Resilience in the face of discrimination

Social Struggles

The Meghwars have grappled with the inherent contradictions of their reality – the products they made were used by all communities yet they were considered unclean because of its practice. They were called ‘low caste,’ yet a Brahmin wedding couldn’t commence without treating a Rikhya to a hearty meal. 

Meghwar artisans recall people standing a half a kilometer away from them and covering their noses, even while making conversation. Even the teacups that they used to drink from at tea stalls were either chipped or with missing handles.


Most Meghwars relied on the barter system of hataar for their grains and daily needs, and had no avenue for livelihoods other than leatherwork. They remained financially bereft and socially ostracised.


Words from the artisans

My people were forced to live at the periphery of the village, prohibited from drinking water out of the common wells. And all the big people of the village, when they had to get their spoilt old shoes fixed, they tossed them from afar to the artisan. The artisan, eighty years old sometimes, held that shoe in his hands and stitched it back together perfectly for two rupees, but how they treated him, without any respect or value, a man who was old enough to be their father. 


Words from the artisans

We gave up tanning because of untouchability, as simple as that. Today, that work is being undertaken by the those very people who turned their nose up on us, because they have found a way to make so much money out of it.


Finding a path forward

The skill in the leather craft was passed down as knowledge from father to son. Today, however, many ageing artisans feel that their children are not interested in taking the craft forward. They’d rather be immersed in their phones and with friends, chasing odd jobs as labourers. Who will sit at home day in and day out to make shoes when they can ride bikes, see new places, and have a steady income from the factories? The older artisans are resigned to believing that their craft will die with them.

For younger craftspeople working with leather, there is pressure to remain relevant. For that, they need to show their wares at large-scale exhibitions across the country. The costs of travel and production for these events are often prohibitive.


Despite the hardships, a renewed interest in handmade products, combined with increased tourism in Kachchh, has given leather artisans an opportunity to sustain their craft.  Free from the stigma of processing animal carcasses into leather, caste-based discrimination has all but ended. Economic independence and the ability to take up new opportunities with an intrepid entrepreneurship has brought social respectability. In these silver linings, the shoemakers of Kachchh have found the resilience to hold on to what is dear to them – their skills, creativity and love of leather.


Words from the artisans

So many times I’ve experienced at exhibitions- there are fifty stalls and no one makes even one sale. And in the end I call visitors to my stall and hand them things for free, hair clips and so on, and tell them no problem, don’t pay, here’s a souvenir from Kachchh! And all the money I invested in getting there, in production, goes to waste. Today, one needs to afford being an artisan -- that is the true story.


Words from the artisans

Education helps broaden the youth’s worldview, they become open to new things, and if they decide to commit to this craft, they can create novel things and sell them too.