Editorial Articles

Editorial Article Volume-19

Khadi From Freedom Fabric to Fashion Fabric

Pratibha Mishra 

‘Khadi’ means cloth that is hand-spun and hand-woven. Mahatma Gandhi resuscitated Khadi as a symbol of nationalism, self-reliance and equality. In 1918, when he first started the Khadi Movement, Gandhiji had envisioned the handwoven fabric as a means of income for poverty-stricken masses, but around 1934-35, he started advocating the use of Khadi for oneself - as a part of his 'Swadeshi' (using domestic products) and 'Swaraj' (using self-governance) movements. The spinning wheel which used to be a symbol of poverty and backwardness rose to symbolize self-sustenance and non-violence, and went on to play a special role in the Freedom Movement of India.

When we promote Khadi, we address the social problems of India at several levels. As villagers spin Khadi for their own use, they can plant and harvest their own raw-material to produce the yarn, spinning wheel can be made easily too with little capital or outlay, and every man and woman of the village learns to spin and weave.

Gandhiji was a visionary. He had realised the power of Khadi and how it can be used to bring about the political, economic, social and cultural change in the country.

Khadi as an Occupation for Villagers

Agriculture largely depends on the seasons. During the dry spell which stretches for about four months, most farmers sit idle and do not have enough work to earn their living. ‘Spinning’ is a good as it is easy to learn, readily-available occupation, requiring very little capital or outlay.

During the freedom movement, Gandhiji noticed that all raw materials exported from India to England, and were being imported as expensive finished cloth. The local population was getting deprived of work opportunities, and the profits they could have earned from it.

Increasing domestic consumption of Khadi is one of the best ways to boost the economy of rural India, and generate ready employment. The entire cycle of producing Khadi and wearing it gives work  to low-skilled people. Farmers get money by producing and selling cotton. Then, those who spin, weave, and dye fabrics and at the tail end are tailors who cut and sew clothes from the fabric.

Establishing the Dignity of Manual Labour

Indian society has always looked down upon manual labour. Gandhiji asked every person to spin for at least an hour every day, as his or her duty towards the country and the poor. He tried to establish it as a way of life for the Indian people.

In the Mahatma’s own words  recorded in the Young India dated  22nd September 1927,

“If we have the 'khadi spirit' in us, we would surround ourselves with simplicity in every walk of life. The 'khadi spirit' means illimitable patience. For those who know anything about the production of khadi know how patiently the spinners and the weavers have to toil at their trade, and even so must we have patience while we are spinning 'the thread of Swaraj'. The 'khadi spirit' means also an equally illimitable faith. Even as the spinner toiling away at the yarn he spins by itself small enough, put in the aggregate, would be enough to clothe every human being in India, so must we have illimitable faith in truth and non-violence ultimately conquering every obstacle in our way.

The 'khadi spirit' means fellow-feeling with every human being on earth. It means a complete renunciation of everything that is likely to harm our fellow creatures, and if we but cultivate that spirit amongst the millions of our countrymen, what a land this India of ours would be! “The thoughts of the father of the nation resounds in our ears as India gloriously celebrate it’s 70th year of Independence.

Health and Social Benefits of Khadi

Khadi is made of natural-fiber (specifically cotton). It is porous, is suitable for the climate of India, and is quite eco-friendly. The use of cotton is good for health, especially for people who have skin problems.

At the time of freedom movement, it became popular as a symbol of those who believed in Gandhian philosophy. Today, it still cherishes this distinction. Since it has traditionally been associated with a simple and austere lifestyle, and serves to uplift the poor, its use indicates the values you cherish.

‘Khadi Spirit’ is all about simplicity in  all walks of life. It indicates endless patience. Those who spin and weave understand how patient one has to be to toil at these trades. That is why, Gandhiji had said that when you spin, you are spinning ‘the thread of Swaraj’. It shows that you believe in ‘truth’ and ‘non-violence’ and that you really believe in the adage – ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’ (The world is one Family)

Khadi also represents our will to nurture handicrafts of India, and associated industries. Our dependence on imported items decrease. We become more conscious of using ‘Swadeshi’ (domestically manufactured) items helping us to move towards self-reliant economy.

Trends are changing again now. Khadi has emerged as a fashion statement, and is rapidly gaining ground with the glamour industry of India and abroad.

Khadi Fashion Industry

Khadi is not a poor man’s cloth anymore. With some makeover from the designers, it has become a style statement. Today, Khadi is not only the symbol of India’s freedom as well as Indian values, pride and evolution. New weaving techniques and innovative Khadi blends are being used to give it a contemporary touch. We also see designers launching Khadi collections successfully at some of the biggest fashion shows of India like the Lakme Fashion Week (LFW) and the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week (WIFW). Famous designers like Rahul Mihra, Anand Kabra, Ritu Kumar and Sabyasaachi Mukherjee use Khadi extensively.

Besides pure Khadi cotton and Khadi silk, their blends with man-made eco-friendly fibers such as ‘teens’ and ‘modal’ as well as Khadi-viscose blends are open-heartedly embraced by designers as ideal fabrics for both contemporary Indian apparels and Western cuts. These new-age fashion designers often relate the handspun fabric with popular movements ‘eco-friendliness’ and ‘rural empowerment’.

70 years after independence and about 98 years after Gandhiji first began to spin the iconic fabric, the world of Khadi is changing. The design variations and the improved quality of the fabric has made it a global entity. Danish textile designer Bess Nielsen has named his store in Paris as Khadi. Christina Kim uses it for its haute label ‘Dosa’. It also made it to the famous Star Wars movies. From the freedom fabric to the fashion highlight, Khadi has indeed come a long way.

Its elegance and simplicity has made it a heartthrob of the elite class. Yet, there are many who appreciate it for its minimalist looks with deep Gandhian aesthetics. Soft pastels done by Ansari artisans in Bihar, and Khadi denim introduced in the markets by the Rajkot-based Saurashtra Rachnatmak Samiti (SRS) in early-2000s remain the highlights of Khadi fashion.

The classicists like Ritu Kumar say, “Khadi dyes beautifully, is more eco-friendly than any other Indian textile, and its matte texture looks fabulous with subtle embellishment.” They believe in its versatility. It not only goes well with ethnic looks but can turn out to be quite a distinct fashion statement when worn with proper accessories.

The use of Khadi is not restricted to making clothes. Beautifully-textured Khadi blends are gaining popularity in home décor (such as cushion covers and sofa covers), and making of shoes and various other crafts. Tile companies offer a Khadi line of somber-hued tiles too.

The Changing Face of Khadi

In the late 40s, Khadi was pitched against the British mill cloth as an icon of the Swadeshi movement. However, when the vein of nationalism ran dry, the bales of the handspun fabric got relegated to the back shelves of Khadi Gram Udyog Bhavans and government-run textile emporiums.

In 2001, Vasundhara Raje (then Minister of Small Scale Industries) decided to revive the Khadi industry and brought designers like Rohit Bal and Malini Ramini on board. The new designers suddenly upped the cool quotient of Khadi and Khadi kurtas, kurtis, jackets, dhotis, sarees and other kinds of apparels became quite a rage in the youth. Structured silhouettes became popular in Khadi apparels, and exclusive Khadi stores started opening up in major metropolitans of India.

The 2009-2010 report of the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) state that despite the upturn of the Khadi industry, there was a slump in the Khadi market. From 2008 to 2009, the value of Khadi produced in India feel from Rs.585.25 crore to Rs.484.45 crore, while its sales plummeted by Rs. 40 crore.

Though the Khaddar Act of 1950 states that it is a punishable offense to sell fake Khadi, there were no standardization rules and regulations to judge the quality of the fabric. As a result, many fake Khadi bhandars had mushroomed across India that were selling any handloom cloth in the name of ‘Khadi’. Moreover, the designers roped in to glamorise Khadi started complaining about the red-tapism that plagued the government offices.

Thankfully, Khadi’s international connections such as FabIndia (started by John and William Bissel) and Anokhi (owned by Faith and John Singh) turned out to be effective promoters of the fabric. In 2011, textile revivalist Rita Kapur Chisti organised an exhibition called ‘Khadi –the Fabric of Freedom’ across nine states in which she showcased 108 varieties of Khadi. The 2013 Khadi Kool collection by designer Goving used a variety of prints, appliqué work, zippers at strategic places, mirror work, and sequins to embellish the fabric in a palette of off-whites, blacks, yellows, oranges, deep pinks, reds and greens.

The fabric is not about to retire soon. And the government is now doing its best to promote the fabric once again. In his first ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio program, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “We must promote the use of khadi. Buy at least one khadi article. If you buy Khadi, you light the lamp of prosperity in the house of a poor person.” It is believed that this statement by the PM led to a sudden increase in the sale of Khadi products.

The sober and simple 'Modi Kurtas' worn with churidaars and crisp Modi jackets in unconventional colors (such as blue, yellow and bright pink) have become quite a rage today. Everybody from Indian men to the US President Barack Obama wants one. On the Teacher's Day, a student complimented PM Modi for being the 'brand ambassador of Indian clothing'.

The government has followed it up with concrete action too. The MSME has taken  an initiative to promote manufacturing and selling of Khadi-denim clothing. The Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) roped in the veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan to be the ‘Brand Ambassador’ for the fabric who did not charge fee for his services.

About 82% of the 1,25,000-strong workforce in the textile sector are women, especially rural artisans. Promoting Khadi, and textiles in general, can hence be seen as a means to empower women and poor people. The recent special package of Rs 6,000 crore announced for the textile industry by the new government is believed to generate about one crore jobs in the next few years.

The Indian Navy has introduced Khadi uniforms, Air India has decided to use Khadi products for amenity kits on its international flights, and  the postal department of Uttarakhand ordered Khadi cotton and woolen garments for its employees. Famous fashion designer Ritu Beri advocates that one day in a year should be declared as the ‘Khadi Day’ to motivate everyone to wear the fabric. She suggests that Khadi uniforms can be made popular everywhere – from hotels to hospitals to corporate.

Buy Khadi. Wear Khadi. Promote Khadi.

(The author is a columnist, writing for various newspapers. email:pratibhatana@gmail.com)