Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
WOVEN ART : June 20, 1999
Swadeshi, yet out of reach
Khadi has never enjoyed an identity of its own. On the contrary, it has always changed with the whims and fancies of what the wearer wants to portray. In this context, khadi is not a fabric, it is a tool in the hands of a politician to facilitate patriotic portrayal or in the hands of the elite as an issue of distinct identity and more so with a social worker as a revival episode.
Any traditional textile of India provides with it, an identity of the social, cultural and religious aspect of the wearer, yet has its own aesthetic value. We have always known specific associations of colours, textures, motifs etc to the beauty of a textile. Although khadi does not identify its wearer in social, cultural or religious terms, it clearly defines him /her in political and economic aspects. Having such a powerful clientele it is but obvious for the simple, hand-spun khadi to be overshadowed in its intrinsic values. The palette of khadi is known to have only one permanent colour . . . that of patriotism, the hues of which have been manipulated from issues of craft revival to Gandhiji's swadeshi tactic.
The birth of khadi took place in the eventful years of the freedom struggle. With a vision to recreate an economically sufficient, craft based society, Gandhiji adopted Khadi as a medium. The obvious choice of using a textile for this purpose was linked with the renewal of hand spinning and hand weaving industries. Moreover, khadi, being a fabric of no particular social and cultural implications, provided a "binding factor" for the otherwise culturally diverse India. With the establishment of the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad in 1915, amidst the preliminary experiments with weaving and spinning, khadi was born, with a face of swadeshi.
An exhaustive promotion of khadi started with a swadeshi label by Gandhiji himself. It popularised the fabric but did little for its acceptance vis-a-vis foreign millmade fabric. This grim response towards khadi was not so much due to its coarse texture as to its price. Being hand-spun and hand-woven it required more time to produce and was economically less viable than millmade fabrics. The irony of economically exploited India was to choose from swadeshi but expensive khadi and foreign but cheaper millmade fabric. Gandhiji provided a rather difficult solution to this problem; he said, "We shall confine ourselves to pure swadeshi cloth, even though we may have to remain satisfied with a mere loincloth". His obstinacy trickled down to his own dress as he started wearing a khadi loincloth to set an example.
Khadi seemed to be a single, unique solution to all the problems of struggling India, from creating employment for the masses, providing economic independence, removing casteism, to unifying the country to drive out British rule. Gandhiji called it the "sacred cloth". By then, khadi had many faces besides swadeshi, and thus defined the identity of the wearer. Also, being patronised by the elite like Sarladevi Chaudhurani and all the famous congressmen, khadi broke down social barriers. Gandhiji said: "The good ladies of Lahore flocked around her and felt her coarse but beautiful white sari and admired it. Some took pity on her that she, who only the other day was dressed in costly, thin silk saris now decked herself in swadeshi khadi. Sarladevi wanted no pity and retorted that their scarves lay heavy on their shoulders with the weight of their helpless dependence on their foreign manufacture, whereas her coarse khadi lay light as a feather on her body with the joy of which her sisters and brothers had laboured."
During this convincingly effective production, distribution and promotion campaign of khadi, the development of intrinsic quality and variety was ignored. This intentional choice was made by Gandhiji to avoid any step back to the evils of rich and poor, casteism, religious and cultural differences. Unity was the need of the hour and only simple, white, coarse khadi could be affordable to everybody. Though men found it easier to adopt these ideals it was difficult for married women to wear the drab, white khadi sari with its various connotations of widowhood. This led to a variety of prints, colours, embroideries and borders on khadi. However, all these decorations were kept at a low profile to enable the stamp of simplicity and affordability.
As we moved from the shackles of British rule, we realised that khadi played an important if not sufficient role in creating the identity of an Indian. But at the same time, it robbed us of our individual, cultural and social identity. As we cannot go back to our traditional fabrics, so can we not adopt khadi. The simplicity and coarseness of khadi may have catered to the struggling India, but it definitely has not adapted to suit the struggle of today. With no struggle to fight for, we breathe in an economically independent, socially and culturally newer environment. In these times of globalisation and information technology, saleability of any textile depends on its USP (unique selling point) and performance. We have been trying to promote khadi on emotional and political grounds, while much needs to be done to improve its quality and variety. Khadi has very little to offer in terms of fabric performance. It may look appealing when starched and kept in the KVICshowrooms but realities dawn as it is washed, and one doesn't find the same look again. Even finer counts and blends of khadi cannot withstand the many washes of our day-to-day use. Colour fastners, softness and fall of khadi cannot compete with the high-tech colour-fast, wrinkle-free, millmade cottons and blends available today.
As the common man gets hooked onto the performing fabrics of today, the elite are moving towards Khadi. Alighting from the latest model of an airconditioned car, the elite do not overuse their clothes, nor bother about dry cleaning bills. In such a situation, khadi offers other qualities of simplicity, being eco friendly, contributing to the revival of a craft and offering support to the poor weaver community.
Unfortunately, khadi has not gone through the constant research and development that is an indispensible part of the textile industry. Like any other craft of India, khadi has to struggle to face this challenge of producing contemporary designs and quality standards. Otherwise it will remain only another opportunity for a westernised Indian to look Indian.
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