Artist Sudheer Rajbhar’s slow fashion, luxury brand Chamar Studio has given dignity to artisans who were looked down upon by the society. Chamar Studio was born as a solution to a problem plaguing its namesake community, Chamars. In 2015, after a government ban on beef, many leather artisans, mainly from Dalit and Muslim communities, lost their jobs.
To help these people, art graduate Sudheer Rajbhar, developed an alternative material with recycled rubber from industry leftovers. He then founded Chamar Studio in 2017, employing former leather craftsmen. At Chamar, they create upcycled, handcrafted totes, slings, wallets and durable door mats and chairs.
The birth of an idea
Rajbhar started his career working with established artists, assisting them to learn the ropes of the art industry. However, this left him disillusioned, as the artisans, who generally did bulk of the work, weren’t given any recognition or fair renumeration. It prompted Rajbhar to curate an exhibition that showcased the works of these artist assistants. The show titled called ‘We are here because you are there’, raised awareness about these artisans’ contributions in the art world. While working on the show, Rajbhar connected with leather craftsmen aka Chamars, in Dharavi, and learnt about their problems.
What’s in a name?
Providing employment to chamars has always been a priority for Rajbhar. Hence Chamar focuses on an artisan-first approach, which led to the name of his enterprise – Chamar Studio. “People often ask me yeh kaisa naam hai?” (What kind of a name is this?) Internationally, the name’s meaning has created a bit of confusion “In the West, when you say untouchable, they think it means powerful people and here we think of the lower castes.” In other countries, people also perceive it as a mix of the words “Chanel” and “Shalimar”, far from a slur, instead related to luxury. Rajbhar’s mission is to get everyone to understand the meaning behind the name and its potential.
All about artisans
All artisans working with Rajbhar are currently Mumbai-based, but he plans to rope in more craftsmen from places like Kolkata and Kanpur. The studio has been following a nomadic style of working from the very beginning. Artisans work from home as the products are 100% handmade and can be stitched together from anywhere.
When he first started speaking to artisans about working with his special upcycled material, Rajbhar noticed a systemic problem: they were trained only to mass produce. The consistent response he received was, “Agar zyaada banayege, toh zyaada margin milega (Only if we create more we will earn more).” This was a mindset the entrepreneur sought to change, stressing the importance of making quality products in a safe environment. A decided supporter of slow fashion, Rajbhar believes in small collections with a limited number of pieces that are built to last.
For, of, and about sustainability
For Rajbhar, sustainability is not just a buzzword. He strongly believes that the ideabehind the brand, as well as the material must be sustainable. According to him, chamars have always upcycled by using the skin of dead animals to create leather. But as the work is primarily done by Dalits, it is considered ‘lower’ work, and not given its due. He has full faith in the potential of the brand, and its ability to eventually become a leader in the space of slow fashion and sustainable luxury. The concept of sustainability and upcycling was embedded in Rajbhar from a young age, “I remember when I was a kid, my mother took small patches (of material) and stitched a mat for us to sleep on. I still have that mat.”
Collections inspired by the city of dreams
Not only taking inspiration from his childhood, Rajbhar is also intrigued by the city surrounding him. His past collections have been infused with the sights of Mumbai and the spirit of its people. The first Chamar Studio collection, Bombay Black, is, as the name suggests, an all-black series of bags. Referencing the aerial view of the city, Rajbhar used the shades of pitch-black auto rickshaws, houses covered in black plastic for Bombay Black. The second collection was inspired by workers at the railway station, clad in blue uniforms. They served as the base idea for his Blue Collar collection.
In another thoughtful collection, Rajbhar’s Chamar Foundation, an initiative to promote the works of the artisans, collaborated with 66 leading Indian designers like Rahul Mishra and Sabyasachi to create eclectic tote bag designs. The designers had to use discarded materials and scraps to make this ‘Reclaimed Tote.’ The proceeds from this went to the artisans of the community.
While discussing what’s next Rajbhar mentions his new, yet-to-be-named collection which consists of a pair of shoes, small basket chair and durable yoga mats and bags. The multi-faceted designer has also received the 2021 biennal IARTS Textiles of India grant from the Royal Ontario Museum of Toronto for his Chamar Foundation. He plans to use this grant to start archiving the history of Indian leather industry.
Five years into the future
Retracing the past has made Rajbhar hopeful about the future. The artist explains one of his main challenges is changing the mindset of luxury consumers; the willingness to spend Rs20 lakhs on a European designer bag, but reluctance to buy an Indian product. However, Rajbhar has noticed change over the last year as made in India creations are now trending amongst conscious consumers. Chamar Studio also has an international clientele. Pre-lockdown, 20% to 30% were accounted from Europe and even Japan.
“Luxury is not just about money, it’s also about value and history,” says Rajbhar. His five-year plan is to see Chamar Studio amongst international luxury store brands, “I think Chamar can one day stand tall amongst brands like Balenciaga, Stella McCartney, Hermès.” Reiterating Chamar Studio’s motto Rajbhar signs off with Ambedkar’s poignant words, “Shikshit bano (educate yourself), sangathit bano (unite), and sangharsh karo (work hard).”