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Recently, several young Indian fashion designers such as Nitish Chandra, Abraham & Thakore, Sabyasachi, Rajesh Pratap Singh, and Kallol Dutta, have all started designing “khadi-grunge” and other current designs in this handspun, handwoven, cotton fabric, popularized by Mahatma Gandhi during India’s freedom struggle. Gandhi called this fabric, “sacred cloth” and spun it on his charka (spinning wheel) everyday, an enduring image that is captured in an Indian postage stamp. Tendulkar follows in the footsteps of numerous Indian politicians who don this ‘freedom fabric,’ both as a way of connecting with the masses and to signal their allegiance with the annals of Indian history. As handloom researcher and fashion designer, Mayank Mansingh Kaul says, “The resonance that khadi has in India’s collective psyche is huge. Young politicians wear khadi because of this historical construct; because it is in keeping with the image of a public servant.”
Today, this humble handloomed fabric is undergoing a Renaissance. Young college students, who had earlier shunned khadi in favour of laser-cut jackets, are now pairing it with jeans to make a hip style statement. The Khadi Village Industries Commission (KVIC), a government body that oversees this sector plans to institute a ‘Khadi Mark’ similar to a ‘Silk Mark’ to authenticate the fabric. It also plans to open close to a hundred ‘khadi plazas’ which will sell khadi products. A variety of sectors—public, private and institutional– are trying to figure out how to ‘brand’ this most indigenous of fabrics into a global fashion statement. Global clothing brand, Fabindia, uses khadi cloth for its kurta-tunics, which it sources from rural NGOs. L Capital Asia, the private equity arm of Groupe Arnault, purchased an 8% stake in Fabindia, partly because it married “commercial good” with “social good,” according to Ravi Thakran, Managing Partner, L Capital Asia.
Indian fashion designers such as Ritu Kumar have started infusing khadi into their cuts and silhouettes. During Wills Fashion Week, Goa-based James Ferreira sent out his collection, which was comprised entirely of khadi. Bangalore-based Deepika Govind researches khadi and other eco-friendly textiles to incorporate into her designs. Kolkata-based Sabyasachi Mukherjee has designed khadi lehengas or skirts for Bollywood actresses. Delhi-based Abraham & Thakore have retailed khadi throws at The Conran Shop in the UK. Even younger fashion designers are experimenting with khadi, as are mass-market firms. Arvind Mills, a large Indian textile export company, plans to weave khadi denim jeans and retail them in Paris.
Last June, the National Institute of Design (NID), the nation’s premier design school signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the KVIC to provide help with product design, branding, labelling and retailing khadi and related products. This MoU will pair young designers at NID with the craftspeople and artisans supported by KVIC. Ahmedabad-based NID was established by Jawaharlal Nehru after the famous “India Report” submitted by industrial designers, Charles and Ray Eames. Its graduates are amongst India’s most talented designers.
Khadi was exported to Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for fashionable ladies’ gowns. In the early 20th century, Indian nationalists who viewed it as the “livery of freedom,” revived it. Today the cloth has found yet another identity amongst true textile connoisseurs who value its handmade integrity, its softness and what it means to Indians of all ages and regions. Khadi suits India’s tropical climate. It keeps people cool in the summer and warm in the winter. “The beauty of khadi is its coarseness,” says textile maven, Ravikiran, who along with his partner, Chandrashekar runs a Bangalore-based fashion label called Metaphor Racha. “The feel of the hand is so strong visually. You can see the aberrations and unevenness of the khadi yarn. In fact, purists won’t buy fine khadi; they prefer the coarse variety because you can see the weaver’s handprint there.”
Khadi path to freedom and it current popularity was itself paved with thorns. As Lisa Trivedi writes in her book, “Clothing Gandhi’s India: homespun and modern India,” when Mahatma Gandhi proposed the use of this coarse cloth as a symbol of the Swadeshi movement to establish autonomy from Britain, not everyone in his Congress party were in agreement. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarojini Naidu in particular, had aesthetic qualms about adopting khadi, even though they did so in the end. Naidu felt that the ubiquitous usage of this simple cloth would kill the artisanal traditions and decorative crafts that are imbued in Indian textile traditions: the “man who makes tassels for your wedding,” as she poetically said.
Khadi prevailed and united India in a way that even Gandhi could not have foreseen. Naidu too, ended up wearing khadi saris but in bright colours, somewhat like what the label, Raw Mango, does. Today, some question whether this freedom fabric is redundant in free India. Hasn’t khadi served its purpose in driving out the British? Why are we Indians hung up on it? More importantly, what is true khadi? Textile scholar and activist, Uzra Bilgrami, says that “the centralization of the pre-spinning of khadi” has caused it to “diverge from its original principles.”
Hyderabad-based Bilgrami founded Malkha Marketing Trust, which works with the weavers in Andhra Pradesh. The word, Malkha is a combination of Mulmul and Khadi. Bilgrami works with weavers and designers to update designs and silhouettes so as to appeal to a newer generation of Indians. “There are two great things about khadi,” she says. “It has an emotional connect with Indians and it is truly indigenous. After all, we have been weavers of cotton for 5000 years.”