subhashis to carry forward the tradition of umbrellas that can easily withstand the test of half a century. Kolkata-based Subhashis says, “As a brand, MDS symbolises superior quality workmanship.”

This is evident in Adrian Woodhouse’s testimonial. The Englishman discovered a hallmark umbrella purchased six decades ago by his father, John Woodhouse, who lived in Calcutta in the 1950s, and decided to put it to use. He writes to the Dutts in a letter dated May 8, 2018: “You will see that despite the passage of time the umbrella remains in beautiful working condition...”

There is unmistakable pride when Subhashis recalls this letter. “Today we have 300 varieties of umbrellas,” he says. The MDS product line includes the fan umbrella (a fan fitted inside the umbrella for cooling effect), couple umbrella (in the shape of a heart) and ethnic sun umbrella (for the fashion-conscious buyer). “Our buyers today have moved well past the Bengali bhadralok. We have made inroads into 10 states through our distribution network. This apart from our online presence, which is handled by my sister, Priyanka,” Subhashis adds.

What, in particular, makes the MDS monsoon umbrellas a cut above the rest is the design. “These are lightweight, strong and flexible, made of durable material. Most important, these umbrellas have a wind-resistant frame that prevents it from turning or bending at the joints, unlike most umbrellas that give way when there is a strong wind blowing.” It is no wonder then that from Mahatma Gandhi to Tollywood heart-throb Uttam Kumar, most well-known personalities owned an MDS.

Another brand that also had its origin in the early ’40s is the KC Paul & Sons. The KC Paul umbrellas, too, have evolved over the years to remain competitive in the market, especially with the cheap Chinese umbrella making steady inroads.

Alok Nath Paul, KC Paul’s son, emphasises, “Competition may be stiff, but we haven’t compromised on quality. That is our USP.”

These indigenous manufacturers strongly believe that technology will have a significant role to play in a labour-intensive industry such as this — especially in terms of introducing innovative designs and features. If that be the case, it may soon be raining Umbrella 2.0, a “smart” product, easy on the pocket — literally and commercially.

Vishnupriya Sengupta is an independent research scholar and works for a professional services firm

Published on June 07, 2019

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