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In a shantytown of copycats, here's to the original

A 32-year-old leather trader is shedding Dharavi's leather knock-off paradise reputation by registering a brand that says it’s a slum original

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre

The line that tour guides use to introduce foreigners to Imran Wahaz Khan identifies him as the "local leather trader who launched a unique brand of leather goods; a 'real desi' one."

Khan, 32, gets 150 of these tourists every day at his air-conditioned store in Mohammed Ali Ismail Compound, adjoining his tannery and workshop, off 60 Feet Road in the shantytown of Dharavi. His newfound identity springs from the proprietary rights he has acquired over the 'Dharavi' logo granted by the Registrar of Trade Marks last December. The logo is now an important highlight of the educational tours that groups around Mumbai run to showcase Dharavi's small-scale industry to outsiders.

Imran Wahaj Khan with his father Mohammed at their Dharavi store. Pics/Sameer Markande
Imran Wahaz Khan with his father Mohammed at their Dharavi store. Pics/Sameer Markande

The youngest of tanner and leather manufacturer Mohammed Wahaz Khan's seven children, Imran admits he was the spoilt brat. He has a faint recollection of making it to KJ Khilnani High School in Mahim because he would spend most days with a bunch of errant friends in the narrow lanes of his Balika Nagar residence. "As we grew older and bolder, we loitered around Girgaum Chowpatty and Marine Drive in the eight hours of school. From among the movies we caught on Fridays by pooling in our funds, Arshad Warsi-starrer Hogi Pyar ki Jeet (1999) impacted me for a long time," he says.

Out of school, he was enrolled in a private institution but two failed attempts later, at 18, he was absorbed into the family business.

With the enthusiastic response of tourists to the Dharavi brand, Imran recognises the responsibility he shoulders of converting the slum’s image into one of an incubator of original ideas
With the enthusiastic response of tourists to the Dharavi brand, Imran recognises the responsibility he shoulders of converting the slum’s image into one of an incubator of original ideas

His father, a prominent voice in the leather manufacturing sector, was often approached by authors researching Dharavi's resilient work culture. In the post Slumdog Millionnare era, Dharavi assumed a larger-than-life global image. Khan's tannery prospered, especially when, giant like Western Indian Tanneries shut shop.

Imran was a skilled tanner with an inherited flair for washing, softening, colouring and polishing, but he wasn't inclined to follow the system that Khan's elder sons and 50-odd disciplined assistants had accepted. "I was the nakchadha baccha talking big deals," Imran laughs. The bragging didn't affect Senior Khan, who after arriving in the 70s from Kanpur had worked as daily wage labourer in tanneries. He knew that humility, perseverance and experience were on his side.

While Khan perceived accessories like bags and jackets as untried business risk, Imran dreamt of diversifying into the manufacture of leather goods, using top quality hide to manufacture originals, not counterfeits. Finally, the family agreed to test waters. He bought wallets from a manufacturer and showcased them to tourists, who came asking for more. Confidence boosted, Imran employed a group of designers and mestris to manufacture a similar range, which he displayed in two glass cabinets outside the tannery. Gradually, a wooden bench became the platform to exhibit the products. The tannery, like all tanneries, was crummy. "We have none to blame; we are in the heart of a sprawling slum settlement, packing in over a million people," says Imran. Those around him wondered why tourists would buy what was hawked outside a tannery. But when they did, the Khans devoted a nook of their 5,000 sq ft workshop for tourists to come and survey the merchandise.

This space is now an air-conditioned retail shop with six close-circuit cameras, and the birthplace of the Dharavi brand.

Imran's idea to brand came from his belief, Bambai mein mitti bhi bikti hai; bechnewala chahiye. The guides behind Dharavi reality tours, who are in the business of showcasing the 'non-hyped slum experience', believed the brand was directed at the buyer, and spoke of indigenous manufacturing. Fellow manufacturers, though, didn't share the excitement. Why would you associate your goods with a slum renowned for poverty and cheap labour? "Fortu-nately for me, the buyers were in favour of 'Dharavi' since the goods truly belonged to the slum."

Imran recognises the responsibility he shoulders now. He is now equated not with those who make knock-offs of Michael Kors and Mulberry, traditionally enjoying a lion's share of sales at Dharavi.

Eli Beer, a New Yorker who visited his shop recently, says, "As people travel more, they are less enamored by Gucci and Louis Vuitton." Beer compares Imran to Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, the founder of Rags to Riches, an enterprise that creates eco-ethical fashion out of recycled scrap cloth from Philippines' rubbish heaps.

However, Rajkumar Gupta, a tailored garment supplier from Dharavi, sees it a bit differently. He feels Imran can monetise the slum's credentials because the leather industry has a prestigious history. The same is not true of all small-scale manufacturing (Dharavi produces everything from pillows to dog feed, raincoats to petticoat lace) and doubts over quality control and standards often arise in the customer's mind. Which is why most food product manufacturers avoid being associated with Dharavi, choosing to call Sion and Mahim their base. "If a chikki maker flaunts the Dharavi logo, he will only lose buyers," says Gupta, who finds a supporter in Shaikh Azarul Haq, who manufactures surgical threads and is a catgut provider for Johnson & Johnson. He says, "Dharavi's leather industry thrives on foreign purchasing power. The minus turns into a plus, because leather accessories are non-edibles. Factory hygiene is not central [to the product's success]."

While Imran's branding is a "client-appropriate business strategy," there is a hint of the positive Mumbai spirit in his worldview. Rahul Srivastava, co-director of The Institute of Urbanology, which has an office in Dharavi and researches issues of urban development and neighbourhood life, says, "The Dharavi-branded line is a proud style statement, asserting the original production that occurs within on an impressive scale. The logo is a sign of Imran's pride in one of the oldest leather workshops in the city."

As is evident from the just-launched Dharavi Museum, a project that looks to offer design interventions to boost the settlement's skill and entrepreneurship spirit, Imran's brand is also an unapologetic expression of the slum's self-image. "Who knows," he says, "one day someone will make a fake 'Dharavi'."

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. She tweets at @medhatalk. Send your feedback to smdmail@mid-day.com

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