‘C’ for dignity

Sudheer Rajbhar wants to fight caste bias with his fashion and accessory brand

Barnali Pal Sinha

A gutsy artist-activist is the brain behind sustainable accessories brand Chamar Studio. You would say the name sends out a derogatory signal, but that is exactly what 33-year-old Sudheer Rajbhar is out to change.

The Mumbai-based designer saw the plight of people from the lower strata of society. The word ‘chamar’ (community working with leather) was hurled at them as a slur. He wanted to re-appropriate the word as an act of pride in resistance, forming a network of artisan communities across Mumbai. In 2014, he was collaborating with sculptors in Rajasthan. “I saw how artisans were exploited. They had to work long hours for shoddy pay,” said Rajbhar. They weren’t given recognition for their work either. Due to the 2015 beef ban in Maharashtra, Dalits from Dharavi lost their livelihood. Rajbhar wanted to provide a helping hand to these people too. And in 2016, Chamar Studio came into being.

Place of pride

Rajbhar’s creations now find a place in Le Mill, a luxury fashion store in Mumbai, where it shares space with brands like Chloe, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent and others. It has catapulted Rajbhar’s brand to fame. His products are also available at the Paper Boat Collective in Goa.

The spunky designer hasn’t had it easy in life. An OBC, he grew up in the slums of Kandivali. He went on to get a degree from the Vasai Vikasani College of Visual Arts. He worked as an assistant with several well-known artistes before debuting at the 2018 Kala Ghoda Arts Festival with his collection, Bombay Black.

Collaborators

Rajbhar works closely with cobblers and you might see them working on bags at his studio, which runs from his home in Kandivali. Sharing more on the collaboration, Rajbhar says he once visited a cobbler to get a satchel made and left the place amazed with the guy’s craftsmanship. He soon got five cobblers on board.

The designer works with materials such as recycled rubber, cotton and thick canvas. He says rubber is inexpensive and flexible and a great substitute for leather. “Recycled rubber has its positives — it is cheap, waterproof and fire resistant,” he says. They gather old rubber tubes, which are then flattened. “Two layers of the tubes are flattened and these sheets are then pressed by machines,” Rajbhar says, adding that working with different mediums helps artisans become experts and update their skills.

He designs and cuts the leather, while the cobblers take care of the stitching. His small studio has an area dedicated to contemporary designs and art-related books. Rajbhar intends to teach the cobblers designing and cutting too!

The designer has given the bags traditional names like Jhola, Batua, Phatta Khisa, Karyalaya, Basta, Baniya, Bora, etc. They are known for their minimalist aesthetics, but are functional, eco-friendly and waterproof. His designs are simple but once they are properly trained, he would like to incorporate complex designs.

The products are in the range of Rs 600 to Rs 6,000 and half of the profit earned goes to the artisans.

There’s more

Coming up from the brand are “bags, wallets and shoes from leather waste”, says the designer. He will participate at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa in December along with renowned artist Sudarshan Shetty to showcase artworks. 

Rajbhar has also floated the Chamar Foundation for Art, which will host artists and artisans for residency programs like art, fashion and design. The foundation is collaborating with 75 designers to showcase in Ensemble Mumbai and Delhi and in Chamar Foundation, Bengaluru. The collection will be curated by Farah Siddiqui. The Foundation will be officially inaugurated in September.

At Lakme next

Chamar Studio will showcase at the Lakme India Fashion Week in Mumbai on August 25. Rajbhar is collaborating with a Mumbai-based lifestyle and accessories brand ‘I Was A Sari’. He will showcase bags lined with upcycled saris sourced from the brand. The designer will also showcase accessories like wallets and cardholders made from industrial waste, which has been converted into sustainable leather by people from Dharavi.

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