Sudheer Rajbhar’s Chamar Studio shattering caste Biases
Sudheer Rajbhar’s initiative with Chamar Studio is an attempt to shatter caste biases across the country. But to understand this startup, one needs to dig up the dirt of casteism in India.
Untouchability has always been a matter of debate. It is a menace attached to our traditional culture and society. It’s a social evil that despite huge efforts from Ambedkar or Gandhi had still managed to find its room in society. But what actually untouchability is? Untouchability, in its literal sense, is the practice of ostracizing a minority group by segregating them from the mainstream by social custom or legal mandate. In easy words, it is nothing but just the social isolation of one caste from another.
The upper class finds it impure to be touched by the lower caste-like Dalits or Chamars, that even if their shadow touches them- they tend to take bath in the holy water of Ganga to get “pure”. A ground-breaking study on caste discrimination in the Indian state of Gujarat shows that the practice of ‘untouchability is still prevalent. The report also makes it clear that the Indian legal system is failing to address the issue.
According to the traditional Hindu ‘Varna System’ (caste system), a person is born into one of the four castes based on karma. Those born as Brahmans are priests and teachers, Kshatriyas are rulers and soldiers, Vaisyas are merchants and traders and Sudras are laborers. There was no mention of any caste such as lower. Wherein actuality, the caste that resides under ‘untouchables’ doesn’t even have any place in the caste system itself. To be accurate, they are outcasts. They form an entirely different class, the fifth row in the caste hierarchy. Thus they are not even recognized by the system. The caste system in India is the paradigmatic ethnographic example of caste.
‘Kaunsi jati ke ho? Kya biradri hai tumhari?’ These questions often discard one from society completely. These questions are asked again and again at every walk of life. And weirder is the fact that these questions actually make people hesitate to answer. Why? It’s simple because they have been bought up in a way that they always feel ashamed of the caste they were born in. The same goes with the people of Santa Cruz East slum of Mumbai, a society from where Sudheer Rajbhar hails from. However, in his attempt to stop this caste-based mortification, he came up with his brilliant initiative called the ‘Chamar Studio’. This is his story.
Casteist slur now an instrument of change
A brainchild of 32-year-old artist Sudheer Rajbhar, Chamar Studio in Mumbai crafts designer bags, belts, and other products to further 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. But the journey of the Chamar Studio wasn’t easy, and just like any other business faced trouble kicking off.
The 2015 beef ban hit the Dalit community the hardest. As the community was dependent upon leather artistry and traditionally worked on cow Nappa leather, the beef ban left them jobless with several units being completely shut off. It was now that Sudheer Rajbhar stepped in and offered a productive alternate source of income. At Chamar studios, the raw material is replaced with recycled rubber mostly coming from tires. Initially, many artisans were hesitant on joining, but when Sudheer told them about the scope of the industry and how they can even fight the caste biases- people gradually started accepting it.
The Chamar studio sells a variety of crafted and minimalist bags, wallets, belts, and several other leather products. They create designer products that are affordable for the general public, whereas expensive ones are also created starting from as high as Rs 39,000, the lowest start from Rs 1,500. Around 50% of the studio’s earnings go back to the artists and Rajbhar’s foundation, The Chamar Foundation.
Sudheer Rajbhar himself belongs to the Bhar caste, which under Indian law is considered among other backward Class. He grew up in Kandivali East, and always used to hear the words ‘Chamar’ or ‘Bhar’ being used as derogatorily or as abusive words. It’s a scenario where your caste becomes a cuss word. The same applies to the rest of the country where particular castes experience such atrocities, a world where accepting your own surname becomes derogatory.
In order to change people’s understanding and mindset, Rajbhar came up with the idea of incorporating the Chamar surname as the fashion label. Though trained in drawing and painting at the Vasai Vikasini College of Visual Arts, Rajbhar has no formal education in the world of fashion. Yet he somehow managed to sail in the artistry world. Bombay Black was Rajbhar’s first collection. Other designs include a Lady Batwa and the bestselling Jhola. There are also products known as Bora or Basta while maintaining the minimum aesthetic.
Chamar Studio at Global Stage
He now works with 7 artisans, who help him operate the spaces in Dharavi and Santa Cruz East. These artisans are usually cobblers. Their products were stocked in Mumbai’s multi-designer boutique called Le Mill and an online jewelry store known as Shop Lune. 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 the Chamar studio. As per the funding, the brand is sustained solely by Rajbhar’s own savings; he received no help from the government or from CSR projects.
“During my days of studying Fine Arts, which is considered quite elite, I moved up and down galleries and people would judge me on my spoken English and the way I was dressed. They don’t just see the art, they also see you. Herein lies the problem of class, even in a city as big as Bombay,” said Sudheer Rajbhar in an interview with The Better India.
We hope with the Chamar Studio, the youth could fight the caste biases haunting Indian society.