Copyright 2016, Forbesindia.com

Khadi - The Fabric of Our Nation

Khadi is part of the warp and weft of India; but it is by no means stuck in history


Fort, in Mumbai, is where the British left their architectural legacy. On the ground floor of one of the many colonial era buildings there resides a store, housing another legacy from their times, khadi.

Flanked by a couple of massive, dusty, dull, almost neglected shop windows, the doorway leads into Khadi Bhandar, whose sheer size and location would be the envy of any retailer. Sprawled over two floors — you actually have to look up to see the ceiling — the shop has shelves stacked with myriad variety, colours and shades of khadi. Fans, attached to the end of six-foot poles, hang from the distant ceilings. There are some people around — almost all salespersons. Trunks — the kind that our grandparents travelled with — stand stacked near the cash counter, along with piles of cartons.

A few minutes away, in the Kala Ghoda precinct, is a lane that is easy to miss. Along one of the nondescript walls of the lane is a discreet door, polished a dark shade of mahogany, so quiet it is even easier to miss. A small plaque, at knee-level, on the left of the door reads ‘Sabyasachi’.

Inside, it is dimly lit, reflecting impeccable taste and design sensibilities. An awe-inspiring collection of antique clocks and photographs adorn the walls of the extended foyer. Eighty’s pop murmurs from almost-invisible speakers nestled in the corners of the low ceiling. Bright colours, impossibly intricate zardozi, flowing fabrics line the deliberately stark walls. Inside an antique wooden almirah sits Sabsyaschi’s khadi sarees; each would cost the monthly budget of an upper middle-class family.

The walk from Khadi Bhandar to Sabysachi is short. But the journey of khadi has been a long one.

Khadi first caught the imagination of the nation during the freedom movement under Mahatma Gandhi, who propagated it as not just a fabric, but a way of life. One that is centred around the village, where the practice of khadi would be able to generate employment, income and, hence, self-reliance. Khadi was meant to become a supplementary industry to agriculture, a crucial element in a self-sustaining economy.

But it was not simply about the making of yarn at home, it was the spirit behind it. Gandhi’s vision was clear: “If we have the khadi spirit in us, we should surround ourselves with simplicity in every walk of life… The khadi spirit means illimitable patience… The khadi spirit means also an equally illimitable faith… The khadi spirit means fellow-feeling with every human being on earth.”

Adopting khadi as a lifestyle choice symbolised the move away from British textiles and products — resulting in all those spontaneous bonfires into which people flung their rich silks and laces from England — and the promotion of all things Indian.

Spinning yarn on the charkha, Gandhi believed, inculcated discipline and dedication. It was meant to be a great social equaliser — “It sits well on the shoulders of the poor, and it can be made, as it was made in the days of yore, to adorn the bodies of the richest and most artistic men and women” — and was also a tool to bring women into the fold of the freedom movement.

Khadi was, in fact, a masterstroke, taking the freedom movement beyond the rarefied circles of the social elite and the educated out to the masses. And the image of Gandhi sitting in front of a charkha acquired the weight of historical symbolism.

In the decades after Independence, the government institutionalised the khadi industry, setting up, in 1957, the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) through an Act of Parliament, with the aim of providing employment through the production of saleable articles and, through this, creating self-reliance among the poor and building a strong rural community. The commission works towards supplying raw material and implements to producers, promoting research in production techniques, quality control of khadi products and promoting the sale and marketing of these products.

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But in popular culture, the perception of khadi changed. It came to be synonymous with politicians and, subsequently, corruption. The association between politics and khadi was mostly due to the Congress, whose membership criteria requires one to be a habitual wearer of khadi, to abstain from alcohol and drugs and not practice untouchability. Now, while the common man came to understand that all the other criteria were rapidly turning out to be a farce, the use of khadi stuck as a strong symbol of political associations and activism.

But khadi, despite these murky associations, continues to be a symbol to be respected and nurtured. At a recent function in July, Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh sparked off a controversy by wiping his shoes with a garland made of spun cotton. Congress General Secretary Janardan Dwivedi expressed the party’s disappointment by saying, “In the life of a nation, there are certain important symbols and one should be more careful and sensitive about them.”

It is only recently that the fabric has caught the attention of high fashion. The common man has been wearing it simply for its versatile character and comfort. At the cash counter in a Khadi Bhandar, you will find a motley crowd from middle-class India who thinks of the fabric as durable and affordable.

“Khadi has evolved a lot since I started working here,” says the supervisor of a Khadi Bhandar outlet, wary of giving out his name. And he has been working there for 35 years. “Earlier, you would not get printed fabric, or salwar-kameez sets, or ready made clothes. You could only get the plain fabric, in cotton or silk.” He explains how the fibre is now far smoother and lighter than what it started out as; consequently khadi clothes are now more comfortable and the fabric can hold many more dyes.

A lot of khadi is also not hand-spun any longer; traditionally the yarn is meant to be hand spun and the cloth hand-woven. The mechanised ambar charkha has replaced traditional hand-operated charkhas in many parts of the country. At the Khadi Bhandars, though, all the clothes are hand-spun and hand-woven, in the true spirit of the movement.

For celebrated designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, khadi is simply a luxurious fabric that needs to be restored and preserved. He has styled entire lines on khadi, but no, he is not making any political statement by promoting it. “I think it is the most sophisticated fabric,” he says. “It has a quiet dignity that is absent in mill-made fabrics. It also stands for the fact that luxury is not something you can get by simply throwing money at it. Luxury is a state of mind. And khadi represents all that.”

But is has not been easy to convince his clients. “Khadi is either associated with politicians, or with the poor. Our country also suffers from the gloss syndrome. Anything that is dull or matte, is not appreciated easily. I wanted to demystify the status of khadi and started creating bridal wear — the ultimate realm of luxury clothing — from the fabric. It creates shock reactions.

“But the mindset is changing. The woman who chooses khadi is one who is completely at ease with herself. She is not the kind with dyed hair and make-up. She is educated and cultured enough to know the significance of khadi.” He adds that khadi is often shunned by the nouveau riche: “Only when they are trying to show that they are ‘old money’ and not ‘new money’, do they try venturing towards khadi.”

Founder of Good Earth, Anita Lal’s reasons for working with khadi are different from Mukherjee’s. “We started our own line of khadi garments at Good Earth, sold under the brand name Sustain, with the idea of sustainability. We retail other brands of khadi garments as well, but believe in working at the grassroots level with those involved in the making of the fabric. But we cannot produce any rubbish and expect people to buy it. The garments have to be well cut and stitched. We wanted to make khadi a beautiful and sophisticated fabric and consciously move away from the Khadi Gram Udyog look.

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“The traditional khadi fabric has issues such as shrinkage and maintenance. It also has colours that can bleed.” She explains that the hand-spun and hand-woven fabric needs to be chemically treated to make it softer and more pliable, so that it can be adapted to contemporary designs and cuts.

Mukherjee, who sources his khadi from Dastkari in Andhra Pradesh, thinks khadi is too intelligent a fibre to be treated. “The challenge of working with it does not lie in its characteristics, but its procurement. It is made in small pockets of India, sometimes the poorest ones. Its quality is not consistent either. But all this makes it more of a luxury product.” But doesn’t the glamourisation of the fabric go against the basic philosophy behind it?

Lal says, “A lot of designers today are launching khadi lines. But most of them are using it simply as a fashion trend. Not because they believe in the philosophy behind it.”

Mukherjee’s argument is different: “Mahatma Gandhi used khadi as a tool to bind India together. But today, that philosophy has become anachronistic. We should work towards the revival of the fabric and looking at it purely for its political symbolism will do it disservice.”  

Tradition, symbolism and a new-found versatility seem to have come together in wooing major retailers as well. In July, the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises hinted  that it might allow KVIC to go ahead with private participation for managing its outlets. Business Standard had reported that Fabindia, Shoppers Stop and four other companies have shown interest in these partnerships.

The Khadi Bhandar at Fort was set up in 1957 and inaugurated by Morarji Desai. But many who work there don’t know this. To them, it is where they have worked all their lives. Time moves slowly inside its walls, but it does move.

The range of fabrics available has increased over the years, with printed and vegetable-dyed variations adding to the unadorned varieties. Garments in contemporary cuts and designs are displayed alongside Nehru jackets and Gandhi topis. Trendy leather bags share shelf space with Kolhapuri slippers. The store stocks a range of cosmetic products, made from natural ingredients and priced higher than the average commercial ones. The relatively recent dyed raw silk fabric is not what you would really call cheap, priced at more than Rs. 800 a metre. It would therefore be inaccurate to associate KVIC’s products with cheap goods. However, it is not exclusive either. You can buy a small, compact, charkha for Rs. 550 and raw, unprocessed cotton for Rs. 40 a bundle. In effect, it gives you the choice of making your own hand-spun yarn at home.

“Sales have dipped since the rebates were removed last year,” says an employee. “And we get a lot of foreign tourists as customers.” Almost on cue, a woman of Far-Eastern origin walks to the cash counter with a handful of receipts. The receipts themselves are on hand-made paper, the kind you would pay good money for in a fancy store.

Khadi is perhaps no longer what it was when Mahatma Gandhi sat with a charkha and spun a philosophy around it. It has lived a life of its own despite its heavy baggage of political symbolism, absorbing contemporary shades and blemishes, and evolved. It has added more layers to its characteristics, while retaining its fundamental ones, making it a fabric that reflects the times.