Dharavi-based Chamar Studio heroes eye-catching handmade bags made by the Dalit community

Sudheer Rajbhar who has taken the derogatory term ‘chamar’ that refers to Dalit leather workers, and used it as a name for his Dharavi-based bag brand, flaunting it as a badge of honour
Artist-activist Sudheer Rajbhar (left), and a bag from his 'Chamar Studio' (right)
Artist-activist Sudheer Rajbhar (left), and a bag from his 'Chamar Studio' (right)

Sitting at the edge of India’s largest slum, Dharavi, is a small studio where workers are busy punching holes into colourful rubber sheets. Most of them are cobblers, sweepers and leather workers from the Dalit community, and are stitching bags that retail under the label, Chamar Studio. In eye-catching hues and patterns, the finished products are clearly at par, if not a cut above most big brands in the market.

“In the Indian caste system, ‘chamar’ is an ethnic slur used to describe this ostracised community. At Chamar Studio, we use it as a pride,” says Sudheer Rajbhar, who launched this unique brand of accessories some four years ago. The idea, he says, was to shift the traditional social perception tied to untouchables by lending prestige to the Dalit community through the excellence of crafts. By providing them economic aid, the studio also wanted to give them visibility and social standing.

“It all started from this will of celebrating and conserving crafts from a banned industry and a backward community. By highlighting the talents overshadowed by the caste system, we wanted to give them visibility and initiate a dialogue around the hardships they faced,” says 32-year-old Rajbhar, who himself came from a similar background.

Born and brought up in the slums of Mumbai’s Kandivali, Rajbhar graduated with a degree in fine arts from the Vasai Vikasini College of Visual Arts in 2010 and started working as an artist’s assistant. The artist he worked with curated a show called ‘We Are Here Because You Are There’, featuring work by artists’ assistants where he wanted to draw attention to the fact that assistants, whilst being artists themselves, are generally denied the ability to progress.

Inspired by this, Rajbhar collaborated with cobblers from his community and started a public project that involved printing the word Chamar on canvas bags. He distributed these bags to people to carry around in their daily lives. And that’s how the brand Chamar came into existence.

In 2015, when the Chamar community was displaced due to the beef ban, Rajbhar searched for a material that could replace leather and possibly start again activities for all these artisans. It was then that he started to retrain these artisans to use new materials such as rubber from recycled tyres, cotton, latex and canvas. Within the next two years, a recycled rubber material made from waste really close to leather in its properties emerged, and Chamar Studio was born.

While the crafty cobblers set about creating nifty handbags, belts and other trendy accessories, all  meticulously designed by Rajbhar, he also set about constructing a website to retail these from. Thus was born www.chamar.in with prices ranging from as low as `1,500 to as high as Rs 39,000.
Their first collection was Bombay Black, where the styles included Batwa, a classic black  handbag, and the bestselling Jhola, which was, well, a simple black jhola.

There was also Basta (a backpack) and Bora (a large tote). The aesthetic was minimalist, with only button details and the cobbler’s typical criss-cross stitches. After Bombay Black, came Blue Collar and Mandee Revolt, with each collection attempting to bring the community’s concerns to the forefront.
For his upcoming collection for 2022, called Bayadere, Rajbhar uses the devadasis of south Indian temples as his muse. “The Indian bayadere, or the sadir attam dancers called devadasis, were actually trained Bharatnatyam dancers, but were considered low-caste and clubbed with the Dalits,” he says.

Incidentally, Chamar Studio is not a purely private enterprise but one that believes in social justice. For, as much as 50 percent of its earnings go back to the artisans through Rajbhar’s philanthropic entity, The Chamar Foundation. Indeed, seldom do we come across people who actually prove that caste is a state of mind, and this unique studio is in every way possible, an instrument of change.

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