Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Khadi - The Fabric of Freedom and Fashion

By M H Ahssan

Khadi has always been a fabric with attitude. If in the past its claim to fame was its status as a symbol of resistance against British rule, it has now become a fashion statement. Its journey from its eventful birth as the fabric favoured by revolutionaries, to designer boutiques and elite consciousness has been an exciting one.

At one time coarse and dull, khadi's latest avatar is brightly coloured and gossamer fine. While designers sing hosannas to the versatility of the fabric, wearers swear by its practicality and comfort. It is not only the perfect answer to India's hot and humid summers but also provides adequate protection against winter chill. Leading designers like Rohit Bal, Jatin Kochchar, Malini Ramani, and Bhavna Thareja and upmarket clothes brands like Fabindia and Anokhi have given to the traditional handspun fabric a modern and contemporary look. With its stylish cuts and innovative colours, khadi has come to define the trendy ethnic look. Its easy adaptability to a range of designs makes it amenable to both formal and informal look, as well as Indian and western styles. Stores stack a range of dresses in khadi - jackets, skirts, kurtas, dupattas, sarees, cropped tops, capris, trousers, wrap-arounds, spaghetti tops, trousers, you name it. Little wonder that khadi is a hot favourite with not only the make-a-fashion-statement college crowd but also the with-it and cool not-so-young.

From the coarse, plain kapda that was eons ago a statement of patriotism and later a must- have for netas, khadi as a designer’s raw material for runway apparels is a bellwether of its changing status. The government, having done its bit by roping in designers to give the plain old Khadi Gram Udhyog a makeover, has attracted the attention of even the elite.

While designers agree that khadi can lend itself to almost any look and cut, they rue the fact that it has been unable to find popular acceptance. "The biggest problem is that of mindset. For some inexplicable reason, people find it difficult to accept khadi as a formal outfit. This is actually not true. Almost all formal outfits can be made out of khadi - including western tops, shirts, pants sarees, lehengas and blouses", says Bhavana Thareja, a fashion designer involved in designing clothes for KVIC.

It is very unfortunate, Thareja says, that people, especially the youth, would prefer to buy a Levis or any other denim brand for Rs 700 to Rs 800 but would consider the same price as expensive if the outfit happened to be made out of khadi.

"The rigidity of the mindset has to change and something should be quickly done to bring about awareness, both domestically and internationally", she says.

Designers also lament that khadi is yet to evoke the kind of response in the domestic markets that is has generated abroad. "It is unfortunate that we are able to sell more khadi abroad than within the country. Here it is still considered an inexpensive, rough cloth, which the hoity toity is yet to accept," says designer Ashish Soni, who makes it a point to include a few khadi pieces in each of his collections.

Fashion designers are however, confident that khadi has a huge potential. "Internationally, people are fond of linen. And khadi is the purest form of linen", says Thareja. And with more khadi dresses going off the shelf in markets overseas, it has persuaded the domestic market to give the textile more than a second glance. "It is a slow process, khadi will have more takers in the domestic market and like in the West, it will be cherished for what it is. Buying khadi can easily become a habit," says designer Vijay Lakshmi Dogra.

She adds, "It can replace linen in the international markets. It is so versatile, you can get amazing colours and textures and weaves if you combine khadi with cotton, muslin or silk. Even plain khadi by itself is a great material to work with, both for the winter and summer collections."

For designer Anju Modi, known for her work using the fabric, which she claims has a "unique textured look", khadi is "weather friendly and its appeal can be enhanced by using more prints on it".

Modi says, "The fabric is perfect for printing, especially the vegetable dye block prints that we have in India. Printing is in fact much better than embroidering it as it is easier to maintain and with prints being in fashion in the international markets, it will become more chic."

According to Dogra, the popularity of khadi has increased in recent times, "The ever-increasing penchant for khadi has some reasons. There are two kinds of buyers. The first kind of people buy khadi for a reason. A look at the past reveals the way khadi was promoted by Gandhiji. This was to promote village economy, to stop the exodus from villages to cities. Khadi was promoted extensively to make them economically more self-sufficient. One reason why some people wear khadi is the feeling that by designing clothes in khadi and by wearing khadi they are supporting the 80 per cent of the population that lives in villages," says Dogra.

The second kind of people, according to her, wear it because of the inherent nature of khadi since "It is one of the best and comfortable fabrics for both winter and summer: cool in summer and warm in winter. Moreover the availability of variants of khadi like muslin khadi, matka khadi and hand-woven khadi provides the freedom of experimentation to the designers and makes it a really suitable buy for all kinds of occasions. Matka khadi is one of my favourite fabrics and one can see its widespread use in my collection," she says.

She says that the marketability of khadi will only increase "once people start wearing khadi because then they become addicted to it. From masses to the elite, khadi is making a place for itself in wardrobes. The cost that ranges from Rs 30 a metre to Rs. 1000 a metre makes it really accessible and one of the most comfortable, convenient as well as stylish fabrics," Dogra says.

Its appeal to fashion sensibilities apart, designers feel that khadi’s role in helping impoverished farmers should also be highlighted, "It is important to underline how khadi helps in sustaining villages and the lives of poor farmers who grow cotton. Buyers, especially in foreign markets, would acknowledge such details. Like it happened when the market reacted strongly to the fact that the carpet industry was using child labour, it had such an adverse impact on business. In the case of khadi, it might actually augment the product’s appeal," points out Dogra.

Apart from being the king of the wardrobe, khadi is also a lifestyle product. It is used to make durries, gaddas, upholstery, cushions, bags, mats, bed-sheets, and curtains. Its inherent toughness ensures that it doesn't wear down easily.

The first true Indian designer was Mahatma Gandhi when he urged the people of India to wear khadi garments. It was not only a call to create self reliance but a call to create self reliance but a call to wear something that could prove the unity of India. Khadi was given a more important status by Gandhi after his return from South Africa. While in search of the charkha Gandhi felt that for a nation to turn self-reliant, it had to return to indigenous manufactured goods.

Gandhi wrote. Swaraj (self-rule) without swadeshi (country made goods) is a lifeless corpse and if Swadeshi is the soul of Swaraj, khadi is the essence of swedeshi. Therefore khadi became not only a symbol of revolution and resistance but part of an Indian identity.

Gandhi confessed though, When I first discovered the spinning wheel it was purely through intuition. It was not backed by knowledge so much so that I confused charkha with kargha (handloom).

The term khādī or khaddar means cotton. khādī is Indian handspun and hand-woven cloth. The raw materials may be cotton, silk, or wool, which are spun into threads on a spinning wheel called a charkha. It is a versatile fabric, cool in the summer and warm in the winter. However, being a cruder form of material, it wrinkles much faster than other preparations of cotton. In order to improve the look, khādī is often starched to have a stiffer shape. It is widely accepted in fashion circles.

Mahatma Gandhi began promoting the spinning of khādī for rural self-employment and self-reliance in 1920s India thus making khadi an integral part and icon of the Swadeshi movement. The freedom struggle revolved around the use of khādī fabrics and the dumping of foreign-made clothes. Thus it symbolized the political ideas and independence itself, and to this day most politicians in India are seen only in khādī clothing. The flag of India is only allowed to be made from this material, although in practice many flag manufacturers, especially those outside of India, ignore this rule.
Khādī was used, and dyed random colors, in some of the costumes for the Star Wars prequels, such as Mace Windu's (Samuel L. Jackson) attire.

Khadi commands a sentimental value for Indians. It is often associated with Mahatma Gandhi. Someone said, the first true Indian designer was Mahatma because of his appeal to Indians to wear khadi garments. That appeal was necessitated because of the need of creating self reliance and proving unity of India to English. Khadi also symbolized the need and importance of indigenous manufactured goods. Khadi represented India’s resistance and revolution. Khadi was also the face of Indian identity. Many people get confused between charkha with kargha (handloom). The basic difference between the two is while khadi is hand made; handloom yarn is processed at the mills.

The actual meaning of khadi is any cloth that is hand spun and hand woven (while it is now used to refer to any handmade item of mass consumption like handmade soap and paper). India has long history of textiles. In the Vedic period, Aryans used to produce their own cloth. Khadi had an important role in marriage functions. Khadi charakhas were presented to brides in their wedding trousseau to encourage spinning of the yarn.

The handspun cotton, known as Khadi is of special significance to Indians. Gandhi elevated the fragile thread of cotton to a symbol of strength and self-sufficiency, and to provide employment for the millions during India's freedom struggle, and that symbolism of wearing cloth made by human hands has continued till this day.

These two forms of fabrics have always confused people. While khadi is hand made, handloom yarn is processed at the mills.

Many fashion conscious Indians will know that India’s rendezvour with textile dates back to ancient times when the Aryans in the Vedic period produced their own cloth. In fact, khadi (which means any cloth that is hand spun and hand woven) had a most religious role in marriages when brides in India were presented with a khada charkha in their wedding trousseau to encourage spinning of the yarn.

Roman gold, says history, paid for the import of Indian textiles, while Alexander the Great, when he invaded the country in 327 BC, was dazzled by the art of fabric making and printing as also was Marco Polo the Venetian traveler. It was in 1921 that Gandhi launched the movement of spin your own cloth and buy hand spun cloth which gained momentum making khadi the fabric of the freedom struggle.

Around that time Gandhi used khadi as the uniform for the first Non Cooperation movement and the Gandhi cap had strong symbolic overtones- that of the Indo-British battle over the looms of Manchester and a bid for a modern Indian identity. So deep rooted was the sentiment attached to this fabric that Pandit Nehru wove for his daughter Indira a wedding sari in salmon pink khadi while he was in jail. This sari is still worn by women of the Nehru-Gandhi family on their wedding day.

In 1953 when the Khadi and Village Industries Board was established it had only 156 registered institutions. Today every village however remote or small has it own khadi institutions. Initially the weaving of khadi was rather difficult as it was impossible tow eave a full length of cotton with the uneven khadi thread and at one time Gandhi is believed to have threatened to wear a sack if he was not provided with a khadi dhoti. Today the range of khadi products is unlimited from garments to household linen to furnishings, etc.

The weaving of khadi is preceded by the spinning of the thread on the charkha after which it goes to the bobbin winder, warper, sizer and finally the weaver. While spinning is organized by the khadi Board, weaving is done by the weaver at his home in an individual capacity. Spinning is mostly done by the girls and women in the villages, while weaving is dominated by men. Because of the work involved, the price of the khadi cloth when it reaches the shops is more than that of the mill or handloom cloth.

Khadi over the decades has moved from a freedom fighter’s identity fabric to a fashion garment. At one time it was scorned as fabric for the farmer and the rural wearer. Today there is such an increasing demand for khadi is such an increasing demand for khadi cloth that despite the million workers all over the country involved in spinning it they are unable to meet the demands of the market.

In 1989 the first high fashion khadi show was presented in Mumbai by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) where nearly 85 dazzling garments were created by Devika Bhojwani.

There was an exciting array of eastern and western attire. Devika had launched the Swadesi label in 1985 which was distributed through nearly 5000 Khadi Gramodyog Bhandars and Emporia.

In 1990 designer Ritu Kumar of Delhi presented her first Khadi collection at the Crafts Museum. Her Tree of Life show, an audio visual tableau spanning the history of textiles in India, showed the design lexicon of the country, the creators of textiles, those who have regenerated textile crafts and those who would wear the garments.

Eight collections were presented of which khadi was a very significant one. Since then the Tree of Life show has been presented several times for charity and caused a stir with its creations. Once again in 1997 Ritu Kumar presented the Tree of Life shown this time in London where the British were amazed with her khadi collections.

Once the sign of freedom, Khadi today holds it own on the fashion scene… it is a part of every wardrobe when it comes to selecting fabric with a discerning eye, informs Rity Kumar.

Today the younger generation may draw inspiration from the way film and MTV stars are dressing, but there was a time when fashion too was dictated by our political leaders More than the dresses it was what they signified and the fiery personalities behind them that caught the imagination of the masses and influenced them to unwaveringly follow the footsteps of their leaders, even in adapting the way they dressed, recalls Ritu Kumar.

Reveals Ritu, Actually, they were the first generation growing up after Independence and so the need to underline their identity was immense. There was also the need to emerge with something totally different and in opposition from the dress code foreign rulers had imposed.

Another person who ahs been working regularly with khadi is Kamal Wadkar, the well know promoter of traditional crafts. For decades khadi has been associated with rural wear. Although many would say it is just the right fabric for the Indian climate due to its loose weave and cool texture, khadi lacked that touch of style which other fabrics like rubia, linen or cotton had observes Kamal.

Kamal has been associated with the Gujarat Handicrafts Board (Gurjari) and the Mumbai Khadi Sangh. Her exhibitions in Mumbai for KVIC (Khadi Village Industries Commission) have netted nearly Rs.12.5 million. Kamal has presented nearly 4500 garments in 150 styles in different colours weaves and embellishment with prices ranging from Rs.460-750.

Her exhibition titled Elegance in Khadi and Khubsoorat Khadi with eight designer collections presented ethnic wear in varied forms besides western garments.

But since Khadi is woven by hand in villages it is often difficult to provide large quantities of the fabric at short notice. Yet it is this handmade quality of the fabric with its inherent defects that is the beauty of Khadi and that is what the buyer wants at times. Says Kamal it is not a poor man’s fabric although it provides employment to the poor man. It is a very up-market fabric emphasizes Kamal. Khadi dhotis are turned into printed Kurtas and dupattas.

There are times when the price and coarseness of the fabric deterred the fashion conscious from wearing it. But today khadi has many faces which are not just restricted to cotton. There is Khadi is quite competitive now and depending on the style of the garment it could range between Rs.400-2500.

There is a quaint story of how Gandhi while visiting a poor village spoke to an old woman huddled in her dark dingy hut asking if there was anything she needed. The woman said she had everything pointing to an old charkha in the corner.

The rediscovery of the charkha has brought in a new economic thinking for Indians. It has given new life to the individual made him more resourceful and self dependent. Making khadi a true start of democracy in the true sense. Khadi, however, can no longer be sold on an emotional level. A new approach has to be adopted for the new generation who are unaware of its original implications. It will be worthwhile for the young and trendy generations of the 90s to discover the beauty of khadi and support is as a fabric of our tradition.
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