Out of the closet11 min read . Updated: 07 Dec 2007, 12:33 AM IST
Out of the closet
Out of the closet
Hers is noiseless. Atypical of an almirah, with its signature creaks and squeaks and dramatic groans.
Keya Guha Ray unlocks and opens; the silence is testament to the wisdom gained since she was gifted the piece as a young bride 21 years ago.
“Human beings need buttering, so does this thing," she says.
Now, the husband has taken over—DVDs, CDs, VCDs, his passport and “other private things", she says.
“Both of our clothes used to be in here. We used to fight over it. We really grew up with this," she says. “Then the space became too less for me. So I made a whole cupboard for myself."
Still, she couldn’t bear to throw away the four-legged steel creature.
Neither can a lot of Indians.
In these fast-paced, customized, liberalized, disposable times, the almirah is all but a bygone relic. It’s not big enough any more, banks exist on every street corner to keep money and valuables intact, built-in shelves take up less of that shrinking commodity—space. So, too, has its significance as a must-give part of a dowry or wedding trousseau diminished, replaced as the most expensive item in a household by things that whir and blare and freeze and entertain. Yet, somehow, in an India aspiring to move beyond itself, squat toilets to dirt roads, licensed radios to cumbersome gas connections, the almirah still holds, outlasting even those sacred institutions as extended families and marriages forever.
In many ways, the story of the almirah is the story of the Godrej Group, the all-encompassing conglomerate and maker of soaps to software, generating more than Rs6,000 crore in sales annually. And despite the diversity of its products, in some places, “a Godrej" can only mean one thing.
Steel, wooden, antique or copycat, the almirah’s story is also one of the evolving Indian home and family, from a product that parents picked out for their children to an item that couples now cater to suit their needs. Regardless, the insides represent the vicissitudes: wedding saris and gold jewellery, baby clothing and toys, family photographs and land deeds, the sweaters and medicines of old age.
The contents tell the story of a country.
A company’s claim to fame
Ramesh M. Panchal worked at Godrej for 27 years. His father worked here for 42.
Neither was around when the almirah—in the steel form that modern India knows it—was born. That was 1923, an India where “law and order was not that good", says Subodh Mehta, senior general manager of marketing for Godrej’s furniture line.
Back then, the company was best known for its soaps and locks. Combining the latter product with a weatherproof place to store valuables seemed a logical business extension. Almirahs until then were mostly made out of wood and teak. Godrej also saw desire for a product that addressed realities such as moths and mice, dust and dacoits.
“Wooden cupboards will have a poor chance against them," claims a 1926 advertisement in The Times of India for a line of “patent safe cabinets". A later ad brags, “invisible bolts are used for putting important parts together thus adding considerably to the Cabinets’ strength to resist burglars’ tools".
And so, one of India’s most famous brand names was born—akin really to the brand-name recall of a Coke or Kleenex. The steel almirah spawned a copycat movement that persists today; in Nepal, one large maker of furniture calls itself Podrej Steel.
In the early days, almirahs were for the wealthy: Only people who had valuable stuff, after all, would need to lock it up. It became a parting gift for a bride, a sure-fire way to keep the zardozi on her sari shiny, a guaranteed space of “hers" in a home that would be someone else’s.
In an independent India (democracy defined by olive-green ballot boxes made by Godrej, too), the branded steel almirahs became dubbed “Storwels", weighed between 90kg and 100kg, and entered their twilight through the 1960s and 1970s. Godrej archives show one 1968 brand, known as the “Safemyra", weighing in at an astounding 150kg.
This was an India where the supply of steel was still controlled, where factories kept painting the same colour—the most popular was Tata Atomic Energy grey—until it was exhausted to maximize materials and labour (manufacturing’s dependence on steel and other supplies also cemented early ties between the Tatas and the Godrejes).
A Godrej almirah might have a waiting list of two to three months, especially before the busy wedding season in the east or the south, regions that have long had an affinity for the almirah.
“They would be waiting in line. It was like buying a Swift," says H.N. Khumbatta, now the vice-president and business head for material handling, but once the head of the Storwel division. He employs a new world analogy by referring to Maruti’s stylishly popular model. To apply modern marketing jargon, a Godrej back then might be seen as an “aspirational product".
Through the 1980s, the client base remained a generally upper class one, although Godrej officials say purchasers began shifting from generous elderly parents to the brides and grooms themselves. In urban centres, shelves for saris began to be less important than, say, a longer space to hang dress shirts and pants.
Buying patterns yield observations on how Indians so widely vary by region. Coastal states valued the almirah because steel did not rust as easily, says Lokesh Sharma, a deputy manager for Godrej in New Delhi.
“Northern people are aggressive and are ready to throw these out. Bengalis are more loyal though. They’re still communists," he laughs. “They don’t change so easily and take the Godrej almirah as a symbol of pride."
Embedded in the East
Before they were patent safe cabinets or steel Storwels, they were simply almirahs. While Godrej capitalized on an industrial look being sensible and fashionable, Indian homes have long boasted wooden almirahs that ranged from ornate to utilitarian, in Gujarati and Rajasthani styles that exude artistry and opulence, whether they stored tubs of salt in the kitchen or saris in the bedroom.
The Burmese teak kind were preferred by Pranab Kumar Mookerjee’s father, an industrialist from Kolkata. Mookerjee now lives among no less than 35 relatives and 15 others with “helping hands" in a 155-year-old house. It is the type of place where the dozens of almirahs Mookerjee describes would fit right in, although most were sold long ago to the auction houses on Park Street. In this house, built by his grandfather’s grandfather, steel almirahs also slowly replaced the wooden ones to better preserve clothing.
“He was also a man of good taste, had 40 suits," Mookerjee, a chemical engineer by training who works as a consultant now, says of his father. “Some were three pieces, and even after giving them away, there are still 20 suits in one almirah."
Eight steel Godrej almirahs remain to keep his late father’s old things, his bedridden mother’s past and present and then, the Mookerjees’ possessions.
Asked what he keeps in all of them, initially a list comes tumbling out: His and hers clothing, his wife’s bracelets, books, company papers for two rubber plants embroiled in union trouble.
Just as he can’t separate a discussion about almirahs from those signature suits of his father’s, the material begins giving way to memory.
“We are Brahmins. At the time of my thread ceremony, my grandfather presented me with a Zenith Swiss watch," he says. “Those were the days before Omega. That is now in the almirah."
He continues. “When I got married, I got an Omega Seamaster," he says. “That is in the almirah too."
He laments not giving his daughter one of her own when she got married—but she went off to the US.
“You know the mentality differs, generation to generation," he says. “It is very difficult to stick together… That cannot stay forever, but the essence remains."
It is not clear if he speaks of his almirahs, or his family.
Saving the Godrej
General manager Panchal recalls Godrej lore on quality control: A candle would be lit and placed inside an almirah and the doors shut. If it remained lit for some time, the almirah was sound—meaning no air could get in.
This, he says proudly, is the work ethic, the dedication to product his father passed down. That never changed, he says during a tour of the plant one summer day, but the manufacturing and consumers’ demands have. He gestures at the new way paint is applied as a uniform powder, creating less waste. He says people’s transient lives mean that the almirahs need to be lighter and easier to transport—hence, the marketing-think behind the new “Slimline" branded wardrobes.
In 1997, Godrej celebrated its 100th anniversary, marvelling at the behemoth it had become while preserving the integrity of a family-run company. On a tour of the Godrej campus on a rainy Mumbai afternoon, Panchal, for example, is sure to point out the school, where the children of labourers are educated alongside those of executives. It is where he went, and his children, too, he says proudly. The company still subsidizes employee housing in the colony nearby. Even in the new India of five stars and cloth napkins, a visiting reporter is treated to a self-serve buffet in the low-frills canteen, with everybody else.
“I think Godrej owes its brand equity to a couple of products," Mehta, the marketing guy, says over that lunch. “Storwel is one of those products."
In an appropriate nod to past and present, the company released a high-end almirah for the anniversary called the “Centurion" to address the choosier, more upscale consumer. It began experimenting with steel that looked like wood, steel imported from Korea, higher prices. A Centurion with an electronic lock costs about Rs25,000.
“We did everything," says Mehta, “but in every product a cycle comes where you can’t flog it any more. If a product is successful 80 years, that’s successful. It has to undergo a change."
And so began a multi-pronged strategy to remake the almirah (lighter, easier and cheaper to transport, assembly upon delivery, for example), target the lower middle-class consumer, and diversify into other furniture; a Slimline costs about Rs10,000. Brand campaigns merged Storwels into an “Interiors" division. Last year, the company’s home furnishing line, which now includes everything from beds to dining tables to sofa sets, was christened the purposefully hipper name—“Interio".
Almirahs now make up just 20% of the business.
The company recently added a chest of drawers.
Respecting our elders
Just what do you do with an old almirah?
“My wife would not let us get rid of them," says Unnikrishnan K.V., a retired senior police official in Chennai. His 80-year-old house in Chennai was torn down a few years ago to make way for the ground floor he shares with his wife and two flats he rents out upstairs; his grown children live overseas.
Even two years after the construction—construction that included customized cabinets built against walls to maximize storage and living space—one almirah sits in the stair landing, another in the “junk room", says Unnikrishnan.
He blames his wife but, clearly, he’s attached too.
“There’s a lot of memories in there," he says of the steel vessels, one of which is a Godrej, the other a custom-built almirah by a local maker. “The children used to be here. Fifteen years, we made 12 moves."
They’ve been everywhere with him, he says, and yet they don’t quite seem to fit in the new house.
“We went for built-ins," he says. “Things are changing."
A part of what kept people hanging on to their almirahs for decades, besides sentiment and usefulness, is that second-hand sales in India have historically had such a stigma attached, a connotation of a need for instant cash. That’s certainly changing as Indians acquire—and need and swap—more stuff.
Consider a sampling of advertisements on the website Kijiji.in. Of 11 recent ads related to almirahs in New Delhi, just one is seeking the piece. The rest are trying to unload them.
Yet sales have not slipped. In the fiscal year 2002-03, Godrej says it generated Rs46.5 crore in home storage revenues. This year, it expects that number to more than double, to over Rs100 crore.
An afternoon in Godrej’s design lab yields some of why that may be. The team of designers, mostly hired from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad or the nearby Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, work to understand the modern Indian consumer. They are making double -tone almirahs. Almirahs that have deeper storage space and go all the way up to the ceiling (goodbye, stacked suitcases). Can an ironing board be attached? In January, Godrej plans to unveil customized closet spaces. General design manager E. Venkat proudly shows a clear plastic door that can slide back around the shelving.
This is not your mother’s almirah.
“The older generation still believes this is the best product we’ve made," Venkat says. “Now these are being made for a younger generation...There’s so many imported products now. If we’ll succeed, it will be because we made products that are Indian."
It’s a generation, his designers have found after market research, that wants space for saris, jeans, suits, ties, sneakers, jutis, plastic bangles, gold earrings, bindis, iPods, passports, bank papers, grandma’s heirlooms, love letters from the old boyfriend, pictures of the house before it was knocked down.
The contents tell the story of a country.