What makes a sweeper look forward to in a day beyond his daily chores?
What are cobblers fixing in the use and throw culture of fast fashion?
These are few poignant yet often ignored questions that do not seem to concern the most in today’s time.
Except for few change-makers like Sudheer Rajbhar.
Chamar Studio, a sustainable brand started by Sudheer, a visual artist turned designer from Mumbai, employs leather workers from the chamar community to produce handmade bags and accessories in different materials like cotton and rubber repurposed from old tyres and tubes. Named after the Dalit community known for their leather-making skills, the studio engages street-side cobblers, sweepers, boot-polish wallas and leather craftsmen to make utilitarian bags like messenger bags, cross-body slings, satchels and backpacks.
Trained in drawing and painting from Vasai Vikasini College of Visual Arts, Rajbhar doesn’t have a formal education in fashion design. But then art has always traversed through the mediums historically, hasn’t it?
In an exclusive interaction with CICERONI, Sudheer talks earnestly about his roots, education and the experience in art world that led him to start Chamar Studio.
BREAKING THE MOULD
“I was born in Mumbai and grew up here, in the slums of Kandivali. In 2010, I graduated with a degree in Art from Vasai Vikasini College of Visual Artsand started working as an artist’s assistant. The art world is a difficult place to survive, so as a way of earning more money, I designed setups for fashion brands on the side. With the passing years, I realized that art scenario in India had become elitist. Command over English language and relations with veteran artists and art curators are the two main skills one need to possess to become successful regardless of the quality of art work. Through the time, I curated shows with the assistants of artists to give a platform to all to exhibit their artwork” comments Sudheer on his formative professional years.
In the year 2017, Rajbhar worked on an installation titled Dark Homes for the Bombay Black exhibition, part of the year’s Kala Ghoda Art Festival showcase.
“I used to collect photographs, old frames and letters when the slums would get demolished and put that in a bag. This led to the concept for my exhibit -Dark Homes wherein black long tote bags were filled with objects of nostalgia of Old Bombay. The response of that exhibit led to another one. I was also exploring the impact of caste and politics in daily life.
The next show titled, We Are Here Because You Are There, focused on the role played by unskilled labourers and assistants to artists and creative designers. As a social experiment, I created a cotton bag with words ‘Chamar’ written over it in different languages ” shares Rajbhar while explaining the genesis of the brand.
Sudheer belongs to Bhar community from Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh where the words Bhar and Chamar are used interchangeably, more so as slur. “I was curious to see how the public would react if I just floated a word like ‘chamar’ in such a space” he added reflectively.
These two projects led him to think deeply and start a brand that would give cobblers, sweepers, boot-polish wallahs and others from Dalit community an opportunity to learn and earn. He started researching more and headed to Dharavi where the leather market thrives. He met one of his collaborators there – Suresh Agwane who is the founder of ‘Made by Dharavi’ – a leather brand that makes wallets and other accessories.
Sudheer wanted to create bags with sustainable material and Agwane was looking to get his workers working on new material like recycled rubber made from tyres and tubes. Thus, came about the creation of sleek and stylish Chamar Studio bags in further association with Sachin Bhimsakhare, a cobbler’s son and a part-time supervisor at the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation’s waste management department. He took up the cobbler’s suture at the age of 13, when his father died in an accident.
Together the trio incorporates training to leather craftsmen, cobblers, sweepers and boot polish wallahs in basic cobbler’s stitch to sew the bags designed by Sudheer Rajbhar in a new material – be it rubber, canvas or latex. Currently there is a team of around 8 people who work from Chamar Studio to create the collection.
DREAM A LITTLE DREAM
The first collection titled BOMBAY BLACK became critique’s favourite. The brand got its big break with the multi-designer 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. They will also be exhibiting in Frankfurt and Colombo soon.
At the FDCI: Spring Summer 2019 fashion show last year, designer brand Ode To Odd showcased a capsule collection called Language Of Flowers, which featured belts made by Rajbhar’s studio.
The bags are priced from ₹1,500 to ₹4,500 and 50% of the revenue from sales go to the artisans; a fact that is worth mentioning in an industry where designers earn the maximum profits and artisans earn their daily wages.
“It was important for me as an artist to break the idea of current system of remuneration in fashion. Most designer brands price their goods astronomically and yet the artisans live in a hand-to-mouth situation with their daily wages. I wanted to give a collective voice to equitable distribution of profits. At Chamar Studio, we share the profit equally between artisans and promoter” shares Sudheer with an admirable assertiveness.
Art wins over commerce.
PROJECT BLUE COLLAR
Project Blue Collar, an ode to the Blue-collar workers who form a majority of India’s workforce, was launched on International Workers day recently. A minimalist and stylish collection of bags in the quintessential shade of blue acts as a symbol of social justice against oppression. The clean cuts and sharp blue colour, reminiscent of the uniform colour of workers, makes this bag a sure-shot conversation starter.
Fashion and Art beyond elitism.
WHAT NEXT FOR CHAMAR STUDIO?
“Chamar Foundation was my dream come true. Founded in partnership with Mohua Chinappa, Chamar Foundation is a space in Koramangala, Bangalore and will function as an art space and library. It also has three rooms that can be rented over AirBnB. It will help artisans to set up their own studios, connect them to raw material manufacturers, help with production requirements and machinery. We hope to help in generating income for the Chamar community and bring long-term growth. As a progression to providing training and means to live, we will always want to provide health insurance to our artisans. The Foundation will also host artists and artisans in residency” signs off Sudheer as the bastion of the aspirational blue-collar workers of India.