Sudheer Rajbhar has endless energy—and an equally endless number of ideas in his head. I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with him a month ago, in his home city of Mumbai, India. It was a fascinating time and it put me in awe of his intelligence and empathy. These he combines with an intense desire to change systems in India that continue to oppress those of lesser means. A trained artist, he brings cynicism and satire to his works in ways that are thought-provoking. He is also a accomplished designer, with an eye for the restrained and functional as his series of bags titled Bombay Black shows. Please enjoy this interview with the talented Sudheer.
Hi Sudheer, could you tell us what you dreamed of being when you were young?
My dream has always been to become an artist. I can’t imagine being anything else!
How did your journey towards founding your studio start?
I was born in Mumbai and grew up here, in the slums of Kandivali. In 2010 I graduated with a degree in Art and started working as an artist’s assistant. The art world is a difficult place to survive, so as away of earning a bit more money, I designed setups for fashion brands on the side.
One of the projects I initiated was an art show called We are here because you are there, featuring work by artists’ assistants. I wanted to make a statement about how assistants, whilst being artists themselves, are generally denied the ability to progress in a system ruled by economic injustice, an absence of labour laws and societal prejudice.
Following this, I decided to further my collaboration with cobblers and start a brand for them. The idea for this came from a cobbler I’d befriended in Kandvili, who worked as a sweeper by day. We started a public project that involved printing the word Chamar, which is used as a slur against lower caste people, on canvas bags. I distributed these bags to people, to carry around in their daily lives. I wanted to record the reactions to seeing this word being so openly used in public. This was the birth of the Chamar brand.
What was the inspiration behind your first collection of products?
As the Chamar brand expanded, I started working with tanneries in Dharavi, a huge slum in Mumbai. I met leather craftsmen there with whom I collaborated and included in my work with the Chamar brand. The beef ban that was recently implemented meant that these craftsmen started losing work. This gave me the inspiration to introduce them to a new material that they could work with—recycled rubber, made from old car tires. They were unsure in the beginning but went along with me. It took about six months to execute the first batch of products, which became the series Bombay Black.
Could you share a step-by-step of your creative process and how you create your pieces?
I start work on a piece in my personal studio—I come up with a design in my mind and then move straight to the rubber sheets. After cutting the pattern, I then discuss the technical parts with the artisans—how the piece can be sewn and so on. In this manner, we create the final product together. It’s a very collaborative process and also quite fluid.
What has been the most important aspect of having your own business?
I don’t approach my work as a businessman, I see myself as an artist and this influences all my decisions. Working in this manner has allowed me to promote artists and artisans, to speak up about the problems and prejudices they face.
Your studio is based in Mumbai: how does the city influence your work
Mumbai is a city that influenced by migration and that has a very strong work ethic. People here are very hardworking and determined. These are factors that have influenced me and my work.
What values are most important to you as a designer? What work are you most proud of?
I am proud to be an artist and of all that I have created in this role. Being respectful of every other artist and artisan and their work is is very important to me.
To whom or what do you look to for inspiration?
I am most inspired by labourers and artisans. They work very hard, and yet are under-compensated. Their work isn’t really given the credit it deserves. I understand their skill, how long they’ve taken to acquire it and how much effort they put in on a daily basis.
What is your dream for the upcoming year?
My big dream for this year is setting up the Chamar Foundation. The intention is to offer support to artists and artisans who face economic and social difficulties in India. The art world here overuses cheap technicians and forces artists to work as assistants. The absence of proper labour laws and unionised systems makes them vulnerable, mostly because of their background. Many of them go unpaid or are denied proper work as artists themselves. The Foundation will also help the Chamar (leather workers) community, whose livelihood is affected by the beef ban.
The Chamar Foundation is based in Koramangala, Bangalore and will function as an art space and library. It also has three rooms that can be rented over AirBnB. It will help artisans to set up their own studios, connect them to raw material manufacturers, help with production requirements and machinery. We hope to help in generating income for the Chamar community and bring long-term growth.
The Foundation will also host artists and artisans in residency.