H.S. Radha visits the Bata Museum in Toronto and finds many shoes that were meant for more than just walking

Like most Indians, I grew up wearing Bata shoes. On my first trip out — to Singapore, when I spotted a Bata store, I was very impressed to see the ‘Indian’ brand in a foreign country. Eventually, I learnt that it was an indigenised foreign brand in India.

Recently, while visiting Toronto, we made a beeline for the Bata Shoe Museum. Opened in 1995, it houses the shoes collected by Sonja Bata, wife of Thomas Bata, on her travels across the world. Thomas Bata was the son of Tomáš Bata, one of the original three sibling-founders.

The history of footwear led us to samples of the oldest known footwear worn in the Western hemisphere, by the Anasazi people over 6,000 years ago. Made from the abundant yucca plant, the shoe samples from archaeological digs looked frail and I wondered how frequently the Anasazi had needed to weave new footwear.

From the Asante royals of western Africa, whose feet were never allowed to touch the ground, came golden footwear and sandals embellished with large gold-leafed ornaments. In a display case we found baby footwear, but I had been fooled. These tiny shoes had actually belonged to Chinese women who used to traditionally bind their feet. Women with perfect three-inch feet were called jin lian or golden lotuses.

India's bejewelled mojaris and padukas displayed two contrasting styles — the former worn by the rich and the latter by impoverished monks. A pair of metallic mojaris with jaali work was beautiful. The exhibit included Kolhapuri chappals.

At the Bata museum, I realised how closely shoes were about people, practices and culture. The chestnut crushing clog, a tool-shoe so to speak, was used by French farmers for shelling chestnuts.

The embroidered and beaded moccasins handmade by the First Nations people of Canada and North America looked lovely and warm. Dutch wooden clogs carved by men when they went away to sea for their betrothed spoke of old-world ways. High heels in the late 16th century signified wealth.

Ballet shoes and Oregon boots were a strange contrast. The former helped ballerinas look as if they were taking flight, while the Oregon boot with its heavy 10 kg metal ring on one foot was used to prevent prisoners from taking flight!