The Genteel
November 20, 2017
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Best Kept Secrets

Leather handbag shops lining the streets of Dharavi. Photograph by Rashida S. Arsiwala.

Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire painted a dramatic (albeit slightly skewed) picture of Dharavi, the infamous slum district in Mumbai. Yet even before the Oscar-winning movie was made, people from near and far knew of Dharavi for being Asia's biggest slum (although this is no longer the case), spread over parts of the Sion, Bandra, Kurla and Kalina suburbs of Mumbai. But not many people know of the thriving leather handbag industry right along its borders.

Besides handbags, Dharavi is a
great place for leather goods 
such as belts and jackets.
Photograph by Rashida S. Arsiwala.

Dharavi, for those in the know, is almost synonymous with leather handbags - about 120 leather goods shops are located here, furnished with items manufactured in the region's estimated 5,000 leather workshops. Bags here are made with genuine leather - sheep, buffalo and cow - in the latest colours, designs and shapes. Other leather items such as jackets, belts and wallets are also produced and sold throughout Dharavi.

Irfan, a young man who is the main salesperson at the Dharavi store, Mahadani Leather Plus, explains, "Here, in Dharavi, we have our own manufacturing factory. It is just on the other side," he says, pointing at one of a number of tall buildings on the opposite side of the street, behind the shops. For retailers with their own manufacturing units, production costs are low, and as goods are often produced in-house, the supplier-to-consumer chain is relatively short.

In the absence of middlemen, many shop owners are able to make a decent profit even whilst selling products at very low prices. "We sell bags at wholesale (bulk) prices. This bag would cost you about 900 rupees (C$16) in our shop. But if you go to any other market, the same thing will cost you at least 1,100-1,150 rupees (C$19-22)," explains Irfan. Prices that seem even more remarkable, given that the quality of the bags is at the same standard one would expect to find in any other genuine leather market in India.

As is the case with many industries, the stores in Dharavi see busy and slow periods. "We are busiest during the winter season," says Irfan. Right now, with India in the midst of monsoon season, sales of leather bags are not that great. But that doesn't deter local shopkeepers who are constantly seeking to reinvent their products. Right now, one can find handbags made of rexine - a water resistant form of imitation leather - selling like hot cakes for as little as 200 rupees (C$4).

...Dharavi is an example of the potential of India at large, and of Mumbai in particular. Evidence of an enterprising spirit abounds, even in an area defined by its status as a slum.

Indubitably, Dharavi's biggest draw is the reasonable prices attached to the export-quality goods sold throughout the district. Even young, college-bound girls can afford their share of stylish purses and handbags. Sineen S., a young college student told me, "I love buying bags from Dharavi! They always have the latest designs and they are affordable, too. I always go to Aman Leather [Emporium]; they have the best collection in the most varied colours. I even know of people who have asked them to customise bags for them, and they have made them to specifications." 

Tourists who visit Dharavi primarily to see the slum, will invariably find the market a pleasant surprise. Heather Allen visited Dharavi from Britain in 2011. She recalls, "I had gone to explore Dharavi. In my mind, Dharavi was a poor slum area, but what I saw, in the form of the market and the thriving businesses there, was mind-boggling. I ended up buying handbags for myself and for friends as well." Just a word of caution, though: as a tourist, you might end up paying much more for a bag than a local would, so make sure to bargain!

The Dharavi marketplace does not just play host to bargain-hunting tourists and style savvy locals, many corporations use the market to source goods. Says Nadeem, the assistant at Leather Gallery, "Big companies buy our bags for corporate gifting purposes. It's a great gift and turns out to be monetarily feasible for them." This process establishes a beneficial arrangement for both parties, as local manufacturers receive large orders, while companies are spared excess costs when buying well-crafted leather goods in bulk.

A leather bag on display at Aman Leather.
Photograph by Rashida S. Arsiwala.

The booming leather handbag industry aside, Dharavi is an example of the potential of India at large, and of Mumbai in particular. Evidence of an enterprising spirit abounds, even in an area defined by its status as a slum. Besides its tanneries and leather goods suppliers, Dharavi also plays host to numerous other industrious craftspeople, including tailors and potters. The workshops and stores are central to an informal economy which boasts an economic stream of between US$600 million and US$1 billion annually and provides a source of income for aspirational young people. Irfan, for instance, works at Mahadani Leather Plus while studying in college at the same time.

Easily accessible from most parts of the city, Dharavi is a must-visit destination for anyone wanting to buy a handbag, or simply wishing to take in the vibrant, irrepressible hustle and bustle nature of the local culture. As Anurupa Dongare, a young Mumbaikar, says, "Leather in Mumbai is equal to Dharavi. Some of the best bags I've seen are from Dharavi...not suede, pure leather."

If you have watched Danny Boyle's film, throw away any pre-conceptions and come pick up a bag or two from Dharavi.

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