In Goa, a fading legacy...

Handcrafted

In Goa, a fading legacy...

The wearing and making of zottim leather chappals (slippers) is a lesser-known facet of the disappearing Goan way of life. Like many other traditions, it is slowly vanishing — unsung and unnoticed. Ideally suited to the warm and humid climate of Goa, these open slip-ons keep the feet cool and dry. Crafted for men, women and the young, the zottim chappal takes over 12 to 14 days to make, each bit handcrafted and hand-stitched for long-lasting durability.

Though overshadowed by their better- known neighbours in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, the sturdiness and resilience of the zottim is a byword and part of the local folklore which claims that a well-made pair of zottims lasts a lifetime. A popular tongue-in-cheek Konkani proverb — Ek soirik korunk, sat zottim zhorunk zai — which roughly translates as, ‘To get a single wedding proposal, be prepared to wear out seven pairs of zottims’, is testimony to the difficulties faced in finding a partner and the resilience of a zottim.

Community profession

The makers of these bespoke leather chappals belong to the Hindu Sawant community, whose members are followers of the 15th-century poet, social reformer, savant and Bhakti saint Sant Ravidas. Their crafting skills extend to making a variety of chappals from the elegant and popular toe-ring T-strap zottim, to the slip-on, the enclosed slip-on, the toe-divider, the Y-strap chappal, and  other customary patterns that the client may want.

Using leather that has been vegetable-dyed and tanned, zottim chappal is made by hand with minimal tools employed. A stone slab forms the sturdy work-table while hammers, awl, scissors, pincers of different sizes, a set-square and compass, embossing and punching tools and needles are what form the bases of the trade. The chappals are made from both buffalo and bullock hide. Hard-wearing buffalo hide is used for the sole with the craftsman glueing and hammering down several layers of the hide to make a single sturdy, tough usage sole. The final touches involve patterns. Varied patterns are etched, engraved onto the sole before they are handstitched onto the upper part of the chappal, where the more pliable and supple bullock leathers are used. The last stage is the colouring of the completed footwear. No nails are used in the making.

Regular clients have their zottims made to measure with the craftsman taking into account each customer’s individual needs and foot peculiarities. Off the shelf chappals are on sale in the shop. By custom, none of the chappals have foot sizes assigned to them as the maker can find the right size by just briefly examining your feet.

Besides the zottim, a wide variety of chappals have been crafted in Goa from the single toe wooden sandal — the padukka that is worn by Hindi ascetics, to the boat-shaped pointy-curved choddem. Other footwear customs of interest included footwear worn by the Goan Kulmi community, whose chappals were made from the bark of the kumbyo tree. These were a part of a fun wedding ritual that involved the bride’s sisters hiding the  groom’s chappal. In the fisherfolk community of Kharvi, women wore disposable footwear made of coconut leaves when they went door-to-door selling fish.

All this is now a thing of the past. As young apprentices are hard to find and the well-educated youth of the family are taking on other jobs, the numbers of practitioners have been slowly dwindling. Some continue in the trade and can still be found in some of the smaller towns of Goa in the chappal workshops that double as their showroom and outlet.

On the decline

Till now, the few remaining outlets have managed to successfully fight the onslaught of new and modern styles and retained the loyalty of their customers. However, their situation is now quite dire as they face an acute shortage of good quality and reasonably-priced leather.

The ban on buffalo slaughter has dealt the final death knell as this shortage has resulted in a huge increase in the cost of the leather that is correspondingly reflected in the price of a pair of chappals  — out-pricing it for their middle-class Goan clientele. The once-buzzing shop-cum-workplace in the bustling Calangute market has downed its shutters, bearing testimony to this decline.

The fate of Manohar Sawant and others like him is uncertain as he is amongst the last in his line to continue in this hereditary craft at his workshop-cum-store in a prime location in the town of Mapusa, set up by his father almost seven decades ago in a time of certainties.

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