Leather Kolhapuri Chappals/Sandals of Maharashtra


Leather Kolhapuri Chappals/Sandals of Maharashtra

Arora, Radhika

Kohlapuri chappals are handcrafted leather sandals that get their name from the place of their origin, the district of Kohlapur in the state of Maharashtra. Specific dates and details about the origin of this craft are unknown, but the cobblers of this district have succeeded in creating a globally recognised product. These chappals, which were probably worn only by the inhabitants of Kohlapur, are now worn all over India and abroad. They are especially popular among college- going students and tourists, who buy these chappals – which keep their feet cool during the hot summer months of India – at nominal rates.

Each piece, complete with intricate patterns, is handcrafted out of leather; even the cords used to stitch the sandals are made of leather and no nails are used in the production. The chappal is made of buffalo hide while fine goat leather is used for the plaited strips that decorate the upper portion of the chappal. The raw leather which is bought from traders is made pukka or hardened by drying and grazing it. After the grazing is done, the large pieces of leather are cut to the size required by using templates. The leather used is either in its natural tan colour or dyed deep brown or deep black maroon, depending on orders and requirements. The sole, which is the first part of the chappal to be made, is cut and then the two pieces of leather are pasted together and stitched with leather thongs for added strength. Before the edges are hand stitched the two portions of the leather sole are temporarily stuck together with finely grained black clay taken from the rice field. Industrial glue is used only for the sticking of rubber soles. Once the base of the chappal is ready, the main design is created. There are a number of designs that have evolved over time to cater to contemporary demands.
The tools employed are minimal and each cobbler has around Rs 5,000 worth of instruments like the asth, rapi, ladi, scissors, awls of different kinds, pincers, pliers, a die machine for embossing, a compass, embossing nails, brushes and polish. Some cobblers possess a die machine to make soles; however, though the machine is expensive, only a few can afford it.
The more traditional designs have thong-like straps, with a toe-strap for further strength. The newer designs may be shoe-like, with pieces of wood supporting the design. Kohlapuri chappals range from those having simple straps, without much colour or designs on them, or they may be slightly more decorative with a gold cord or zari on them. Often little red pom-poms of silk floss are put on top of the thong-like straps or intricate patterns are cut out of the straps. Each cobbler follows his own foot-size patterns: little standardisation of sizes exists. Customers have to try out different sizes before they find the correct fit: this often results in confusion among the buyers as it is difficult for them to place orders for chappals in different sizes since there is no standardisation, even within Kolhapur. Some traditional designs are called kachkadi, bakkalnali, and pukari. The 1992 National Award winning artisan, Shri. Dattaray Toyappa Satpute introduced more than 30 traditional and 50 new designs into the existing repertoire of the other craftspersons.

The chappals can be light or dark in colour and are available in natural tan or a polished version in which colours like terracotta pink, mustard yellow and dark brown are added on to it. Prices range from Rs 70 for the simplest design to Rs 400 for the more complex and detailed patterns. The variation in price is determined by the price at which the leather is purchased and the design of the product.

Inferior and imitation quality Kolhapuri chappals are being produced in Karnataka, Mumbai and in other districts of Maharashtra. Nails are now being used instead of hand stitching, and cardboard is being inserted for additional thickness between inferior quality top and bottom leather soles. This is affecting the reputation of the original Kolhapuri chappal and its artisans.

Of the approximately 600,000 inhabitants of Kolhapur city, about 25,000 are leather shoemakers belonging to the Chamar caste of tanners and leather workers. In the Kolhapur district it is estimated that there are 100,000 Chamars who are engaged in leather work.

The making of Kohlapuri chappals is a hereditary craft. In recent years, however, the children of the artisans have started to move to bigger towns and cities in search of different jobs and more money. The women of the families are also taught the craft, and even daughters-in-laws help make the sandals. The families involved in the business sit together and make the chappals. Sometimes other people are hired to help. The more successful artisans have showrooms for their products.

Artisans travel to places around the country and abroad to participate in craft exhibitions being held. This products are also sold to shoe-shop owners mainly in Maharashtra and in the main cities of India. Changing consumer tastes, preference for labelled products over the traditional sandals, and imitation products have contributed to the decline in sales.

Many famous people have contributed to the popularity of Kohlapuri chappals-Ringo Starr, drummer of the British pop band, the Beatles, wore them on his trip to the Maharishi’s ashram in the 1960’s, while our very own Crorepati hero, Amitabh Bacchan threatened to beat someone up with a Kohlapuri chappal in a film made years ago!


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