The last original Kolhapuris

Behind a large bungalow in the Jawahar Nagar area in Kolhapur town in eastern Maharashtra lies a small plot of land, measuring 85x160 yards. A small hut adjoins it and it is one of many equally-sized plots along the road that runs through this neighbourhood. Like the other plots, this piece of land is covered with overgrown grass that hides a collection of grey stone structures. It has the feel of a cemetery now but used to be a bag tanning unit, employing a unique method of tanning and preparing leather out of buffalo or bullock hide.

Till about 20 years ago, people say, the entire road used to bustle with the sound of numerous tanning units operating all at once. Most supplied the raw material that goes into making the handcrafted Kolhapuri chappals that this town is famous for.

Bag tanning is a process that can take as long as 30 to 35 days, says Arun Vathkar who ran this unit. In two stone tanks in the erstwhile tannery, hides were kept in a mixture of salt and limestone to soften the skin and remove hair. The skin would then be stitched into a bag using leaves from a locally found cactus called sisal. Between two stone beams, these bags would be suspended and filled with hot water infused with myrobalan seeds (hirda) and pieces of babul wood.

After soaking for about eight days, the skin would be turned inside out and the process repeated before it was washed again and dried in the sun, once again on a bed of hirda and babul. The infusion of these herbs is what gave the leather in Kolhapuri chappals its particular look and feel.

Crackdown and ban

“The tanning units used to be in the centre of town but during the reign of Shahu Maharaj (Maharaja of Kolhapur till 1922) and his successor Maharaja Rajaram, they were moved to this area and allotted equal sized plots,” says Vathkar’s nephew Shashikant, who owns another tanning unit that is no longer in use. About 50 tanning units used to operate here but from the late 90s onwards, many were shut following a crackdown on effluents that caused water pollution. And over the past two years, the few remaining units were forced to down shutters due to a lack of raw material. Suppliers had stopped sending them hide following the ban on slaughter of cow, bulls, and oxen that came into effect in Maharashtra in 2015.

When business was good, Vathkar says his tanning units employed about 30 people and produced over a hundred pieces of leather a week. Raw material, buffalo or bullock hide, would come from Bhiwandi, Thane, Dharavi, and as far as Gujarat and Palampur (in Himachal Pradesh). Hide would also be brought in by the Mahar-Maang community that collected carcasses from the surrounding villages. The Mahar-Maangs are one of three Scheduled Caste communities traditionally involved in the process of making Kolhapuri chappals. The Dhors, to which Vathkar belongs, run the tanneries, and the Chambhars make the chappals by hand.

Since the ban on cattle slaughter, much has changed. “Farmers are unable to sell or even transport aged cattle for fear of being stopped by cow vigilantes. Most just abandon these animals by the roadside now,” Vathkar says. The Mahar-Maangs no longer bring hide for fear of being stopped and accused of killing the animals. “To some extent, there was the sale of buffaloes and buffalo hide but that too has stopped over the past few months.”

Since the closing of his tanneries, Vathkar operates as a wholesaler of Kohlapuri chappals and leather material that he procures from other States such as Karnataka and most predominantly now, Tamil Nadu. “There are many tanneries that now operate in places like Ambur and Ranipet (in T.N.) from where we procure leather but they use chemicals to treat the hide,” he says. In his shop, it is easy to tell them apart: the distinctive light brown colour and irregular texture of the last few organically-treated leather as against the pinkish colour and rubbery smooth texture of the chemically-treated ones. It’s far from ideal but Vathkar says a majority of the chappals in Kolhapur are now made with the latter.

About five minutes away from Jawahar Nagar, in an area called Subash Nagar, Arun Satpute runs one of the bigger workshops where Kolhapuri chappals are hand made. The unit is run out of a house, with workers sitting outside as well as in two rooms inside, with another room used to store bags of leather. There is a 12 or 13-step process involved in making the chappals, from sticking together the layers that make up the sole, creating the collar or upper belt and inlaying the braiding to giving the distinctive design touches and finally stitching the parts together. There are 12 workers in the unit but the work is not consistent, they say. “These days, there is work for just two weeks every month, so we have to look out for other jobs as well.”

Slow death

Satpute, who is also founder of the Kolhapur Chappal Audyogik Samuh (Kolhapur Footwear Industry Group), pulls out two notebooks that he has maintained as visitor logs. In them are a series of entries from students of design institutes like the National Institute of Fashion Technology, International Institute of Fashion Design, even Kolhapur’s Shivaji University, as well as visitors from Denmark, Italy, Portugal and the U.K. who came to study the process that goes into making the Kolhapuri chappal. Many write that they are documenting the process to publish in international magazines and journals.

As proud as Satpute is of these entries, he admits the Kolhapuri chappal industry has been dying a slow death. “This industry used to provide employment to more than a lakh people in this town but now barely employs about 10,000. The majority of them work part time as agricultural labourers,” he says. His family was in the business for generations but his son and daughter have no interest in pursuing the trade, and several other families share the sentiment.

“The decline began with the closing of the tanneries. These were small scale operations that used to be totally dependant on locally-sourced material,” he explains. Working with leather from outside now keeps the business going but he says it will slowly lead to a dilution of identity. “With the reduced availability of hide, there is already an increase in the price of leather from other States that is jacking up prices here. On the other hand, neighbouring districts such as Nipani and Belgaum in Karnataka that have picked up the technique of bag tanning and are able to procure raw material cheaply have started making the chappals at a cheaper rate locally.” The reality, he says, is that in a few years, over 80% of what is recognised as the real Kolhapuri chappal may no longer even be produced in Kolhapur.

Near the Shivaji statue in the centre of Kolhapur, an entire lane called ‘chappal gali’ forms the commercial heart of the Kohlapuri chappal business, selling to tourists and exporting to other centres. Vinay Kadam, proprietor of one of the most prominent retail and export centres here, offers a pragmatic view of the raw material situation. “As long as there is leather still coming in from other States, there will be business for the producers,” he says.

The big change over the past two years, he concedes, has been the rising price of leather. And that has led to an increase in the rate of even the most basic chappal models. “Chappals that used to cost ₹300 are now sold for ₹500, those that sold for ₹600 now go for ₹900.” There is uncertainty in the leather market, he says, especially after the sale of buffalo for slaughter was also banned, but the rise in prices is along expected lines.

Ask Kadam more closely about the quality though, and what is referred to as “asal Kolhapuri”, and his face falls. From a corner of his shop, he pulls out a bench with attached drawers and takes out two pairs of chappals from within. They seem more distinctive in terms of colour than the hundreds of pairs hanging on the walls.

The natural touch

“If you feel the soles of these chappals, you’ll notice they’re cool to the touch,” he says. “It’s sunny outside and there’s only one fan inside the shop but this leather will always be cool. That can only happen with bag tanning.” He is referring to the traditional process whereby hide fresh from the carcass is placed immediately in salt for treatment before being sewn into bags—no storage in warehouses or chemical treatments here; nothing that can take away from the leather’s natural feel.

There is much to lament of course, and Kadam freely admits that such chappals may not find their way to his shop after a few years. For now though, like many other traders in this area, he is confused about the various mixed signals the government seems to be sending out. “Under the new GST norm, there is now a 28% tax on leather goods even though chappals like these are handicrafts and meant to be exempted from tax,” he says.

And while the leather industry was supposed to form a key part of the ‘Make in India’ programme, the new rules on cattle sale for slaughter are damaging for the industry as is the inconsistency between the laws in each State. For an industry already in decline, that uncertainty is surely the death knell.

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