Worn by everyone, from the Maharaja of Kolhapur to rural folk, these chappals have a story that dates back to four hundred years. Comfortable, hardy and aesthetically designed, they express the very essence of a traditional craft.
The beginning of a journey is to slip on the chappals
A long time ago, when footwear wasn’t fussy and design was a response to utility, the now well known Kolhapuri chappals made their appearance. Evolving from the basic features of a simple wooden base and toe (similar to that worn by sadhus), they went on to become footwear with a hard leather sole that would bend a bit with use and with the two braided straps at the big and small toes holding the chappal in place, making it useful for everyone be it farmer or a king and for either walking in muddy areas or attending royal function.
Those for high royalties, the chappals had a softer sole and a lot of decorative work on them.
It did not stop there but went on to respond to needs of wearers, innovating along the way and involving a number of skilled workers, with expertise being passed on traditionally through generations. Men and women both do the work. Intricate and delicate work, like leather stitching on upper straps, weaving, making leather plaits and ornament fixing are some of the tasks at hand.
Leather obtained from a buffalo is used for the sole and Bullock to create the in-sole. In fact, sheepskin is often used for the belt and lining.
The two categorisation of workmen involved in the manufacturing process – tanners and cobblers, both inter dependant on each other. Tanners take raw hides from the villagers after the natural death of cattle like buffaloes and bullocks.
These hides are then soaked in a tank of water and calcium carbonate (chuna), hand shaved and cleaned with curved knives and then sent on to be tanned with water and vegetable tan, which is extracted from the bark of babool and hirda seeds.
The hirda seeds that give the golden colour to the chappals are today partially ground in a mechanical grinder, whereas formerly they were ground by hand.
Organic tan is known to be good for the human body. Apart from cooling the feet, it is also non allergic and durable.
The process of tanning is laborious and involves the hide being stitched with long leaves, the flesh side inwards, and the bottom closed with a rope. The vertically hung bags are filled with this tanning liquid and the lower half is immersed in a long and narrow pit that collects the water and tanning liquid that drains out from the bags.
This mixture of tanning liquid and water is reused, by pumping it through a plastic pipe. For around a month they are kept this way, turning them upside down and filling them again with tanning liquid so that the entire bag gets tanned uniformly. A leather bucket is used, as a metal one will affect the chemistry causing the leather to develop dark patches. After drying, the finishing touches include cleaning the flesh side so that the tanned leather has an even thickness.
A modern tannery uses rotating drums, oil sprayers and polishing and sanding wheels. However, since the machines are not highly developed, a lot of manual labour is still involved.
Once the hide has been cleaned and tanned, skilled cobblers take over. They use a variety of tools such as knives (including half moon ones), awls, stamps, waxes, brushes, eyelets and thread. The tools that are made of steel are dangerously sharp so new apprentices are taught how to use them for a minimum of six months before they actually start working.
Only after working for practically two years on the template, thickness of the leather, craftsmanship, fitting, shaping, upper finishing, making and colouring of the entire finished product, is the apprentice accepted as skilled.
For chappal making, skilled workers sit in a line on the floor with their legs folded in a lotus position, their worktable comprising of a thick stone or wooden slab, resembling a human assembly line. The first worker draws the sole patterns on the hide and cuts them using his half moon knife.
The upper sole has side flaps for fixing the top straps, while the bottom sole is normally shaped. This is passed on to the next worker who sticks the top and bottom soles, beating the two parts with a country hammer. The heel is attached by placing pieces of goatskin between the bottom sole and the hard leather of the base of the heel.
When stitching, an awl dipped in oil is used to make small cuts along the edges. String made from thin goatskin (or durable hide from the tail) is passed through these cuts. This then leads to the next step –stamping, which is done between two lines drawn with a compass inside the stitching.
The chappals are oiled to increase their strength and coolness. Though castor oil is the best for this process, any vegetable oil that makes the chappal stiff (with the exception of coconut oil) is used.
In the next step, cuts are made in the side flaps and upper sole to attach the big toe and main support strap. If the chappal model has one or two braided strips coming from the upper straps into the gaps between the big and small toes, then extra cuts are made.
The last worker stamps the borders and the number of the size and makes finishing cuts around the soles. Some chappals are allowed to retain their natural dark brown leather colour whilst others are dyed yellow or red with a brush and water-soluble powders.
Delicate work like decorating the upper straps with zari (gold cord) strips, gota (pompoms), braiding the leather sometimes to make an eight strand flat braided strip and the usual three veni (plait) braid, using different punches to cut flower designs, using stamps to carve fine lines, making eyelets, is done by the women.
To cater to changing needs, chappals now have softer soles and the upper and lower side flaps are machine stitched using white plastic thread. However, not a single iron nail is used in the entire manufacturing process of these chappals.
Generations of Kolhapuri chappal makers have continued to further the view that rubber cannot be a substitute for leather because the climate in India(responsible for the superior quality of Indian leather) is inappropriate for rubber footwear.
Vijay Kadam who is a fourth generation Kolhapuri chappal maker and runs Kolhapur’s oldest chappal centre, Adarsh Charmudyog Centre. He mentions that this craft is no longer a strictly hereditary privilege, any one keen and with potential can be taught. Kolhapuri chappal making from scratch in approximately three years.
Though the demand for these chappals has increased, the supply of leather has reduced. Previously only cattle were used to plough the fields. But with mechanization, animals were replaced by tractors leading to a drop in the supply of raw hides.
The basic design of the chappal has one belt and one toe and its speciality is the side cover. Today, around 85 designs of this chappal are available. Both men and women working on their respective chappal making segments at home chappals, which cater to farmers.
A few of their designs are made in the form of sandals, providing convenience and protection. An interesting fact is that the hollow soles of these chappals are filled with the vinchu seed, giving them a crackling sound with every step and they are normally used to scare away snakes and scorpions in the fields. Around 70 seeds are used in a single Shetkari chappal and it is oiled with groundnut oil.
Paper Kapashi chappals are extremely light and made with calf leather with a soft feel to them. Netting Kapashi has more decorative handiwork that is done by the ladies while Ladies Chepli are the traditional antique chappals made for women.
Then there are chappals made for local use, which last for about 10 months. Their standard design consists of a single toe strap. The thickness of the sole is 4-6 mm. Some chappals are made with a double strap too. Others are made for walking on carpets.
Their characteristics include extremely soft, with a thin sole and have been inspired by the Kolhapuri chappals worn by queens while they. They are extremely soft, with a thin sole and have been inspired by the Kolhapuri chappals.
Chappals weighing 100 grams are known as ‘bed to bath’ chappals, while those weighing 3 kgs are used by farmers and wrestlers.
But the struggle is Real
The story moves on to- tradition struggling against modernity, evolving market needs and styles and materials slipping in and out of usage. Beneath it all, the persistence of enduring design values and craftsmanship. The Kolhapuri chappal continues to maintain its distinctive features as it cuts across cultures and distances to make the world it’s a happy feet world.
Writer- Khursheed Dinshaw Photographs- Hemant Patil Copy Editor- Ankita Badoni, Alice Agarwal