There will be a day when ‘Made in Dharavi’ will have its own trademark, a time when ‘chamar’ will refer to a gifted artisan. Thirty-two-year old interdisciplinary artist Sudheer Rajbhar wants to ensure that day is today, that time is now.

The brand sports a rural-chic sensibility. The carry bags are screen-printed with ‘chamar’ written in Indian languages. Wallets are referred to as ‘batuas,’ sling bags as ‘jholas,’ and small purses as ‘khisas.’

Rajbhar launched Chamar Studio this year with the aim of cross-stitching fashion with activism. His first collection, titled Bombay Black, includes immaculately crafted, minimalistic sling bags and wallets. Since the Maharashtra beef ban in 2016 disrupted the leather industry, he employs rubber sheets, cotton, latex and other materials as surrogate skins. Paradoxically, ‘chamar’ is a term hurled as an insult towards anyone working in the leather, tanning and weaving industry. By reclaiming its pejorative meaning, Rajbhar wants to equate the term with style and craftsmanship.

Segregation according to caste has been the “hidden apartheid” of India. Up until the 19th century, the Dalit community was excluded from the four prominent castes, treated as outcasts, and heralded as so impure (owing to their occupations) that their mere presence was considered polluting. Labelling them became de rigueur. Prior to 1935, they were known as the Depressed Classes; Mahatma Gandhi coined the term Harijan; in South India they’re sometimes referred to as Adi Dravida, Adi Karnataka and Adi Andhra; but Scheduled Caste is the official term used today. Probably no one thought of ‘human,’ which would have made lives easier and saved face, effort and dignity. Gangaram Shankar Poojari, an artisan at Chamar Studio, says in Hindi, “Chamar is considered among the lowest castes, but don’t call it dirty. Our brand wants to change the perspective of people towards us.”

Most products range from Rupees 1500-6000

Rajbhar, himself an OBC, grew up in the slums of Kandivali and graduated from Vasai Vikasini College of Visual Arts in Thane. After years of assisting other artists and curating shows, when it was time to launch his own label, he headed to the most skilled corner of Mumbai: Dharavi. I meet his artisans and him in a cramped workshop there, and it occurs to me that Dharavi, too, is in desperate need of rebranding. Artisan Suresh Popat Agwane rightfully says, “Dharavi is the manufacturing hotspot in Asia, but people don’t look at it from that angle. The artisans here [can create products but] can’t create a brand. The skilled craftsmen here need to be uplifted.”

Which is what Rajbhar intends to do with Chamar Studio. By choosing a path of defiance with a name that aims to break free of casteist slurs, he is working to see the dawn of a new era when freedom and equality are taken for granted. This passion project is not only a conversation starter about a neglected community, but also a giant step towards penetrating art spaces, prone to elitism. “If you can’t speak English, you don’t look good, people don’t want to entertain you,” says Rajbhar. “They don’t want to see your work, and I want to change that.”

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