A craft which is a shade better

A craft which is a shade better

The ubiquitous umbrella is more than just a utility item. It is a manifestation of great skill, art and craft. It has evolved over a long period and ranges from individually crafted pieces to mass manufactured ones.

The earliest umbrellas were perhaps palm leaf umbrellas. They were quite common in Kerala until recent times. Every house had a few of them kept in the backyard and more reliable than the modern ones. These palm leaf umbrellas were also popular in the coastal district of Dakshina Kannada.

Italian tourist Pietro Delavale, who visited Mangalore towards the end of the 16th century, made a reference to the palm leaf umbrella, after a chance encounter with Rani Abbakka Devi: “A few (soldiers) were marching behind the queen (Abbakka Devi) as well. One of them was holding an umbrella (called thrathra in Tulu), made of pinnate fronds of palm tree, over the queen.”

The early umbrellas were functional. The artistic ones were the traditional Japanese umbrellas made of bamboo and oil paper. The traditional Japanese umbrella uses only natural materials, and requires several months to undergo the various processes that are needed for completion. They come in two varieties, the large ones are used for outdoor events, and the smaller colourful ones figure in performances of traditional Japanese dances. They are an indispensable part of Japanese art and culture.

The early specimen of the English umbrella were made of oiled silk. James Smith, one of the earliest umbrella makers, single-handedly made umbrellas using whale or camel bone, covered with silk. The materials were heavy and expensive in 1830, and it took weeks to make each item. At that time, umbrellas were only bought by gentlemen, and were valuable enough to leave as surety. No wonder, in his classic essay, On Umbrella Morals, A G Gardiner narrates how his silk umbrella was stolen and replaced with a cotton one by a thief.

Modern umbrellas were made in the mid-19th century. In 1851, an engineer called Samuel Fox applied his knowledge about suspension bridges to develop an umbrella frame. It was constructed from lightweight steel half tubes, the highly flexible U-shaped ribs, and lacquered to prevent rusting. The Fox frame saw an explosion in umbrella making throughout England. James Smith and Sons were first to make umbrellas using the Fox frame. The essential design of this frame has remained unchained. Today, James Smith and Sons sells thousands of umbrellas. They are still made at their New Oxford Street shop, as they were in 1857, when the business moved to this address.

Temple umbrellas, apart from being symbolic of providing shade and protection to the deity, also form part of the royal ambience as the deity is taken out in a procession. These umbrellas are embellished with mirror work, intricate embroidery and lacework. At the annual Thrissur Pooram in Kerala, there is an umbrella display competition called the Kudumattom, where umbrellas are aesthetically interchanged, in tune with the rhythm of the music. Another surviving tradition of the Syrian Christians is the use of muthukoda (ornamental umbrella) for church celebrations, marriages and other festivals.

A variation of the umbrella is the garden or beach umbrella or parasol. It is like a canopy designed to protect against rain or sun. Parasols are often used with patio tables or other outdoor furniture. They are also used as a medium of advertising in public spaces and provide a roof for a makeshift kiosk. Indeed, umbrellas have come a long way.

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