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Freedom's fabric


Khadi is a symbol of India's independence. How does it fit into today's fashion scene?

KHADI ON THE RAMP: Designers have converted the fabric associated with the freedom movement into new age garments. Photo: BIJOY GHOSH

KHADI'S earliest avatar was fashioned some 5,000 years ago in India, the original home of cotton, hand spun and hand woven by craftspersons who in all likelihood followed the precise intstructions on weaving, spinning and dyeing laid out in the Vedas. The Mahabharata and Ramayana rhapsodise over the intricacies of gold shot woven cloth.

Ancient textile knowledge

As proof of ancient textile knowledge we have the scrap of Indian indigo-dyed cotton ikat found in a Pharoah's tomb, the rose madder cloth unearthed at a Mohenjodaro site along with spindles, Greek traders' accounts of fine fabrics from Gangetica. Not to mention Roman historian Pliny's lament that a ban be imposed on import of cloth from India since it was emptying state coffers and having an adverse effect on the morals of Roman women parading in diaphanous, gauzy Indian stuff.

Exquisitely woven, painted, embellished, "passed through a ring" and so on India's cloth was the pride and glory of many an ancient and medieval trade route, including the fabled silk route, favoured by European royalty in the 17th and 18th Centuries and coveted as `woven breeze' and `tissues of spiders' web'. This was Khadi in another age...

Every school child knows how the Industrial Revolution, with its steam engine, spinning jenny and power loom, created a powerhouse of cloth mills that literally dessicated India's textiles. British colonial policy dictated by law that all the cotton grown in India be exported to the Home Country at very low prices while British mill cloth flooded Indian markets, forcing the locals to buy it.

Million of Indian spinners and weavers went out of work, prompting Bengal Governor Lord William Bentinck to admit "the bones of cotton weavers are littering the plains of India". Hand spun, hand woven cloth, the pride of India, was all but killed and along with it, vast reservoirs of precious traditional textile knowledge too disappeared.

Khadi resuscitated

It was left to Mahatma Gandhi in early 20th Century to reinvent, revive and resuscitate Khadi under a new brand name, a new philosophy and programme. By asking millions of his countrymen to spin yarn at the charka, wear Swadeshi Khadi cloth and eschew all foreign goods, Gandhiji was not merely restoring pride in heritage and the value of handwork or making a strike against colonial exploitation.

Khadi was a socio-economic statement as well. Apart from giving jobs to millions of rural artisans, his programme looked to an equal distribution of wealth, decentralisation, non-exploitation or minimal exploitation.

Heeding his clarion call, countless Indians: the intelligentsia, middle classes, the common man and the poverty-ridden rural masses took to spinning yarn. A Khadi wave swept over the country. The first Khadi production centre was opened in 1921, it found a place in the National Flag and as millions of charkas hummed across India khadi was truly reborn.

Coarse and homespun, perhaps light years away from its exquisite avatar of 300 years ago but a proud symbol of India's Independence struggle, and as Pandit Jawahalal Nehru put it `livery of its freedom'.

But did the newly independent India, set firmly on the road to industrialisation and building "temples of modern India" give "three cheers not to khadi but to mill cloth" as Gandhiji wryly commented? The formation of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) in 1956 set the freedom fabric on the road to commerce and development. Millions of khadi spinners and weavers are under the vast network of institutions, which constitute the KVIC umbrella.

The main thrust areas of KVIC (now reconstituted as Commissioner of Khadi and Village Industries) have been research, improved technology in the working and design of the charka as well as innovation in design and development of Khadi to make it more attractive. KVIC has worked with the National Institute of Design, NGOs like Dastkar, Andhra and Ruda and Rajashtan to give the ancient fabric a trendy contemporary look in design and format.

Today, Khadi has become a happening fashion statement with designers like Tarun Tahiliani, Ritu Kumar, Muzzaffar Ali, Wendell Rodericks and Rohit Bal working at elegant khadi `lines'. Embroidered, embellished, shaded, block printed and pin tucked, the prêt line of Khadi tops, trousers, skirts, dresses, salwar kurta ensembles and men's wear is now showcased at leading fashion boutiques and stores across India and abroad.

And the 140-count West Bengal Khadi muslin saris and Ponduru Khadi saris from Andhra have literally become value-added fashion statements. Khadi chic in cotton and silk forms a significant part of the country's exports.


But in the globalised techno-centric world of today, will Khadi endure? To many it represents an alternative lifestyle statement and the intrinsic soul fulfilling value of handwork with man and not machine at its heart.

But to many this unique natural fibre is totally mainstream. Beautifully textured, sensuous and skin-friendly, it is cool in torrid Indian summers and keeps one warm in winter. It brings employment to millions of rural artisans at their doorstep, thus stopping the fearful rural exodus to the already overburdened metros.

It is totally non-polluting and does not recklessly destroy natural resources both in terms of raw materials and energy, representing as economist C. Kumarappa put it "the economy of permanence... "

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