Friday, August 26, 2011



“I present the spinning wheel on which depends India’s economic salvation,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi in Young India in 1920. More than three quarter of a century later, in 2001, Vasundhara Raje, the then Minister for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) submitted, “Khadi has fallen to disrepair. It has to be repackaged, upgraded, and cleaned up.” Khadi, which symbolised self-reliance and emancipation during the freedom struggle, has indeed lost its sheen over the years.

Khadi – the essentially handspun and handwoven fabric – first caught the imagination of the nation during the struggle for Independence when Mahatma propagated it as just not a fabric but a way of life, the self reliant way. Gandhiji talked of the khadi spirit encompassing simplicity, fellow feeling, and promotion of all things Indian so as to unshackle the country from British domination. Spinning yarn on the charkha (loom), Mahatma believed, inculcated discipline and dedication. And while khadi was meant to be fabric for masses by masses, according to him, it was also meant to be a great social equalizer, since it could sit well on the shoulders of the poor as, equally adroitly, it can drape the bodies of the richest and the most sophisticated men and women. However, over time, partly under the onslaught of mill made fabric and partly due to unglamorous image coupled with poor marketing, the freedom fabric has lost its mojo. In popular culture, khadi has come to be synonymous with politicians; and to a lesser extent, with journalists.


Khadi forms 1.5% of national textile production of around 15,000 million square metres. According to fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, use of khadi could be one of the ways for Indian designers to distinguish themselves and thwart the invasion of global brands. He has dressed up Aishwarya Rai (in Ravana and Gujaarish) and Vidya Balan (Paa) in the luxurious fabric that needs to be restored and preserved. For him, khadi is refined, sophisticated, individualistic, eco friendly & sustainable. But, the Indian buyer suffers from the gloss syndrome. Anything that is dull or matte is not easily appreciated. When Sabyasachi introduced bridal wear in khadi, it failed to take off. He tried to convince the upper crust that khadi is a sophisticated fabric with a quiet dignity attached to it, which is absent in mill-made products, the glitterati still declined to pay heed. Yet, a change of mindset should always be possible through an appropriate marketing programme.

Presently khadi lacks aspirational value. It is still regarded as a poor man’s fabric. Fashion diffusion generally takes place either through trickle down or trickle up. Trickle up for khadi is difficult, given its existing image. The best way then would be to follow the alternative approach.

The classically rich aspire to be like royalty. Royalty means culture. Those who have new money drip diamonds and buy big international/local brands; but they also aspire for culture. Khadi is in a unique position to be able to lend culture to both these classes. The rich woman may already own everything. By offering her ensemble in khadi she is provided a point of view. The contemporary woman in khadi is self assured, educated, and cultured in need for self expression, and not to prove a point. She is the one to be targeted. Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) can hardly be expected to rise to the task, though.


Bollywood in India has the maximum influence on fashion trends. But Bollywood actors are pinups for the glossy and the crass. They are besotted with big brands and money spinning styles. Instead of appreciating individuality, Bollywood encourages cloning. It is like juvenile American pop culture, an obsession with bling. If Bollywood could be made to get out of its polyster and chiffon, and drape into khadi, the followers will aspire to adopt too.

In 1985, Devika Bhojwani introduced the Swadeshi label of khadi ensembles. It was retailed through nearly 5,000 khadi emporia. In 1989, KVIC organised a fashion show in Mumbai in which 85 dresses of Bhojwani were paraded on the ramp. Yet, due to red tape and bureaucracy, the exercise proved to be still born. In 1990, Ritu Kumar presented her first khadi collection – Tree of Life – so as to help khadi arrive on the fashion circuit. In July 2002, a Bangalore based designer, Deepika Govind, displayed a collection of ensembles in ‘Tencel khadi’. And Sabyasachi Mukerjee has been successfully working with, khadi. He once introduced 90 odd lehngas in bridal khadi collection; all were taken up.

But while appeals to the heart can be successfully made through communications, problems exist aplenty elsewhere too. The designers legitimately complain that production of khadi is inconsistent while the cloth is prone to shrinkage and fabric stretch. Fabric colours are also limited. Khadi has very little to offer in terms of fabric performance. It looks attractive when starched and kept in showrooms, but it does not present the same look after one wash. Even finer counts and blends of khadi cannot withstand many washes and, therefore, cannot be adopted for daily wear. The fabric, thus, finds itself vulnerable against the high-tech, colourfast, wrinkle free mill made cottons and blends available today.


However, having said that, khadi is a versatile fabric with a unique property of keeping the wearer warm in winter and cool in summer. Unlike mill made synthetics no one can be allergic to the fabric. khadi silk provides a very royal look with a rich tapestry. Now designers are dyeing khadi with striking colours. Stylish garments like miniskirts, halter neck tops, etc. are made from khadi. Recently Arvind Ltd. has planned to market khadi denim (at nearly Rs.800-1,000 per metre) in Japan and Europe to high-end consumers.

In other words for the niche market the so called limitations of khadi can always be converted into its virtues which are unparalleled. As Ritu Kumar says, “The rustic, no machine look of the fabric is both sophisticated and bohemian.” Mukerjee, the die hard loyalist to khadi, thinks khadi is too intelligent to be treated. According to him, limited availability of khadi with its inconsistent quality makes it even more of a luxury product. Tradition, symbolism and a new found versatility can be glued together to promote the organic fabric in contemporary cuts and designs. On the other hand the traditional fabric can be chemically treated to make it softer and more pliable so that it can be adapted to more outfits.

This coupled with a judicious blend of other Ps (pricing, placement) should sure do the trick.

Khadi holds tremendous potential to be promoted as a fabric for dressing the upper crust. The need is to reorient, reposition, and relaunch our cultural heritage. Khadi is calling out for a second freedom struggle, freedom from the clutches of government’s pincer like grip. Allow it independence and see it blossoming.


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