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Charma Karya: India’s Lesser-known Leather Craft

Introduction

Dating back to the Indus Valley Civilization in ancient literature, there are many references to leather crafts in India where animal skin was used. The use of deerskin by the old sages and ascetics during meditation illustrates this country’s history of leather craftsmanship. Besides clothing and shoes, leather was once used to make helmets, bags, saddles, armour, and much more. India is popular worldwide for its leather goods, made from locally cured cattle and camel hides in rural locations. The sector has over four million workers with various leather and footwear clusters spread all over India and it contributes nine per cent of the global production to footwear. Additionally, India produces more than three billion square feet of leather each year, representing about 13% of hides and skins worldwide.

Emergence of Leather Crafts in India

Image source: Charma Karya | Kutch leather Craft documentation | Research on Gujarat Handicrafts

The Halepotras, who are part of a bigger community known as Maldharis, or pastoralists, believe their ancestors came from Saudi Arabia through Iran, Baghdad, and Sindh in order to reach Kutch to search for pasture for their cattle. Many people know The Meghwals as Marwada Meghwals and their ancestors were from Marwar Rajasthan. They settled in Banni years ago mainly because it was a pastoral community with many animals that provided products like milk. Besides farming, this craft provides an important means of earning extra income for the residents of many villages in Kutch such as Hodka, Bhirandiyaro, Dhordo and Sumarasar, so leather workers found employment there. Currently, in Hodka, eight nokhs or subcastes make up the Meghwal community. 

Charma Karya: Deciphered

Image source: Charma Karya | Kutch leather Craft documentation | Research on Gujarat Handicrafts

The process of Charma Karya is quite complicated. It consists of seventy steps for the treatment of leather, followed by the creation of the craft. The process of tanning the leather makes it toughen so that it does not rot. As a result this time it gets firm yet pliable while at the same time becoming impenetrable In Indian customs, there are individuals who prepare the rawhide to produce leather known as ‘chamars’. Several methodologies are adopted by these ‘chamars’ in order to tan the hide: First, for leather cleaning and drying, fresh hides are washed, plastered with mud or salt, and then allowed to dry. They are normally scraped over in order to remove dirt and folds. Followed by liming where hides are soaked with a solution that opens them up thereby allowing tanning agents through them; a period which usually lasts for two weeks at least on a daily basis. 

Image source: Charma Karya | Kutch leather Craft documentation | Research on Gujarat Handicrafts

Next comes the removal of the hair, during the process, one limes and removes the hair from the skin or hides and cleans away the fleshy tissues with it. Further, the hide is soaked in an alkali solution containing tannin to make it tougher and more durable. The hide is then sewn together and into tannin so that they can absorb it fully. The same cycle is sometimes performed several more times.

In order to achieve softness and flexibility in leather, there are certain procedures which involve stretching it after the application of suitable treatments followed by rolling and trampling it so that the desired characteristics can be obtained easily. Another important step in tanning is scraping off the outermost part of the hide which has got some defects. To add polish and grain to the surface, smooth apparatuses like bottles with oil are used after which any other minor details are completed by colouring or applying varnish through natural or synthetic dye sources. Some types of tanned hides may as well be granted a final top coat finish which aids them in maintaining their shine as well as keeping them intact for a long.

Leather Craft in Today’s World

Image source: Charma Karya | Kutch leather Craft documentation | Research on Gujarat Handicrafts

The current leather craft business of India has seen significant progress and now it is serving both internal and external demands. It is worth noting that leather used in the traditional Charma Karya method is mostly sourced more or less using chemical processes which means that any waste related to this could pose a danger to the environment in future. Conversely, there has been a shift by artisans towards utilizing artificial materials as substitutes, such as Rexine. Rexine has similar features to those of leather and is environmentally friendly. However, when we look at them closely, we realise that Punch work and embroidery share many similarities such as tools used in work as well as working techniques used.

The pastoral communities, who were the ultimate consumers of the artist’s works, played a critical role in dictating the visuals of these leather craft products. They worked hand in hand with skilled worker communities to boost the beauty of artefacts using their exemplary talents in weaving, dyeing, and ornamentation. For instance, these villages provided painters with essential resources including but not limited to; like wools as well as leather. The industry has transformed with time, as it collaborates with other sectors, particularly the villagers. Initially, trade was through products and raw materials. Today, it takes only a few items to celebrate such major occurrences as weddings and childbirth. This new mode of existence has also led to a reduction in trading commodities and materials within the neighbourhoods. 

In most communities, artisans who make items out of leather have had to become labourers to sustain themselves, lack of machinery plus tools therefore was affecting their productivity rate. There being more buyers than sellers hence sellers being at an advantage over buyers; the use of machines in making goods has brought prices down making them affordable, these things together with modernity have taken our traditional roots out of our mind. These conditions also control their economic welfare making the next generation disengage from the craft.

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By Soumya Kotian

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