“At the end of the journey, beyond caste, gender and conflict, we are all humans….”

Text by Shirin Mehta. Photographs by Mallika Chandra and Asad Sheikh.

One of the finalists of the fourth edition of the Circular Design Challenge (CDC) at FDCI x Lakmé Fashion Week, Chamar by Sudheer Rajbhar, stood out for its innovative gender-neutral handbags, backpacks and belts – all fashioned out of recycled rubber gathered from discarded tires. Handcrafted by Dharavi-based leatherworkers and cobblers – who belong to the Dalit community and were hit hard by the Maharashtra state rend controversial 2015 beef ban – the products showcase their often-unacknowledged crafts heritage.

At the heart of Chamar is the quest to provide a source of livelihood to an oppressed, under-represented artisan community and bring them into the mainstream. The collaboration brings forth a set of unique and cruelty-free utilitarian offerings that cuts across seasons, social and religious conditioning, and genders, urging consumers to make conscious choices in the name of fashion and art.

Excerpts from a conversation with Rajbhar, the artist-activist who founded Chamar….

Do you feel that initiatives like the CDC help the industry to move towards sustainability and conscious living? How do they help in creating awareness among participants as well as consumers?
Personally, I appreciate the initiative, keeping in mind that sustainability is not just material invention or assemblage but also a global system rooted in sustaining the people who craft. The other important aspects are material innovation and, notably, its durability; the end use and the life cycle of the product; fighting against overconsumption; making one collection a year maximum; and the creation of useful products that are not trend-based but intemporal classics that can last decades.

The caste system permeates Indians’ social consciousness and remains entrenched in several spheres…. What was the reaction of the leatherworkers towards the brand name and identity, given the widespread usage of Chamar, a linguistic bastardisation alluding to the Chamar Dalit community, as a pejorative term?
The caste system is an inhuman system of exploitation that allows power to be held with a select group of people while the toiling masses are forced into their servitude. The Chamars or leatherworkers are relegated to the lowest echelons of society and forced to work as scavengers who dispose of dead animals without being paid their dues. I work with anti-caste movements, and Chamar began when the beef ban in Maharashtra further exacerbated the marginalization of Dharavi-based leatherworkers by robbing them of the raw materials they desperately needed to sustain their livelihoods. Chamar is a derogatory term that is commonly used across India. In recent years, the community has worked to clear up misconceptions and instil a sense of respect around the term. The artisans are naturally keen for self-respect; they are not ashamed of their vocation and saw my efforts as an act of self-affirmation and respect.

How is the brand working to bring about changes in the collective outlook and mindset towards caste and class within Indian society?
In India, caste and class continue to be an issue. For instance, it’s extremely prevalent in Delhi, where I am currently based. Although a part of the customer base may find it uncomfortable to associate with the brand name Chamar, given our social conditioning, social connotations and associations with the term within the country are not carried forward to the international luxury fashion sphere. For a foreigner, Chamar just sounds like Chanel or Shalimar; in Portuguese, it means “to call”, in French, it’s a word used to describe an object as colorful. This showcases how words take on different meanings within individual cultures. Trauma in our culture is triggered by human behavior and history. Using Chamar as the brand name was a way to take this word out of the circle of shame, to pride. Our products and aesthetic are neat, artistic, well-finished and of great value, thanks to the skills of the artisans. We are proud to see Indians carrying this logo. They are stating their open-mindedness through this act.

Why is it not more widely known that Dalits have traditionally been involved in skilled handicrafts?
Indian leatherworkers are not as widely respected as the other leather craftsmen in the world. Driven by a certain dichotomy, Indians reject their local artisans because they work with cow leather, even as they fly to far-flung fashion centers known for luxury leather goods – like Florence – to buy a high-end calfskin luxury bag upwards of 6,000 euros . In Paris, artists are praised and given pride of place in dedicated exhibitions at museums like the Émile-Maurice Hermès Museum, the Louis Vuitton Foundation, and others. These artists abroad have a solid livelihood, social protection and medical insurance. In contrast, in India, such crafts are maintained in Dharavi slums.

Your concerns before undertaking this journey….
When I launched Chamar Studio in 2018, I knew that I was taking a huge risk. Jyotirao Phule, BR Ambedkar and numerous artists lived entire lives seeking a new dawn in the future, and I see them as my inspirations. We can only hope for a better future and work towards it, and this is what has given me the courage to go ahead with my passion project.

Why do you think there is still a market for brands that aren’t sustainable?
There is an alignment in efforts needed to reduce global warming, and this needs to come from brands as well as the consumer. But I feel that mass-produced brands that make fashion goods in sweatshops in China, Bangladesh and India – those that revel in low costs and large quantities, and dump their products across world markets, exploiting resources, creating non-biodegradable waste and underpaying workers – are not going to be able to sustain themselves in the long run. After the pandemic, sustainability, along with recyclable materials and environmentally friendly products, is going to pave the way to equal pay and better working environments for the millions of workers who make our brands, products and artworks.

Is gender fluidity part of the Chamar philosophy?
For us, a word is a word, an object is an object, a garment is a garment; it’s the user that adds a flavor or a meaning to things. We make products that are on the border between feminine and masculine energies, and offer an in-between vibe. That’s why we love utilitarian design and objects; an object should be open in its use for everyone. Again, in the same way that people attach a meaning to words like Chamar, human beings assign a gender to objects and categorize people into castes. This is something we question. So, we do adhere to gender fluidity. At the end of the journey, beyond caste, gender and conflict, we are all humans, supposedly brothers – that has been Chamar’s message in India since the beginning.

Tell us about your sustainable leather alternative. How did you come across the technology for recycling used tires and rubber into a material that feels like leather?
Dharavi is a place where a lot of waste materials are recycled. Tire waste is a big issue because if it is not disposed of correctly, it accumulates in places such as slums. Tire mountains attract disease-spreading rodents and, in the long run, emit toxic gases and fumes. Most tires are recycled into granulates used for synthetic playgrounds. Because of exposure to sunlight and heat, and percolation of rainwater, the ground becomes toxic, and this is where our toddlers are sent out to play. Before Chamar, I was looking at found objects in slums and communities for an installation that I was making for a gallery. That’s where the idea for Chamar came from. Of course, the material itself needed improvement and refinement for it to be more durable.

What are the steps taken by Chamar Studio to make sustainability an ingrained value instead of just an added value?
Chamar procures salvaged materials and reuses them, and leatherwork itself is a sustainable practice as it reuses the skin of dead animals that are used for food (we are against animal exploitation and abuse). Our origins are rooted in sustainable and reuse practices.

A decolonised perspective on sustainability has been ever-present. I come from the working class, and we have been recycling in India for generations. The West is only recently hopping on to the trend. When you see the designs for the Chamar Studio bags, you see the inspiration from the Indian vegetable bags and the stitches come from the bazaars that are made by people who produce the aesthetics of their design. The fashion industry in India needs to wake up to the muses that stand before them rather than those across the Mediterranean.

Can you tell us a little about your restoration of Chamar Haveli, a century-old art haveli in Jaipur?
We wanted to create a space for dialogue between artists, artists and designers – specially, a residency program – in a historically rich part of India, under the aegis of Chamar Foundation. We wanted the foundation to own one of these incredible parts of history, art and crafts of India. Several havelis and heritage buildings in the country are not protected; most of them, if not tended to soon, will fall into ruin. We are doing our small bit by saving one. For us, it makes more sense to reuse an old “discarded” house rather than to construct a new building that would have no history, no memory, no art and no soul….

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