At the recent high-profile wedding of the Bollywood stars Genelia D’Souza and Ritish Deshmukh, two outfits that stood out were not made of high-end fabric or Swarovski crystal, but khadi, the Indian handspun and hand-woven cloth, made from cotton, described as “freedom fabric” and popularised by Mahatma Gandhi. The Bollywood stars Kangana Ranaut and Arpita Khan dazzled the paparazzi with their long skirts made of block-printed khadi.
Last October, at the spring/summer 2012 Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, the designer James Ferreira’s ephemeral collection was made from khadi fabric, woven in bright hues, with modern cuts. Speaking after the show, Ferreira said: “Khadi is the most beautiful fabric in India and I wanted to bring it back. I simply printed chiffon and georgette with it to give it a new life.”
This simple, austere fabric that was handspun by Mahatma Gandhi on his charka (spinning wheel) seems to be enjoying a renaissance in India today. Traditionally the attire of ageing Gandhians and politicians, khadi now has taken on a hip, new avatar, thanks in part to the many young designers who are giving this fabric a new spin (pun intended).
In Kolkata, Bai Lou studio, which focuses on handmade handwoven fabrics, sells a “disco khadi curtain”. In Hyderabad, the eco-friendly designer Aravind Joshua designs khadi costumes for his film collaborations under his label Thrithvaakhadi. In Bangalore, two designers, Ravi Kiran, 39, and Chandrasekhar, 41, have started a new label, Metaphor Racha, which focuses exclusively on khadi. The duo began working with khadi to differentiate themselves from other designers — as a way of creating a distinct design identity. But something happened on the way to the numerous weaving villages they frequent every week. They realised that they were part of a bigger community of weavers. “Now we don’t call ourselves designers; we are extensions of the craft and weaving cycle,” says Chandrasekhar.
Khadi in India operates under the auspices of the Khadi Village Industries Commission (KVIC), which was created in 1956 to provide employment and help income generation in backward, marginalised areas to a predominantly female community of weavers. In this mission, it has succeeded. Where it has failed is to “include market forces in the marketing of khadi”, as the textile researcher, Rahul Jain says. “There was never a long-term vision on the part of KVIC to reposition khadi as the fabric for tomorrow rather than yesterday,” says Jain, while admitting that marketing khadi is difficult because the industry is so decentralised with more than a million weavers, primarily women, all over India.
There are some heartening signs. Last month, KVIC announced that it would establish an authenticating “khadi mark” certificate for genuine khadi, akin to its “silk mark” and “wool mark”. It also plans to set up 951 khadi clusters to increase and improve production, and set up 20 “khadi plazas” or malls to market khadi in all the Indian metros and two foreign destinations — as yet unannounced. The goal is to double the nationwide sale of khadi — currently at nine billion rupees (Dh667 million) annually. KVIC has signed an agreement with the leading denim manufacturer, Ahmedabad-based Arvind Mills, to produce and export “khadi denim” for jeans.
Like all natural fabrics — cotton, silk, linen — khadi gets softer with every wash and doesn’t irritate the skin like polyester does. But it has to be starched and ironed to drape well, and it creases quickly. This is part of the reason why busy professionals don’t choose it for their office wear. Good-quality khadi is hard to source because it is mostly available at musty government outlets. “Even though I like wearing khadi because it is absorbent, it is overpriced in India,” says Priya Sunder, the co-founder of a Bangalore-based wealth management firm, Peakalpha. “The key to solving the problem will be to increase supply through more retail chains, so cost comes down and popularity goes up.”
Some designers question whether this freedom fabric is redundant in free India. It was promoted by Gandhi originally as a protest against the importation of mass-produced textiles from British mills. Hasn’t khadi served its purpose in driving out the British? “Everyone is carried away by the romance of khadi but … it is a symbol that is no longer relevant. In today’s economic reality, it is a glorification of poverty,” says David Abraham, of the designer duo Abraham & Thakore. Abraham recommends repositioning khadi as an “exclusive product for a discerning few who are willing to pay the price for it”. Some years ago, the duo sold hundreds of khadi throws at The Conran Shop, each priced at £100 (Dh576).
T-shirt-clad youth are even more candid. “Khadi made sense during the freedom struggle. It has no relevance to our lives now,” says Sheela Gowda, a college student, who stands at a bus stop wearing a tight Aeropostale T-shirt and Levis jeans. “Khadi is thick and coarse and it rumples quickly.”
The irony is that purists and connoisseurs love this coarse, uneven texture of khadi. “You can see the human hand in khadi weaves,” says Chandrasekhar, the designer. “The beauty of khadi is the aberrations and uneven texture because, unlike a machine, the human hand is not perfect.”
Today’s designers, while prizing coarse, handspun khadi, are also using higher-count threads (going from 30-count to 100-count yarn) for their creations, mostly because higher-count yarn is thinner and drapes well. “No textile has such a hold on [Indian] public memory as khadi,” says Mayank Mansingh Kaul, a fashion designer who sells high-end khadi “by appointment only” at Paris salons. “It has become a national brand.”
Young politicians such as Rahul Gandhi and Sachin Pilot don the khadi “brand” as a way of connecting to the public and subliminally evoking not just a sense of public service but also patriotism. As Bilgrami says, “The beauty of khadi is that it is a truly indigenous expansion of the textile craft that Indians have been involved with for 5,000 years.”