Umbrella: An All-Weather Friend of Function, Fantasy, and Films
The umbrella remains our creative umbilical chord to life at large: an object so ordinary, yet brimming with wonder.
There is a scene in Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2005 film The Blue Umbrella where the village shopkeeper Nand Kishore Khatri turns pensive at a question posed by his helper-boy regarding the “faayda” (benefit) of acquiring the oversized blue umbrella. Based on the novella of the same name by Ruskin Bond, the film conjures a fascinating terrain of emotions and desires around this eponymous Japanese object that is serendipitously discovered by the young girl Biniya in the mountains of her Himachali hamlet.
As Biniya starts flaunting the umbrella with aplomb day-in and day-out, the middle-aged Khatri develops an obsession for obtaining it. There is no “faayda” as such of possessing it, Khatri quips, and rhetorically elaborates: “Of what benefit is a rainbow in the sky? Of what advantage is a paper boat floating in the water? Of what use is watching the sun set behind the hills? One cannot put a price on peace for the soul. There seems to be an abiding bond with the umbrella since my past life itself…”
Watching the film at the onset of monsoons only validates such truths that elevate the umbrella to an almost natural – even essential – feature of the surrounding environment.
An Umbrella is Not Just an Umbrella
But while Khatri places the Japanese piece above all other ordinary makes, the black-canopied, crook-handled common version continues to embody a magic of its own precisely because of its ubiquitousness of form and function. Doesn’t the playfulness that Biniya associates with the blue umbrella in the chirpy song “Chhatri ka uddan khatola” hold true for all varieties? “A peg sometimes, a stick sometimes, a wand sometimes, it runs, it hops, it jumps, my flying umbrella!”
Perhaps it is in such shiftiness that the spirit of the umbrella truly resides. From its collapsible stretchers and semispherical ribcage radiating out from the central tube to its changing roles as a shelter-giver and style-maker, the umbrella’s attraction is inherently versatile.
Today as “umbrella hats” squeeze the canopy size and nullify the use of hands, and as the object becomes easily compressible into a short, small mass, the instrument somewhat loses its erstwhile poetic appeal. For it is in its cane-like resemblance and haptic portability that the umbrella becomes a harmonious accoutrement to the walking self, the tapping of the ferrule-tip adding to the rhythm of the stroller.
Umbrella and Divine Hierarchy
A brief glimpse at the global history of the umbrella takes us back to around four millennia, when it first came into being in almost all cultures across the world. Sculptures, illustrations and frescoes from the ancient times testify to this instrument both as a source of shelter as well as of power and discrimination.
Here, kings and queens announce their importance through not only through crowns and attires but also via the shelters being carried by someone else in their masters’ shadows. As a child, I was enchanted no-end by the calendar art of Indian gods and goddesses that would depict Arjun sitting broodingly under the canopy of his chariot, listening to the divine sermons of Krishna, and Rama posing benignly under a gold “chhattri” on the occasion of his rajyabhishek (crowing ceremony) after his return from Lanka.
Having grown up mostly in the Kullu Valley, also known as the Valley of Gods, myths were never entirely separate from reality, and every now and then I would spot local gods and goddesses sculptured in the form of palanquins being transported from one village to another, with the deities higher in hierarchy distinguishable from their tasseled chattris at the top.
There was also a chhatri made out of an unknown alloy that the Mughal emperor Akbar presented to appease the goddess Jwalamukhi in the Kangra Valley of Himachal (one of the many “Shakti Peeths” of India), whose fragment still lies encased in the temple’s premises.
From Functional to Fantastical
Shelter, however, is not just a kingly or godly need. It is one of the essences of human life, and the modern umbrella fittingly plays the role of giving sanctuary to ordinary heads by acknowledging ‘aatmanirbhar’ principle through the strength of one’s hands. The umbrella creates a dialogue between the self and the outside world like a constantly moving and evolving balcony. For only when it rains or snows does one get to know the skies in the most intimate, tactile manner, and the umbrella, instead of serving as the sky’s antagonist, celebrates it. Of course, how long the umbrella is able to hold up against the battering of wind and water is dependent on the heavenly forces themselves.
Perhaps it is natural that when an ordinary object assumes an extraordinary quality, it seamlessly enters the domain of fantasy and romance as a frequent trope. Just like the blue umbrella opens up a yearning in Biniya’s tender heart, another umbrella reveals the world of magic to Harry Potter in JK Rowling’s famous series, with Hagrid tapping the walled entrance to the Diagon Alley with the end of his fond pink parasol to unleash the wonder for both the protagonist and reader alike.
In another childhood story that has remained etched in my memory, a squirrel momentarily stuck on the opposite shore of a raging river eventually makes the crossing by sliding down an inclined yarn in an upturned umbrella owing to the curve of its crook. Many such examples abound, a most famous one being Mary Poppins’ who too had enthralled us with her flying capacities by using her parrot-handled umbrella.
Films and Umbrella
But one doesn’t need to enter the realm of pure fantasy in order to appreciate the aura that the manoeuvrable half-sphere resolutely manifests. Few images of romance come close to the love-struck characters assayed by Raj Kapoor and Nargis, lilting under an umbrella to the tune of “Pyaar hua ikraar hua” in the 1951 classic Shree 420. Such is the affective resonance of the symbol of a couple creating a world of their own under a curved canopy that it gets picked up by several later Bollywood films as well.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2007 venture Saawariya, for instance, derives one of its primary inspirations from this scene and reconjures it towards the denouement, the female protagonist’s umbrella having served as a constant source of attachment and desire for her beloved separated by time and space.
In Anurag Basu’s 2012 Barfi!, the umbrella again enters at two strategic points to poignantly mark the friction and ambiguity between lovers never meant to be united owing to societal pressures. Love and loss could hardly find a better articulation in material terms.
Thus, the umbrella has emotively transformed from being a functional object to an aesthetic implement. Many festivals and carnivals nowadays use huge grids of upturned, hanging umbrellas of multiple colours and sizes to filter in the light and create moody atmospheres.
Likewise, umbrellas are also useful devices in particular kinds of photography to adjust brightness and shade-levels. So whether it is the rains or the sunshine, the umbrella remains our creative umbilical chord to the vagaries of the outside weather and inside emotions, and consequently, to life at large: an object so ordinary, yet brimming with wonder.
(Siddharth Pandey is a photographer and writer working on Indian hill stations, fantasy literature and materiality studies. He belongs to Shimla and is currently based in Delhi-NCR. He can be found on Instagram at @shimlasiddharthpandey. This is a blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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