Our New Roots: A taste of fine Indian leather craftsmanship – Gautam Sinha, Nappa Dori

Nappa Dori and its Sultanpur artisans have an exquisitely handcrafted Indian answer to the LVs that have occupied popular leather imagination in India.


I walk into the quaint little shop tucked away in the winding streets of Haus Khas Village in South Delhi. I am not really a fan of leather, but man, this place is delightfully tasteful in its clusters of brightly coloured trunks with warm Indian prints, laptop covers in unusual tan and vintage pictures in sepia. In contrast to the global overhang of leather products, I am at a place that celebrates the little known rich Indian craftsmanship in leather – Nappa Dori (meaning for leather and thread.)

India has always had a rich heritage of leather craft making, emerging especially from Gujarat and Rajasthan. Yet, leather has been a very underutilized market, dominated in India by fashion houses from outside. And that’s where Gautam Sinha seeks to make a difference – by bringing back the Indian picture from the times of the British Raj and its heritage, art and vignettes through leather, making it uniquely Indian yet contemporary and stylish enough to go through with the modern consumer. We catch Sinha at his store in the middle of a packed day to find out more about the impeccably designed, highly individual bags and accessories from the house of Nappa Dori:

Nappa Dori statement trunks. Credits: afar.com

Nappa Dori statement trunks. Credits: afar.com

Weaving that slows down time

Gautam Sinha, a NIFT Delhi alumnus had an epiphany back in 2010, when he decided to switch from conventional fashion to working with rural craftsman and their handmade work. “Hand crafted leather has a lot of value addition in terms of the effort and the time and energy that’s spent into a product; there’s a major emotional connect to the product which is what increases the value. We’re living in an instant world, we need something that gives us some emotional connect – hence handcrafted; which obviously gets more value attached to it. It takes an actual day or two to handcraft a product, which is unthinkable in most industries nowadays, and hence we emphasize on this,” he says.

Bags for the world traveller, woven at Sultanpur

The company has, over the years, carefully built a network of artisans from the Kutch region that they have painstakingly upskilled to create unique products. The handwork is called katharni ka silai. Katharni is the equipment used, and it’s hand stitched.

Working with simple punches and hammers, an assorted variety of geometric patterns is created by the craftsmen of the Kutch region, giving the surface beautiful designs that are not usually associated with the ruggedness of thick leather. A little less pressure on the same punches allows craftsmen to incorporate textured patterns. The pieces of leather are hand stitched by passing thick thread through small slits made with a stitching awl. Just a few tools, some cloth and plenty of imagination, the weavers of Sultanpur are all set to create new and beautiful things from an age old tradition.

Gautam Sinha in his den. Credits: trendinn.net

Gautam Sinha in his den. Credits: trendinn.net

But it’s leather at the end of the day! How does one keep their conscience clear? Sinha smiles; he has obviously faced this question often. “I love animals!” he says. “I love dogs and cows just as much as the next person. But leather is a source of livelihood that serves too many purposes to claim that it is taboo. Traditional villagers are in fact more comfortable working with leather than the urban population could ever imagine, I never faced any inhibitions when it came to craftsmen working with animal hide.”

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“Finest quality genuine leather products handcrafted by traditional artisans”, says the label.

Caring for the hand that weaves

The artisans are from all over the area of Sultanpur, and a select set of 15-20 of them work exclusively for Nappa Dori. Everyone has a different specific role. They even employ women and train them to work, which is very rare in the leather industry.

In order to sustain the livelihoods of these artisans they  provide interest free loans for all their employees and specifically provide for education for a number of employees or their kids. “It’s still not as big as we’d like it to be, but we’re going one step at a time. The bigger picture is to do a lot more but right now we are also just growing,” says Sinha.

"I feel the leather industry in India is as good as they can get anywhere else in the world," he says.

“I feel the leather industry in India is as good as they can get anywhere else in the world,” says Gautam Sinha.

High quality leather and thread

In all the time that I couldn’t take my eyes off the bags and shoes at the store, I realised they all looked impeccably well made. I could have easily mistaken them for Italian goods, with all the quality and attention to detail involved. Gautam Sinha agrees with me on this matter. “People think Italian leather and Italian craftsmanship is good. What they don’t realize is that most of the products go from India, and most leather products are Indian. Italian leather does have a decent amount of market share in the world but the Indian market is pretty strong too, in terms of leather and craftsmanship. In fact India is one of the biggest sources of leather in the world. Our craftsmanship is at par if not beyond any other country” he reiterates.

Sinha visited a small cluster in Udaipur with an NGO to help improve their skills in leather craftsmanship. It was a village with just 150 families, all involved in the business of making jootis. “But this business is dying and the older generations don’t want their kids to be doing the same work, so we went there to help encourage the design and skill to reignite their business.”

Laptop bags and trunks are clearly bestsellers at Nappa Dori

Laptop bags and trunks are clearly bestsellers at Nappa Dori

The best selling products are the laptop bags, says Sinha. Printed on these are quintessential Indian rural scene or images of the British Raj, Moghul architecture or portraitures of Indian holy men—all nostalgic visuals that are deep rooted in our culture. 

Images of traditional India on Nappa Dori products.

Images of traditional India on Nappa Dori products.

The photography is mostly done by the company, and very close to their hearts, showing an obvious sense of pride in their Indianness. The trunks, although only basic storage devices, are a major hit and have grown to become Nappa Dori’s signature product. The British Raj sense of style has been kept alive through the products here.

“Nappa Dori does try to give back however possible,” says Sinha. “Everyone knows we’re in a trade that’s hardly sustainable. In terms of giving back to the society we do as much as we can. We are linked to Harmony House, which is an NGO that takes care of underprivileged girls. We look after about 400 street children who are left unsupervised during the day by providing them with a hub to nurture them. The charity looks after their food and education. Here they also learn different skill sets, they learn English and do yoga, which helps to get their morale and their whole self esteem up, making them feel more like a part of society and less like outcasts. We connect this to the brand by giving them 5 percent of our profits, a practice that we have maintained since our initial days. We obviously don’t want to glorify that as a brand strategy but it is part of what we do.”

Our New Roots is a special series featuring entrepreneurs, artists, visionaries and youngsters who are forging the old and the new in exciting and innovative ways.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An engineer by fluke, an artist by choice and a writer by default, Ayeesha finds herself in her happy place in the arms of a good book and coffee. With a published short love story being the only feather in her cap, she's been putting together parts of herself in her blog, ( http://lazyandtheoverthinker.wordpress.com/ ) hoping to assemble them into a novel someday. She also wants her own Wiki p... more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An engineer by fluke, an artist by choice and a writer by default, Ayeesha finds herself in her happy place in the arms of a good book and coffee. With a published short love story being the only feather in her cap, she's been putting together parts of herself in her blog, ( http://lazyandtheoverthinker.wordpress.com/ ) hoping to assemble them into a novel someday. She also wants her own Wiki p... more

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