The Indian Footwear Tradition

Craft, Handloom, Art, Op-Ed

The Indian Footwear Tradition: Style Accessory cum Weapon

Tyabji, Laila

First Published, September 2009, Craft Revival Trust
Indians, traditionally adept at innovative, inventive jugaar, discovered the uses of footwear as weaponry long before that Iraqi journalist won international fame and acclaim hurling his shoes at President Bush. Media images of our State Vidhan Sabhas after a debate, littered with the abandoned chappals of irate MLAs, along with a few broken chairs, are all too familiar. As early as 1971, Mrs Gandhi had a sandal chucked at her by an angry Telangana-ite when she canvassed for my father in Hyderabad. India always leads the world! The recent spate of pre-election shoe-chucking only calls attention to the range and eclecticism of our footwear – from Jarnail Singh’s Reeboks to the wooden kharau aimed at Advani.

Perhaps it’s because India was by tradition a primarily barefoot country that footwear has taken on such diverse and multi-facetted incarnations and associations. By some curious sociological quirk, feet have always been reverenced, while footwear is considered unclean.
Nevertheless, footwear has also taken on more amazingly ornamental and imaginative forms in India than anywhere else in the world! Jewelled, embroidered, sequined, studded, twisted, tasselled and twirled; made in every conceivable and often unlikely material from silver, gold and ivory, or even jade, to wood, palm leaves and reed.

Traditional Indian footwear varies from the ceremonial boots of the North-East – multi-layered, felted, knee-high contraptions, rigid with satin, velvet and woollen cutwork – to thin slivers of bark worn by Jain pilgrims and monks. The Mughals had the insteps of their slippers inset with diamonds and rubies while truly self-mortifying ascetics wore clogs with metal spikes that pierced their flesh at every step. We are probably the only nation that has especial footwear, the wooden khadau clog with a single toe-knob, designed exclusively for use in our loos.

Faced with these multiple choices, Indians seem to have little sense of appropriate occasion – exercise-shy MPs wearing Nikes with their dhotis, and Page 3 socialites high-heeled stilettos with their jeans at polo matches. Now that international brands have entered the public consciousness, people are prepared to pay the most outrageous prices – A Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik can cost well over a lakh. Paradoxically, the same wannabe fashionista will bargain voraciously at Dilli Haat over an exquisitely handmade, embroidered pair of traditional juthis priced at Rs 300! Equally paradoxically, the people who actually make the juthis are considered beyond the social pale. Even now, cobblers live in segregated outskirts of most Indian villages, and the word that denotes their profession, chamar, is one of our most pejorative abuses. Ironically, in Tirupati, those not allowed to enter the inner sanctum were presented the deity’s shoes before which to prostrate themselves.

Mahatma Gandhi, who brought his unique brand of logic to the dilemma of integrating India’s caste-ridden, complexly prejudiced society, made leather chappals as well as spun cotton; setting up tanneries and sandal-making workshops in his ashrams, and even making and presenting a pair to General Smuts while in prison in South Africa. Smuts actually wore them, saying he was not “worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.” Sadly, despite Gandhi’s egalitarian example, prejudices remain. Gendi Lal, a master leather craftsperson from Ranthambhore, has travelled all over India with his wares, earning lakhs of rupees from his intricately plaited and punched footwear – a skill of which he is one of the few remaining practitioners. Nevertheless, his son prefers to remain an unemployed BA Pass graduate, feeling it has more “status” and makes him more marriageable.

“Hail to that foot of the lusty beloved which hits the head of the lover…” says the 5th century drama Padataditakam. In India today, rubber Bata chappals have replaced the traditional village juthi, and machine-made branded shoes and sandals the delicately hand-crafted mojris and pointy-toed salim shahis of yester-year fashion. Touching the feet of one’s elders has become a half-hearted, embarrassed, token bob.

But India is a land of traditions; ever evolving, but nevertheless sacrosanct while they last. It is not surprising that our politicians, no longer revered or even respected, should now be greeted with a shoe rather than a salaam or namaste. If this becomes common practice, (the netted shoe-shield protecting Narendra Modi‘s election podium suggests he fears so!) and a volley of shoes replaces those enormous genda garlands that become more and more voluminous every year, the village cobbler may again find regular employment, since stiletto heels are both sharp and expensive, and Adidas non-Swadeshi.

First published in Outlook magazine, April 2009.




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