In a hundred-year-old house in Ayya Mudali Street, Chintadripet, many aspects of history live on. “My family migrated from Maharashtra to Madras,” begins 73-year-old P. C. Dhasaradha Sha. And when was that? “I don’t know, but several generations of my family have been here. They used to speak Marathi,” he tells me in fluent Tamil. “Earlier, this area used to be called ‘Chinna thari pettai’. Some of the weavers moved to Kanchipuram during my father’s time.” But 200 families from the community still live in Chintadripet; and many of them make temple umbrellas.

Dhasaradha Sha has been making umbrellas for the past 40 years. “I learnt the craft from my father. This is a ‘parambara thozhil’ (hereditary occupation). And it is very, very difficult,” he explains slowly, softly, unfurling a huge umbrella. “Everything in this is handmade,” he says, as the heavy umbrella opens, and the narrow room suddenly becomes bright — there’s gold and silver and a plush red velvet trim and the ‘naamam’ that denotes the temple (Tirumala) it will adorn. “We have been contractors for the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam for 30 years,” he says, explaining the different religious symbols they sew onto the umbrellas. “This particular “pa naamam” can be used only for Tirupati. We supply a thousand umbrellas to them in a year!” A huge leap, from his own accounts, from the two or three they got to make in his father’s time every month.

Each umbrella is handmade, using 12 different parts — bamboo, brass kalasam, velvet, gold tissue, silver zari etc. The first and most important step is making the bamboo framework. And it is, Sha admits, the hardest. Harder still is finding people willing to do the work. “It’s getting very hard to find labourers. No youngster is willing to learn, even though it pays well. Somebody who’s willing to make two frames a day will have Rs. 1500 in his pocket!”

The temple umbrellas range in size from 4.5 feet to 18 feet; and they can last for many years, if preserved carefully. “The only ‘nourishment’ that these umbrellas need is sunlight. If it’s sunned out every month, for three to five days, it will keep for 20 years!” Each umbrella takes four days to make; men and women are both involved in its handcrafting. “I remember, in 1980, we sold umbrellas for Rs. 600. Now, that sells for Rs. 5,000.” But the price hike, he says, has not made them rich. Raw materials, labour, everything eats into the profit. “We also make ‘muthangi’ (pearl-sewn dress) and ‘muthu palaakku’ (pearl-sewn palanquins), crowns, fans, thombai…” he lists, as his grand-daughter flips through her smart phone, proudly showing me pictures of her grandfather’s work. “Each pearl on the muthangi is hand-sewn. A small one takes two months, a big one, anywhere upto six months; since the temples order them for festivals, we just can’t renege on the time.” And he narrates an incident, when a sick employee delayed a delivery, and it ended with the temple authorities sitting up with them all night, until it was handed to them!

Besides Indian temples, Sha’s umbrellas have also found their way around the globe. His son and granddaughters proudly tell the names of countries and temples and deities their work has adorned. And yet, despite the glut of orders, Sha believes the next generation might not stick on with the trade. “My son, Lakshman Sha helps out with the business. But the youngsters want to study. Nowadays, everybody wants to work on computers, isn’t it?”

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)