The leather industry in India is prolific and historical. And leather products have a huge market both domestically, as well as internationally. The common leather products include shoes, bags, pouches, and more. Leather in India dates back to as early as 3000 BC with references about it made in Vedas too. The leather industry though largely is about manufacturing and marketing. There is a significant amount of artistry and skill that this particular industry merits.
From a creative view, leather products are exceptionally versatile and artistic. There are myriad cultural aspects attached to it too. For example, the leather puppet shows or Shantiniketan leather goods are a case in point of how diversified and culturally significant is the use and creative prowess of leather. Similarly, different states master different artistry producing beautiful footwear, statues, and many other leather crafts.
History of Leather Artistry
The man understood the utility of leather long ago. Animal skin was used as clothing and references of those are found in the Indus Valley Civilization. Even earlier, sages and saints were known to wear the skin of deer. However, the usage of leather was not restricted to clothing alone. Leather was used to make bags, sacks, straps, bottles, and also sails for ships. With time the trade of leather expanded and India was a major leather exported via the Silk Route. Whereas north India traded through the Silk Route, southern India’s trade was with Roman and Greek kingdoms in Europe. During the 20th century leather continued to flourish in terms of marketing, as well as skilled artistry.
Leather Serving Many Purposes
Leather is a sturdy material and its advantage lies in its multiple uses. Several items are made from leather. It includes footwear, bags, jackets, lampshades, suitcases, cushion covers, saddles, and much more. Each of these products has a distinct place in the market due to its unique texture and design.
Who doesn’t know about the mojaris or the Kolhapuri chappals? Or how about flaunting the Nagra or a Peshwari? Ethnic products from leather are as much a hit as everyday utility items. For example, almost all of us have possessed a leather wallet. Loved the spaciousness of a leather handbag, and enjoyed the comfort of leather shoes.
Leather has carved a niche for itself in both mundane daily items, as well as stamped its authority on various cultural and artistic expressions. In fact, in many cases, it interweaves both to create stylish and artistic utility items. Think about the beautiful mojaris or excellently designed nagras. And again, one can think of the monochrome-shaded leather bags and belts with the same desire for possession.
Regional Expertise in Leather Artistry
Regionally too the artistry over leather varies and excels. Where Rajasthan and Maharashtra are famous for leather footwear. West Bengal with its own Santiniketan style creates wonderful bags, wallet bags, pouches. Here we are taking a look at some of the regional specialties that are a statement to leather artistry and craft.
Leather Artistry in Footwear
The most popular footwear includes the Kolhapuri chappals from Kolhapur in Maharashtra. The chappals are an iconic fashion statement, as well as a symbol of tradition. These chappals have been around since the 13th century. When the then King Bijjala encouraged its production for the upliftment of the cobblers. Also, Kolhapuri chappals are handmade using natural ingredients and hence extremely comfortable.
Similarly, mojris or jootis originated under the Mughals. Decorated with crystals or gems and designed with intricate colors and designs the mojris continue to be eye-catching to date. Rajasthan became the hub of mojris where the chamar community first began to process the rawhide and then dyed them using vegetable dyes. They come in different colors and patterns, some embedded, some embroidered. The craft is evident in the design and perhaps this is one of the reasons that even leading fashion designers to incorporate the mojari on the ramp.
Bikaner and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan are most famous for creating lovely saddles for camels and horses. The intricately woven beads and wonderfully done embroidery work adore the backs of the animals. And add a classic look of tradition and culture.
Leather Statues and Crafts
Madhya Pradesh is particularly famous for its different types of leather statues. Usually, sculptures of horses, camels, etc. are a great mix of tradition, culture, and skill. Leather crafts, however, include a whole wide range of products including bags, pouches, and others. Several states and regions specialize in leather crafts, including West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka.
Kop a unique bottle made from camel leather is popular in Bikaner. Whereas, lampshades from leather are beautiful in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. Red leather embroidered items are famous in Madhya Pradesh, whereas leather puppets and toys are found in Andhra Pradesh.
Santiniketan Leather Goods
These are mentioned separately because the design and artwork done on these are extremely unique. This art form is practiced in Santiniketan and the adjoining villages in West Bengal. The bags made from Santiniketan leather are very popular and have a huge market in the US and Japan. Vegetable-tanned skins are used in production because they have the quality of retaining the imprints of batiks or various other motifs. Several products are made with Santiniketan leather, such as chappals, handbags, jewelry boxes, eyeglass covers, wallets, cushion covers, and more.
Leather Artistry in Puppets
One of the most culturally rich experiences using leather artistry is the leather puppet shows. Though dolls and puppets are made from leather in various parts of the county, Andhra Pradesh specializes in them particularly. Yet, the most mesmerizing usage of these is in the shadow puppetry shows, a trademark of southern states and also Maharashtra and Odisha.
In Andhra’s four traditional forms of shadow, puppetry shows are practiced. The storyline of most of these is centered on tales from the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Also known as Tholu bommalata the shadow puppetry first started as a traditional custom. When wanderers and entertainers moved from one village to another. The show is conducted using leather puppets that are placed in front of light but behind a white screen. The puppeteer performs the entire show which sometimes might carry on for several hours as the shadow puppets move about unfolding the narrative.
The tradition of shadow puppetry is found in Kerala, Karnataka, and also in Maharashtra. The show is accompanied by vocals, music, etc, and is a wonderful coming together of artistic streams and influences.
Leather, whether for artistic or utilitarian purposes raises concern about the treatment of the animals. There have been reports of cruelty against animals for their hides or skin. Though the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act India prevents cruelty towards animals. Unless the animal is used for scientific experiments or human consumption, lapses have been marked. Organizations, such as PETA have raised objections on the need for leather off the animal skin. They have instead encouraged the use of artificial leather.
Besides, the recent beef ban in many states has also led to a decline in the leather industry. Though the industry continues to be one of the largest in India and also in terms of export and trade. It needs to make sure that it does not achieve profits through the ill-treatment of the animals.
Finally, artificial leather is making its way slowly. Which is a relief for animal welfare activists and well-wishers. Yet, the artistic skill that is attached to the leather industry is also hugely responsible for the welfare and employment of many skilled and traditional artists. Perhaps, a balanced approach and sensible line of action are required. To ensure that there is no cruelty towards animals, yet at the same time, the creativity of industry is not killed either.