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Friday, Aug 16, 2019

They have us covered: The people who protect us from the rain

What’s the one thing that’s synonymous with the monsoon? Umbrellas. Here are two families who have been shielding us from the showers for decades

lifestyle Updated: Jun 29, 2019 18:53 IST
Ramesh Babu & Rachel Lopez
Ramesh Babu & Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
The retail factory outlet of Popy’s  in Alappuzha.
The retail factory outlet of Popy’s in Alappuzha.(Vivek R Nair/HT Photo)

If there were an emoji for the romance of the monsoon, it would be a shared umbrella. The truth, though, is that everyone needs their own. And that is good news for the Thayyil cousins, who own the Popy and John’s brands based in Alappuzha, Kerala. And in Mumbai, that other bit of the western coast that will soon be in the news for stormy rains and flooding, for the 159-year-old umbrella brand Ebrahim Currim & Sons.

Popy’s and John’s are the oldest existing umbrella-makers in the region, with large outfits based in Alappuzha, south of Kochi. It’s a good business to be in, says third-generation umbrella-maker Davis Thayyil. As he puts it: “There is no real alternative to our product.” Thayyil’s Popy brand is synonymous with umbrellas in Kerala; there’s a Popy in virtually every home.

Looking Back

The company has its roots in an outfit set up by his grandfather in the 1940s, Thayyil Varghese aka Kuda (Umbrella) Vavachan. By 1954, Thayyil had expanded his outfit to employ a dozen workers, under the brand name St George Umbrella Mart. At his death, his son Baby Thayyil took over the business. There was then a split in the family and the brand St George came to an end. Baby launched Popy Umbrella Mart and his brother Abraham Thayyil launched John’s Umbrella Mart. Popy is the market leader; John’s is runner-up.

With both companies thus well-established, the current generation of owners — cousins Davis of Popy and Joseph Thayyil of John’s — say their old rivalry has faded. Their focus now is on research and development. Where Popy is constantly reinventing the umbrella to get it to do more, John’s is determined to make it lighter, sleeker, smaller. Popy also has a couple umbrella. It’s extra-strong, extra-large and might just make that romantic walk in the rain less icky. Their latest is an umbrella with a battery-operated fan priced at Rs 1,600.Also available this year is an umbrella with bluetooth, power bank and torch. When your mobile rings, the umbrella (the handle has a speaker) connects to it through blue tooth or wi-fi. John’s offering for this year is the Carbon Light umbrella. It weighs just 115 gm and can fit in your pocket.

Interestingly, nationwide, Indian umbrella makers have wrested the domestic market back from the Chinese in recent years. Cheap umbrellas from China had begun to invade and then dominate the market from the 1990s on, but they were of inferior quality and didn’t last long. While umbrella components continue to be imported, umbrella imports are down.

The cloth for most umbrellas made in India is imported from Thailand; frame and switches are made in north India; the tailoring and final assembly is done domestically too. Typically, polyester is used in the cheaper umbrellas; light, teflon-coated nylon in the fancier models.

Throwing Shade

Across India, buyers care about umbrella quality, as long as they can afford it, says Zameel Currim, fifth-generation head of the Mumbai company. As commutes have got longer, the city has begun to prefer compact-folding designs. But long styles are making a comeback, though everyone wants an eye-catching one, as a visual reminder, given that large umbrellas are so much easier to leave behind.

Ebrahim Currim & Sons, Mumbai’s oldest umbrella manufacturers.
Ebrahim Currim & Sons, Mumbai’s oldest umbrella manufacturers. ( Kunal Patil/HT Photo )

So Currim’s job is a delicate balancing act: How to make umbrellas that are trendy yet inexpensive, sturdy yet light. It’s no surprise he’s obsessed with materials.

“Sturdy doesn’t have to mean heavy,” he says. Tech has evolved over the century, from cane rods to bamboo, wood, brass and steel. Today’s umbrellas are made of a light, non-rusting fibre-reinforced plastic that won’t easily dent. “Older folk will still pick up a big umbrella and not trust it if it’s not heavy,” he says. “That’s a mistake.”

The umbrella of the future will simply use lighter water-resistant coatings and polymers that haven’t been invented yet. “And it’ll be more environmentally sustainable,” Currim says.

Ebrahim Currim & Sons has been selling umbrellas long before state lines were drawn in Independent India. They started the business in 1860 as an umbrella repair shop; that expanded to eight stores. A Currim son travelled all the way to London to learn techniques; their in-house brand Stag is a bestseller along both coasts. “We still look at regions, not states: Konkan, Coromandel, Malabar, all the way to Bengal. And everywhere climate change is impacting seasonal businesses. You need an umbrella at Marine Drive, but 500km away there’s drought. It’s only going to get worse.”

First Published: Jun 28, 2019 18:19 IST

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