On a battered wall in a small tenement that can be reached by holding onto a rope, as you climb an iron staircase and emerge through a sort of hole on to the landing, there is a hand drawing of Dr. BR Ambedkar. Elsewhere, there is a cut-out of a man and woman dancing. And then there are innumerable scratches and cracks typical to such walls that jostle for space in Dharavi, Mumbai. Old Bollywood songs cut through the din and chaos of the neighbourhood, and men are busy cutting and shaping rubber to make designer bags tagged with the name of their community 'chamar' in big bold letters.
Elsewhere in the country, among the new forces, the Ambedkarite and Bahujan movements have emerged as counters to the political right. For the 32-year-old Sudheer Rajbhar, the allying of the grassroots movements is the new way out by mobilising the cobblers in Mumbai under his trademarked Chamar Studio label that he founded two years ago with a line of rubber bags that have signature cross-stitching associated with the community's repair work called Bombay Black. And now there is a new sense of pride with a collaborative project curated by Mumbai-based art consultant Farah Siddiqui and supported by the retail fashion chain Ensemble where Chamar Foundation will work with 75 designers internationally and nationally to make limited edition bags creating a grassroots challenge to elitist fashion by the simple act of subversion and paradox of caste identities. At first, there were reservations about using the term 'chamar', which is banned by the courts in India as a discriminating and derogatory term. But Rajbhar says the point is to ultimately have this collection as an ode to the artistry of the cobbler community and maybe over time, the word would be associated with their craft and design rather than their caste. That's the hope, he says.
Earlier this year, they launched Project Blue Collar taking inspiration from Ambedkar's movement, where he anointed blue as the colour of social justice and self-determination in his fight for Dalit liberation against the oppressive caste system. Blue collar work against the white collar jobs, Rajbhar says. 'Blue Collar' was launched on May 1, International Workers' Day. Rajbhar is one of the few who are grappling with their immediate political-socio-economic environments, and the intent is not to offend but to bring about a long-term change in attitudes with articulate counterpoints.
In that small room in Dharavi, there is a prayer by Saint Dhyaneshwar stuck on the wall in the 10x10ft space with leaking roofs that loosely translates to "May the darkness of ignorant disappear | May the universe see the Sun of self consciousness || May whatsoever aspirations of those be fulfilled | Of all living beings.
"It is about lifting part of the society and reinventing the wheel. Sustainability and upcycling are old things in India. Chamar as a project is a very fascinating project. What we want to do is get some design intervention. We are encouraging the designers to use waste material in the studios for the project," says Farah Siddiqui.
Rajbhar belongs to the Bhar community and hails from a village near Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh but grew up in Kandivali. The region he comes from is fractured with caste identities and stories of oppression, and that sparked his curiosity as a young boy. "Somehow they always put Bhar and Chamar together," he says.
The project's larger aim is to reclaim an identity for the Dalit community Chamar, which derives from the Sanskrit word charmakara (skin-workers). Caste Hindus would not touch leather for reasons related to ritual purity, and for centuries the leather tanners have been considered outcastes in the caste hierarchy.
Rajbhar studied at the Vasai Vikasini College of Visual Art. After graduating in 2010, he started practising art and in
2017, he curated a show titled We Are Here Because You Are There in which he focused on the role played by unskilled labourers and assistants to artists and designers. That was the time he made a cotton bag with 'chamar' in different languages written all over it to provoke and gauge public reaction. "I trademarked the word 'chamar' to give it dignity," he says. Rajbhar uses rubber instead of leather for the sake of sustainability, and the Bombay Black collection featured a lady batwa, basta (backpack) and bora (large tote).
At first, his family was apprehensive. They feared he could get killed for his audacity but he held on to his project. In a 2015 judgment, the Supreme Court observed in their opinion the "so-called upper castes and OBCs should not use the word Chamar when addressing a member of the SC, even if that person in fact belongs to the 'chamar' caste, because use of such a word will hurt his feelings." It further said the use of the word 'chamar' will certainly attract Section 3(1)(x) of the Act, if from the context it appears that it was used in a derogatory sense to insult or humiliate a member of the SC/ST. "But our intent is to give it dignity and make it a brand," Rajbhar says.
According to him, 'chamar' in Sanskrit etymology means the act of removal of skin specifically hide. Ostracised as untouchables by the Indian caste system, 'chamar' is a discriminatory slur. "The Chamar Foundation reappropriates 'chamar' as an act of pride in resistance forming a network of communities of artisans across Mumbai," he says.
With regards to the upcoming design project, he says that the idea is about a possible collaboration to create something, which can instil pride in artisans who have been hitherto known as repair workers on road-side pavements. "Fashion for the elite is a major concern for me using fashion as mediums to create a voice for oppressed class," Rajbhar says.
There are about 10 artisans who are associated with the Chamar Project. The idea is to have the studio in any corner in their homes and perhaps later, a studio can replace the roadside cobbler who will now have dignity as an artisan and a creator.
From an old steel almirah, Sunil Netke, one of the artisans in the project, takes out the leather bags he has made for other clients. And when he shows the one he is working on for the project, he smiles and says this is "our thing... We are here to change everything."