LIFE

Kolhapuri is going places

The Minister of State for Culture, Rani Satish, and fashion designer, Prasad Bidappa, take a look at handcrafted leather footwear in Bangalore. — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

The Minister of State for Culture, Rani Satish, and fashion designer, Prasad Bidappa, take a look at handcrafted leather footwear in Bangalore. — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy  

IT LOOKS like it's a misnomer to call those handcrafted leather sandals "Kolhapuri chappals". They are made right here in Karnataka, in Athani, Belgaum district.

And these sandals have just travelled all the way to Dusseldorf, Germany, and you will soon learn how.

Till a year or two ago, the traditional leather craftspersons of Athani were barely making a living from their craft and most were heavily in debt.

In fact, many were practically "bonded labourers" for the leatherware traders.

The UNDP discovered them and was followed quickly by LIDKAR and the Asian Centre for Entrepreneurial Initiatives (ACENT) and the Rotary Club.

Things began to really look up when the Central Leather Research Institute stepped in to train some of the craftspersons in new technology and how to craft their sandals with international standard leather.

Tuesday evening was a special occasion for them when the Toehold Enterprises, as the craftspersons collectively is now called, entered the world of e-tailing.

The Kolhapuri footwear will now be sold online by FabMart. Toehold itself has a website with an online catalogue for overseas buyers.

Madhura Chatrapathi of ACENT described how the UNDP-sponsored trip to Germany brought people such as Bala Bai of Athani out of the debt trap they had fallen into.

They were paid a generous daily allowance in dollars and by cooking their own food and confining their shopping to Mumbai, each of them came back richer by many thousands of rupees and wiped out their debts.

A short film shown in the presence of the Minister for Kannada and Culture, Rani Satish, highlighted the socio-economic changes the community of leatherworkers has gone through, quite rapidly. The husband and wife work together as a better team, many men have given up drinking, and households are slowly beginning to acquire television sets and home appliances.

As Bala Bai aptly put it, "we have gained self-confidence and self-esteem''.

Their journey is still not over.

One of the best known fashion designers, Prasad Bidappa, is helping them with new designs in footwear (which still retain that unique touch) and the use of leather in different colours.

Don't be surprised if you find the humble Kolhapuri chappals in some of the most upmarket stores overseas.

And, pause to remember how they made that long journey.

By K. Satyamurty

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