A cramped workspace in a Santa Cruz East slum is bustling with activity. Three men are busy cutting patterns out of recycled rubber. A few kilometres away, in an equally small space in Dharavi, four others are using the same material to stitch bags. Most of the men are cobblers, leather workers and street sweepers, belonging to the Dalit community. The bags they are carefully crafting will go on to sell at trendy stores, such as Goa’s The Paper Boat Collective, Kochi’s Pepper House, and Indian Goods Co. in Frankfurt, Germany, under the label Chamar Studio.

Chamar Studio is the brainchild of 32-year-old artist Sudheer Rajbhar. A little over two years since its launch, the brand offers utilitarian, eco-friendly wallets as well as belts. But its most popular products are its bags, which come in a variety of styles, including cross body, satchel, and backpacks with the trademark Indian cobbler’s criss-cross stitches and silver steel buttons.

The idea behind the brand, Rajbhar says, wasn’t to create another sustainable fashion label.

Rajbhar belongs to the Bhar caste, which is categorised by the Indian government under the Other Backward Class. Though he grew up in the slums of Kandivali East, whenever he would visit Khetasarai, his native village in Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district, he would hear the words bhar and chamar being used interchangeably – thrown around derogatorily or as abuse. “This was the situation 20 years ago and nothing has changed,” said Rajbhar. “Growing up in Mumbai, I never faced a slur like that – here they are more bothered about you being an outsider.” Even as a child, he would wonder: why had a part of his surname become a cuss word?

He also questioned centuries of caste prejudice in India. Why was working with leather, the traditional occupation of the chamar community, considered demeaning, when it actually meant creating something? In a small attempt at changing people’s understanding, he decided to incorporate the community’s name in a fashion label.

Though trained in drawing and painting at the Vasai Vikasini College of Visual Arts, Rajbhar has no formal education in fashion design. He first worked as an artist’s assistant, and his “experiences...in the elitist art field” became the catalyst for his label. “In the art world, they prefer good [spoken] English and a certain kind of presence,” he said. “I struggled and couldn’t learn much from the artists because they look at you through that lens.”

The idea behind the label was not just to speak up against the caste divide – Rajbhar also wanted to help artisans from Dalit communities showcase their creativity. He thought, “if I make this into a brand, it will be a way for artisans” to earn a living. The leather artisans, who are part of Rajbhar’s workforce, traditionally worked on cow nappa leather, but found themselves unemployed after the 2015 ban on slaughter of bulls and bullocks. At his company, Rajbhar said, “there is complete transparency and we share 50% of the profits equally”.

Rajbhar with students at a workshop in a government leather institute.

Bombay Black was Rajbhar’s first collection. Some of the styles included the Lady Batwa, a classic black handbag, and the bestselling Jhola, 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. The bags were priced between Rs 600 and Rs 6,000.

Though the bags appear to be made of soft leather, they are created from recycled rubber tyres. In his research, Rajbhar found that tyres “are natural rubber and don’t lose their original components even after being recycled”. He sources material from a factory in Vapi, Gujarat, which recycles tyres. The leather-like sheen on the bags comes from the application of tyre shine, which also makes the product durable.

Rajbhar conceptualises the designs and runs material experiments at his home-cum-studio in Kandivali East. He works with seven artisans, who operate out of the spaces in Dharavi and Santa Cruz East.

One of them is 30-year-old Sachin Bhimsakhare, who runs a makeshift cobbler shop on a footpath in Santa Cruz East. In 2017, he started working with Rajbhar in his free time, and learnt how to cut patterns and add stitch details on the bags. Today, Bhimsakhare works as a sweeping supervisor for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in the mornings and devotes his afternoons to Rajbhar’s label. “Initially, I found the material difficult to work with,” said Bhimsakhare, who carries the Jhola bag daily. “Lekin practice karte karte ho jata hain (I learnt with practice). I used to wonder who will even buy this bag. But when we took them to an exhibition and everyone appreciated it, I felt like an artist, it felt good.”

Collaborating with Rajbhar, says Bhimsakhare, has given a new dimension to his profession. “There are so many educated cobblers who are unemployed,” he said. “This kind of an opportunity might give them something unique to work on.”

Sachin Bhimsakhare (left) with Rajbhar.

Mumbai’s multi-designer boutique Le Mill and online jewellery site Shop Lune were the first to stock the Bombay Black collection. At the Fashion Design Council of India X Elle Present The First Cut Designers: Spring Summer 2019 fashion show in October 2018, designer brand Ode To Odd showcased a capsule collection called Language Of Flowers, which featured belts made by Rajbhar’s studio.

Bhagyashree Patwardhan, founder of Paper Boat Collective, says the intention behind Rajbhar’s label was what piqued her interest. The brand though, she believes, still has some work to do. “Recycled rubber can be quite heavy,” said Patwardhan. “The design detailing and the finish might also need more work.”

For his recent collection, Rajbhar collaborated with the shoe shiners and cobblers who sit on railway platforms between Virar and Churchgate stations. The theme colour of the collection is blue, in line with the cobblers’ uniforms. Plans are afoot to make shoes as well.

The designer has shortlisted a house in Bengaluru, where he plans to start Chamar Foundation, a space for artisans and the arts. “In my dream business model, I would like around 500-700 artisans to work with me,” said the self-funded entrepreneur, “and in the final output, the credit of the artisan should be embossed on the product.”

All photos courtesy Sudheer Rajbhar.