Chamars, a Hindu low caste community whose occupation was restricted to being tanners, leather workers, and cobblers for innumerable years, lost their livelihood after the 2015 ban on slaughter of bulls and bullocks in Maharashtra. The only source of their work was taken away with no other substitute or source of livelihood provided in return.
A 32-year-old artist Sudheer Rajbhar saw how these artists were exploited for low wages and how their work was hardly respected. After observing this harsh reality, he knew something has to be done to help the community, and this observation led him to start Chamar Studio, an initiative launched on Guru Ravidas Jayanti in January last year. According to The Scroll, the Chamar Studio is a brand that offers utilitarian, eco-friendly wallets as well as belts. Also, one of the most trendy products which the studio offers are its bags which are made in varied styles such as backpacks with the trademark Indian cobbler’s criss-cross stitches, crossbody, satchel, and various others.
However, the objective to start the Chamar Studio was not only to help the Chamar community and provide them with a source of livelihood, but Rajbhar also had other reasons too. Sudheer Rajbhar belongs to the ‘Bhar’ caste, which is classified under the ‘Other Backward Class’ by the Indian government. He says that as a child whenever he visited his ancestral village Khetasarai, in Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district, he would hear the words ‘Bhar’ and ‘Chamar’ being used interchangeably – thrown around derogatorily or as abuse. “As a child, I often heard the word ‘Chamar’ used derogatorily, to call someone stupid or lesser than when it actually refers to a profession. I wanted to bring back respect to this word,” Rajbhar says while talking to The Hindu.
Rajbhar who got trained in drawing and painting at the Vasai Vikasini College of Visual Arts, closely connected to the community as he grew up in the slums in Kandivali, observing their day-to-day struggles. He did not like the way the Chamar community was treated. According to him, the traditional occupation of the community, i.e., working with leather should not be belittled, when it actually means to create something. So in order to change the mindset of people, he decided to include the name of the community in his fashion brand.
Making The Brand Sustainable And Eco-Friendly
Rajbhar collaborated with cobblers, leather craftsmen and included them with the Chamar brand. He says that in Kanpur there were few tanneries which got closed due to the beef ban, and so he told them to work with new materials. Finally, it took him six months to complete the first batch of products.
The artisans had all the required skills and experience, however, Sudheer changed their raw material with recycled thin rubber tyre sheets (they are completely sustainable and waterproof), cotton, latex, canvas, and other recycled materials. In his research, Rajbhar found that the tyres don’t lose their natural elements even after being recycled. “First of all they were very surprised with the new materials presented to them, they were sceptical of working with them as they were used to stitching only leather materials. But slowly, as I described the ideology and feel of the new products they started to process the new information with enthusiasm and soon came up with ideas to boost the productivity,” Rajbhar tells Homegrown.
Rajbhar wants to use more recycled materials so as to make his brand more sustainable and eco-friendly. He runs material experiments at his home-cum-studio in Kandivali East. One of the artisans who work with him is Sachin Bhimsakhare. Sachin, who works part-time as a supervisor at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC’s) waste management department says that at first, he found the materials difficult to work with, however, with practice he learned it. “I used to wonder who will even buy this bag. But when we took them to an exhibition and everyone appreciated it, I felt like an artist, it felt good,” says Bhimsakhare while talking to The Scroll.
According to Rajbhar, Chamar Studio can be anywhere in Mumbai, “A cobbler sitting at the railway platform can also work from there and that’s also a face of Chamar Studio. That is the idea of Chamar Studio. It can be anywhere and everywhere and it’s for everyone,” tells Rajbhar.
The products made by the brand will go on to sell at the trendy stores including Kochi’s Pepper House, Goa’s The Paper Boat Collective Indian Goods Co. in Frankfurt, Germany, etc. Rajbhar says that the first outdoor exhibition he had with his brand was very welcoming as people were attracted to the idea and the use of materials.
The studio showcased their work for the first time at Jehangir Art Gallery as part of Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2018 in February, where the products made by them stood out not only for their minimalist aesthetic but also because they were waterproof and eco-friendly, reports Elle.
Project ‘Blue Collar’
Rajbhar for his recent project collaborated with the shoe shiners and cobblers who sit on the railway platforms between Virar and Churchgate stations. The project aims to create a collection of blue accessories, inspired by the uniforms of the cobblers. On this Rajbhar says, “Often, they have no work. They know basic stitching, and we plan to train them further to make bags for this line and share profits with them.”
Rajbhar even wants to design a working space and a library in the slums where artisans can come together, discuss new ideas and work on them. He even plans to start Chamar Foundation. “In my dream business model, I would like around 500-700 artisans to work with me, and in the final output, the credit of the artisan should be embossed on the product,” says the 32-year-old artist.