For the habitually well-shod, India is a never-ending source of inspiration. The country’s traditional shoe styles range from simple slippers to structural masterpieces of braided leather, gilt threads, and tassels. Some have even gained international renown, such as the strappy leather Kohlapuri chappals, which enjoyed a burst of popularity in the United States in the 1970s, thanks to the hippie movement.
Recently the bantu, a much simpler style, has been showing up on sidewalks in countries as far away as Australia, Japan, and the United States. “It’s a shoe without a back that has a handwoven upper that joins with the midsole in a unique way of braiding,” says Kristen Morabito, creative director at Mohinders, one company popularizing the style abroad. “I haven’t seen that done anywhere else.”
The versatile leather slide combines the slip-on ease of a Moroccan babouche and the woven-leather styling of Mexican huaraches. Perhaps because of these similarities, the up-and-comer is often mislabeled, separating the shoe from its history, the people who make it, and sometimes even its country. But if you’re going to walk a mile in these shoes, it’s worth learning more about this heirloom product. Here’s what you need to know before slipping on a pair this season.
A heritage craft
India’s footwear tradition dates back over 5,000 years. And because climate differences and local preferences influenced the way styles evolved, designs are deeply regional. In the north, you’ll find elaborate, slipper-like Rajasthani mojaris and Punjabi juttis. Kolhapuri chappals, on the other hand, famously hail from Kolhapur in the hotter state of Maharashtra. Decorations can help further pinpoint a shoe’s origin so precisely that you could trace it to a specific village.
The bantu is closely associated with an area in the state of Karnataka just across the Maharashtrian border from Kolhapur. The two places share a shoemaking tradition, so in materials and craft, bantus are closely related to their more famous neighbors.
Mohinders works with a group of 10 to 12 artisan families in the Karnatakan city of Athani, which bustles with a population of over 60,000. And one neighborhood a little outside the center of town is the epicenter of bantu production. The shoemaking community here is a large one, and other families produce shoes for various clients or even for local consumption.
Shoemaking in India is not glamorous work, and this used to be a low-caste neighborhood. But in 1998 ASCENT, a national development NGO, set up shop and now works with a local company called Toehold to unify and train shoemakers and organize women’s savings groups. Now the area is on the rise.
The making of a shoe
Master craftsman Gajanand S Bhandare, 58, heads one of the families that Mohinders works with to make its shoes. He and his family sit together in a room with bright orange and yellow walls during the workday. A back room is piled high with rough-edged leather hides. A good pair of sandals from this region is made from bag-tanned, vegetable-dyed water buffalo leather (killing cows is illegal here). This leather-making process is about as near to traditional as you can get and, because it uses less water and no chemicals, it’s more eco-friendly than many commercially produced leathers.
Each member of the Bhandare family specializes in a different part of the shoemaking process. Depending on the complexity of the shoe, it could take anywhere from three to six hours to make a single pair (though they almost never make a one pair at a time, preferring to tackle orders in stages).
There are a few common variations on the basic bantu. Sometimes it has a back, or “counter”; sometimes the upper part is solid rather than woven (the Athani artisans have nicknamed this one “the bald guy”). But the first step to making any of the styles is to prepare the leather. Bhandare uses a fan-shaped knife with a short handle to trim the raw edges, then uses the same tool to thin the leather, shaving it down and sending curls of damp leather scrap billowing into piles.
Next, another artisan, possibly one of his sons, Vishal or Nitnin, polishes the leather using a smooth ceramic block (actually an old electrical conduit) and then cuts it into shapes—the upper part, the thick soles, laces, and counters—with quick, decisive knife slashes. Asha, Bhandare’s wife, or Akshata, his daughter-in-law, will then weave the laces to create the upper.
The shoes these families make for Mohinders diverge slightly from the traditional design for reasons of comfort and longevity. The sole, for example, has extra padding. The three layers of the insole—a thick rough layer, a sponge, and then a top layer of thin, soft goat leather—are first glued then stitched together using a sturdy needle-like tool with half an eye called an ari. Then an artisan attaches a crepe sole (another Mohinders addition) and punches holes around the edge of the piece.
Once the components are ready, the shoe comes together. Wetting the leather, the artisan—Asha is particularly deft at this—molds the pieces around a form and knots the laces of the upper into the holes of the sole, creating that bonding braid. After the shoe has been left to dry for about two days, the final step is stamping the sole with the size and the Mohinders logo, and voilà—shoes made for walking.
An uncertain legacy
In 2016, a Times of India article questioned the future of heritage shoemaking in India, citing cheap knockoffs and the rising price of materials. A dwindling interest from the younger generation also threatens the craft. Abbas S.Lakdawala, operations manager for Mohinders and owner of a traditional shoe store in Mumbai called Popular Footwear, explains that in the past, men were expected to go into the same trade as their fathers, but now more young people are moving out and into big cities.
Prabha Maruti Marathe, an Athani artisan, started making shoes at the age of 12, when she married and moved to the village. Her son Amit is now a fourth-generation craftsman, but her daughter Swati is a year away from getting her bachelor’s of commerce degree and dead-set on heading to a bigger city to pursue a career in the government.
A few doors down, Ganesh Prakash Honmore followed in the footsteps of his father, Prakesh Arjun Honmore, who followed in the footsteps of his. But the younger Honmore was initially hesitant to commit to the career. Now, although the two work together, Prakesh sticks to the traditional methods, while Ganesh is game to try new styles and methods.
That sort of flexibility might be a way to help this traditional craft endure, turning it into a viable means of making a sustainable, healthy livelihood. The Times article posits e-commerce and export opportunities as a way to save a dying craft, partly because wider markets equate to more demand during the traditionally slow monsoon seasons. And as S.Lakdawala says, “We want to support the craftsmen here, and the best way we can do that is to give them work.”
Initially, Mohinders stuck to existing bantu variations, but the company made a departure with two of its more recent styles—a solid leather shoe with a back, and an open-toed woven sandal—while still paying homage to the heirloom design. It was primarily younger artisans like Ganesh and Nitnin who helped create the prototypes.
The bantu has always told the story of a changing community—one that first migrated away from Kolhapur and has long been able to adapt to changing tastes both at home and abroad, putting up a valiant fight against culture loss. “With the economics and the intergenerational relationships and the international relationships and the language barriers and all the political and economic forces at play, there’s a lot more going on than just a beautiful heirloom craft,” says the Mohinders creative director. “It’s still a beautiful heirloom craft, but there’s also so much more to it.”