The Fashion Label Uplifting Dalit Leather Artisans’ Lives - Homegrown

The Fashion Label Uplifting Dalit Leather Artisans’ Lives

The cattle slaughter and transport ban had larger implications than just dietary restrictions in the land of the holy cow. Thousands of individuals, leather workers and farmers for examples, lost their livelihood – one that had become so ingrained and intrinsic to their identity and (sadly) their social standing in Indian society. One of these groups are the chamars, a Hindu low caste community that whose profession was for countless years limited to being leather workers, cobblers, tanners, and in the skinning of animals – work that was looked down upon and would often lead to discrimination as well.

Once the primary source of their work was taken away, what were these people, so denied of agency and opportunities, to do? With no alternative and sustainable source of employment provided in turn?

Sudheer Rajbhar, 32, is among a handful of people that recognised this reality and knew something had to be done – anything within his capacity to help the community. Speaking to Homegrown, he tells us that he, himself, spent some time living in the slums of Kandivali when he was growing up which is the reason that he became very close to that community over the years. He started collaborating with cobblers, enabling them to stitch together black rubber bags and other accessories, and showcased them at Clark House Initiative in Colaba, Mumbai, leading to the creation of Sudheer’s design label Chamar Studio.

Photographed by Debdeep Roy, courtesy of Sudheer Rajbhar

“Cobblers in Bombay are mostly Dalits who come from a guild of small businesses that run on corners of pavements. As and when the brand expanded I came across some tanneries in Dharavi where I met a few leather craftsmen with whom I collaborated and also included them within the Brand Chamar. During this course, there were a few tanneries In Kanpur which were closed down due to beef ban, so this is how I introduced them to new materials to work with. It took me about six months to execute the first batch of products,” says Rajbhar, who is an artist himself.

The artisans already possessed all the required skills and training, Rajbhar replaced their previous raw material with cotton, latex, recycled thin rubber tyre sheets and canvas and helped them learn how to work with the new materials. “First of all they were very surprised with the new materials presented to them, they were skeptical of working with them as they were used to stitching only leather materials,” Rajbhar tells Homegrown. “Slowly, as I explained the ideology and feel of the new products they started to process the new information with enthusiasm and soon came up with idea/inputs to improve the productivity.”

He also shares that he plans on working with more recycled materials, making the label as sustainable and eco-friendly as he can. “The tyre sheets are completely sustainable and waterproof,” he adds.

Rajbhar shares that the reception to the first outdoor exhibition which he had with the Chamar brand was very welcoming and tremendously positive. “People were very attracted to the idea and the use of the materials which boosted many more concepts and designs in the product-making for the future.”

Sudheer Rajbhar photographed by Debdeep Roy
Photographed by Debdeep Roy, courtesy of Sudheer Rajbhar

What Rajbhar has done with the label is not only provide a sustained source of livelihood for the community, but through this process given them visibility and highlighted the reality of a community that has been oppressed and silenced for years. It is created dialogue and starting conversations about the neglect of the Dalit community community of leather workers and artisans.

There’s a lot on Rajbhar’s mind regarding growth and the future of Chamar Studio. He hoped to design a working space and library in the slums where the artisans can come together, discuss new ideas and brainstorm. “I would like to see the artisans be given respect in the society, as they are the unsung heroes behind the fashion styles and trend people follow in the real world nowadays. And yes, I would love to have an outlet of the Chamar Studio shop, which may have newer products and accessories as well. And in the process, if everything goes well, a Chamar Foundation for the well-being of the artisans and their families,” Rajbhar signs off.

You can learn more about Chamar Studio on their website and Facebook.

Photographed by Debdeep Roy, courtesy of Sudheer Rajbhar
Photographed by Debdeep Roy, courtesy of Sudheer Rajbhar

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