Mumbai’s Dalit workers turn designers
Chamar Studio, an accessories brand started by artist Sudheer Rajbhar trains leather workers, cobblers and sweepers to design ecofriendly bags and reclaim their caste identity
“I knew nothing about fixing shoes before 2003," says Sachin Bhimsakhare. The resident of a slum in Santacruz, Mumbai, Bhimsakhare was studying in class VIII when his father, a cobbler, was run over by a car that year. With no one else to take care of his mother and three siblings, Bhimsakhare dropped out of school to take over his father’s business. He has been running it since. “I was doing well," he says. “I fixed a roof and built walls. But last year (the shop) was demolished and since then I have been working out of a makeshift shop while trying to get permission to set up shop again."
To make ends meet, Bhimsakhare works part-time as a supervisor at the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation’s (BMC’s) waste management department. He works with a dozen waste workers, training them in waste segregation, best practices and hygienic handling of waste. Their work ends by noon, and that’s when Bhimsakhare turns to his personal project. He gathers the waste workers around him and teaches them how to sew bags using the zig-zag cobbler’s suture for Chamar Studio, an exciting new initiative brewing in the slums of the Maximum City.
Bhimsakhare has used the cobbler’s stitch since his father’s death, but his tryst with bag making started in early 2017, when he met artist Sudheer Rajbhar, the brain behind Chamar Studio. At the time, Rajbhar was working on an installation titled Dark Homes for the Bombay Black exhibition, part of the year’s Kala Ghoda Art Festival (KGAF) showcase. “Watching Bombay (Rajbhar and his collaborators prefer calling the city by its erstwhile name) as a boy growing up in the slums, everything looked black," he says. “When slums were demolished, I would go around collecting leftovers—old letters, photograph frames, tools. I also found footage of slum demolitions online, and put all of it into bags, calling them my dark homes that people could peek into." Rajbhar made long black tote bags to carry the found objects, and creating those nondescript carryalls led him towards a new business initiative.
On a rainy Saturday morning in July, I meet Rajbhar at the ticket counter of the Sion railway station, after days of Instagram DMs and phone calls, so we can visit the Chamar Studio workshop inside Dharavi. Dressed dandily in a pastel-coloured shirt, chinos and espadrilles, he glides through a steady drizzle down the neighbourhood’s lanes till we reach the workshop on the first floor of a building, accessed by a narrow staircase. It is a small space, 10x10ft at most, and not in the best shape—tools and miscellaneous items crowd the space, a part of the roof is leaking and the walls are stained with monsoon damp. For Rajbhar and his collaborators, these are incidental obstacles on the path to bigger goals.
An ambitious new accessories label, Chamar Studio employs leather workers, cobblers and sweepers to make bags and small accessories using eco-friendly materials like cotton and recycled rubber tyres. The brand’s debut collection, Bombay Black, which takes its name from the KGAF exhibition, is now available to buy, comprising 10 styles—including messenger bags, cross-body slings, satchels and backpacks—in jet black.
It is a project that seeks to reclaim an identity for Dalit communities, specifically the chamar community spread across states of northern India. Deriving their name from the Sanskrit word charmakara (skin-workers), chamars are traditionally associated with the occupation of tanning leather which the higher castes wouldn’t touch for reasons of ritual purity.
Categorized as Scheduled Castes in independent India, the community’s occupation as leather tanners continues to persist, resulting in derogatory stereotyping and social censure. The word is also frequently used as an expletive. Rajbhar, who belongs to the Bhar caste, categorized as Other Backward Classes (OBCs), learnt the implied meanings of cateist slurs early in life. “I was born and brought up in Bombay but I come from a village in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh. I have only visited my village a few times, but people can be abusive," he says. “They would say ‘bhar’ and ‘chamar’ are the same and people like me would achieve nothing in our lives. They would also say, chor aur chamar toh ek hi hai (there’s no difference between a thief and a chamar)."
The experience stuck with Rajbhar as he pursued a degree at the Vasai Vikasini College of Visual Art and started out as an independent artist after graduating in 2010. Following the Bombay Black exhibition, organized by the Mumbai-based curatorial art space Clark House Initiative, Rajbhar curated a show in August 2017, titled We Are Here Because You Are There, focusing on the role played by unskilled labourers and assistants to artists and creative designers. “During the exhibition, I made a cotton bag with the word chamar (in different languages) all over it," he says. “I was curious to see how the public would react if I just floated a word like ‘chamar’ in such a space." These two projects led him to think deeply about starting a brand that would give cobblers, and others from Dalit communities, an opportunity to be creators.
In conceptualizing a sustainable brand, Rajbhar’s primary focus was on the real-time challenges faced by members of the chamar caste. “Leather has become really expensive. I found that alternative materials like recyclable tyres were far cheaper and it would help the community. Besides, these eco-friendly materials are really popular now and people want to buy them," he says. Rajbhar reached out to a local company, Kiran Rubber, for supplies of glossy recycled black sheets for the Bombay Black collection.
Since then, he has found new collaborators. One of them is Suresh P. Agawane, an engineer-turned-social-entrepreneur from Dharavi. He is the founder of Made by Dharavi, a brand of wallets and small goods showcasing the skills of the slum’s leather artisans. “Dharavi is world-famous but for all the wrong reasons," he says. “People perceive it like it was shown in Slumdog Millionaire. I want to take Dharavi’s asset to international markets like Paris." He also spearheads a programme named Saksham that aims to enhance the community’s social and mental health and economic empowerment.
Agwane is apprehensive about the toxic effects of leather processing and working with Chamar Studio gives him an opportunity to introduce the artisans to new materials and technologies. Along with leather, the artisans are learning how to stitch recycled tyre bags and use new tools. “The workers are used to working with the same old materials and tools, so part of our job is also to change the prevalent mindset," Agwane says, showing me an early prototype of recycled rubber wallets. “We constantly encourage them to try new tools and work with these new materials."
At present, Rajbhar cuts the pattern of every design himself, with Agwane and Bhimsakhare distributing these among artisans for practice and production. The learning process abounds in trial and error. The artisans must be taught to stitch meticulously, and it can take multiple attempts for new learners to create a perfect bag. “They (the artisans) do feel it won’t happen," Rajbhar adds. “Suresh and Gangaram (another cobbler) have taught everyone. The workers were sceptical, but we kept trying. Once they start working with these materials, they feel more confident."
The efforts have paid off, and there are now over a dozen artisans involved in the studio’s projects. Of these, a majority are Dalits and Muslims.
The products can be made anywhere, in shops or homes. Chamar Studio’s minimalist design ethos also lends itself to these goals. A typical Studio bag is easy to assemble, and minimal, with fuss-free snap buttons and no buckles or trimmings—a small bag can be ready in a couple of hours. “I like minimalism but the more important point is that these designs make the most of available resources and use traditional skills. The artisans have little time so a simple design helps," he says. As workers gain skills, he hopes to take a back seat from cutting patterns and incorporate more complex design elements.
Spreading the word
Rajbhar is currently focused on giving the brand visibility and spreading the word among artisans as much as consumers. So far, Chamar Studio has mostly worked on small orders, received directly by Rajbhar on social media or his website). The bags are priced from ₹ 1,500, ₹ 4,500 and 50% of the revenue from sales go to the artisans. In July, the brand got its first big break with the multidesigner luxury store Le Mill in Mumbai that stocks international labels like Balmain, Balenciaga, Altuzarra and Zimmermann. Since then, Chamar Studio has also started stocking at Paper Boat Collective, a store in Goa, and a collaboration with a Parisian brand is in the works.
Having started the venture without much of a plan, Rajbhar admits he knows little about the fashion industry but is full of ideas. “We want to teach the boot polish guys at railway stations and also give them some bags to display," he says. “Lakhs of people take the trains, at least 10 people might see the bags, get curious and go on to buy them. They are more into repair, but we want to help them create."
Funding is a major deterrent for Rajbhar, who has spent his personal savings to set up the endeavour. “I want to travel across the country meeting artisans who could benefit from this project," he says. “I have also put out an open call to artists to collaborate on new designs." More plans include building a research centre and library, giving artisans a space to come together, share ideas and conceive new projects. Eventually, Rajbhar wants to establish a Chamar Foundation. “It’s slow but going on, so I am happy," he says. “It’s not like I wanted to start a big shop or be in a mall. I want to connect the artisan community, not just leather makers or cobblers but others too."
In the meantime, the Chamar Studio team is focused on promoting the brand beyond Mumbai. The brand name leads to curiosity but reactions can be deeply hostile sometimes, says Rajbhar. Recounting an incident with his wife, who is studying for a degree in art conservation and museology in Delhi, Rajbhar says: “A guard at the institute where she studies stopped her to ask why she was carrying a bag with ‘chamar’ written on it. She said it was made by a designer and asked him to take a look. The guard wasn’t very pleased but he couldn’t say much to a student."
But there are also promising encounters. Rajbhar was travelling in Allahabad when a man came up to him asking about the bag he had been carrying. “I explained my whole idea," he says. The man turned out to be an employee at a non-profit in Himachal Pradesh and he invited the Chamar Studio team to his place of work. Such encounters are useful for Rajbhar, who wants to take his designs to cities and villages across the country and observe the brand’s impact on people.
In the Dharavi workshop, the roof may be leaking but the atmosphere is one of optimism. “Sudheerji’s idea is really good," Bhimsakhare says. “It will give so many of us employment and we are trying to get everyone to join. As more people use these bags, they will also know more about us."
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