Fekan Ravidas, a frail man in his early 50s, spends eight to nine hours daily to design, assemble, paste and stitch the traditional way, a pair of handmade leather shoes, locally known as Chamarkhani juta. Seated on an old jute sack spread on a raised mud platform that serves as his workshop, he said, “We don’t use machines for this brand of leather shoes.”
In his workshop at Chamarkhani tola, a hamlet of people belonging to Chamar Dalit caste, near Sati Sthan, a Hindu cremation center on the banks of Ganga River, he is one of the few shoemakers carrying on the craft of handmade shoes.
Despite decline in demand for their handmade shoes, men like Joginder Das and Vishnudeo Das, who are in their 70s, continue to make them to cater to their small clientele.
A group of a dozen Dalit shoemakers are trying to keep alive the tradition of Chamarkhani juta that is nearly 200 years old. It thrived as a small-scale industry once.
Fekan Ravidas, who has been making these leather shoes for nearly three decades, said that unlike today, when there are only half a dozen shops selling Chamarkhani juta and hardly a dozen shoemakers left, mostly in their 50s and 60s, till a few decades ago there were more than 30 shops selling shoes and over 100 shoemakers making them.
“There was a time when traders from far off places like Lakhisarai, Barauni, Nalanda, Nawada and Masaurih in Patna used to visit our village for purchasing Chamarkhani Juta but it has become thing of the past,” 65-year-old Chitranjan Ravidas told VillageSquare.in. “Now that traders come only once in a while, our hope lies only with individual customers.”
Chitranjan Ravidas, who has a small footwear workshop at his house, recalled that till mid-90s, Chamarkhani shoes were also made in two nearby localities, namely, Sati Sthan and Mohammadpur by people belonging to Ravidas community, but not now.
Handmade leather shoes used to be the choice of rural people, but not anymore. Facing stiff challenge from machine-made cheap artificial leather shoes in the market, the demand for these shoes has declined.
A pair of Chamarkhani shoes cost Rs 400 to Rs 500 depending on its quality. “Once a symbol of pride and preferred footwear of farmers, Chamarkhani juta is facing difficult times for survival due to competition from stylish cheap shoes in the market,” Fekan Ravidas told VillageSquare.in.
Chitranjan Ravidas agreed that with fast-changing fashions, people preferred cheaper colorful shoes that are available in the market to the costly leather shoes made by them. The shoemakers mentioned that the raw materials including leather have also become expensive.
Disappearing traditional craft
Krishna Das, a villager, said that the youth of his community are not interested in shoe making as a livelihood. “Why would any young person take up traditional shoe making to live in penury,” Krishna Das told VillageSquare.in. “How will they run their family when there is little sale of these shoes?”
The shoemakers say that their children want nothing to do with the tradition. “They are not keen to learn the art of making handmade shoe, but prefer to work as masons, or take up some other work,” said Krishna Das. Vishnudeo Das said that they are the last group of men who can make handmade leather shoes.
Fekan Ravidas said that a shoemaker like him earns Rs 150 after working the entire day. “It’s difficult to make more than one pair in a day and one has to work with patience,” he said. The shoemakers, who are landless, and live without even the basic amenities, said that they have been struggling without government support.
“We purchase raw leather and turn it into workable leather by a lengthy process of cleaning, followed by leaving it in a specially prepared mixture of herbs like harre and chuna, besides leaves from guava and mango trees,” said Vishnudeo Das.
Vishnudeo Das said that they use homemade organic paste for pasting the leather, and that they do not use any chemicals. “We use neither chemicals nor nails,” Girdhari Ravidas told VillageSquare.in.
“We prepare a solution the traditional way, for pasting leather pieces, before stitching it.” said Fekan Ravidas. “We soak tamarind seeds in water overnight, grind them manually in grinding stones, cook it for a few minutes and use the resultant natural solution for pasting purposes.”
Chamarkhani Juta is not only durable and longlasting, it is supposed to have health implications. “Some people still come here in search of this handmade leather shoe for good eyesight and health,” Pintu Kumar, owner of a provisions store at Umanath Square told VillageSquare.in.
Kapildeo Prasad, a retired schoolteacher from Nawada, supported the shoemakers’ claims. “Doctors as well as well-wishers asked me to use these shoes after I had an eye surgery,” he told VillageSquare.in.
Persevering through meager demand
According to Vishnudeo Das, there still is some demand for Chamarkhani juta, that peaks during the harvest seasons and during traditional marriage seasons, locally known as lagan, usually held between November and January and between March and May.
Balgovind Mahto in his 70s, a farmer from Nawada, who had accompanied a group of mourners to the cremation ground on the banks of Ganga, visited Fekan Ravidas’ shop. “I have been using these handmade shoes for over four decades,” Mahto told VillageSquare.in. “I don’t wear anything other than these because they’re comfortable and have health benefits.”
Chitranjan Ravidas said that those who came to the cremation grounds bought handmade shoes from them. Mahto said that he would buy one pair for winter. “For the last few months I walked barefoot since these shoes are not available anywhere else,” he said.
Mohd Imran Khan is a journalist based in Patna.Views are personal.