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Wearing KHADI today?

Inseparable,some say,from the Independence movement,and irrelevant now,outside of sarkari rhetoric? But the khadi story is not so mundane.

Written by Shefalee Vasudev |
August 15, 2010 5:30:20 pm

Inseparable,some say,from the Independence movement,and irrelevant now,outside of sarkari rhetoric? But the khadi story is not so mundane. It can become a chic,green ethos-friendly fabric. That also means it becomes a high-priced,luxury consumption item. Bureaucrats and designers need to think clearly
On a monsoon afternoon,Ponduru village in Srikakulam district of coastal Andhra Pradesh wears a silver-grey light. Amid clucking fowls and scampering children,Mangamma is at work at a charkha,her hennaed fingers cradling the spindle as she slowly turns the wheel with her right hand. Her neighbours join her to spin the yarn on her verandah. There is a charkha in every home here; young or old,every woman spins one.

Ponduru is part of a cluster of villages where India’s traditional spinning technique is still alive. Here,everything is done by hand: from cleaning and de-seeding the short-staple hill cotton with the jawbone of the valuga fish to spinning the yarn. The khadi has a distinct weave and a full-bodied texture that is only accentuated by use and repeated washes. It is expensive: one metre can cost up to Rs 542 and a sari or men’s dhoti is priced at Rs 6,400. The rare connoisseur of khadi,from within the country and outside,travels this far to buy this exquisite almond-coloured (or natural white) fabric. Politicians and local residents buy the medium variety of Ponduru khadi; it is available at a few khadi bhandars in the state.

But it is yet to make an appearance on Indian fashion runways; you could stump the majority of designers by its mention. Even Fab India and Anokhi regulars willing to pay for khadi chic are not aware that such a luxurious fabric exists. When the Andhra Fine Khadi Karmika Sangham (AFKK),a government undertaking based in Ponduru,set up a stall at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan three years ago,not a single sale was made.

Ponduru then is also where the story of poor,rich khadi unspools. At a time when the global fashion industry is turning away from synthetic,mass-produced,Zara-like fashion to eco-friendly clothing,India has forgotten the finest instance of this organic fabric: the khadi produced in this tiny village of artisans. In Srikakulam,a khadi artisan still earns only Rs 600 per month. The rates are determined by the Khadi Village Industries Commission (KVIC),a government organisation for promotion and development of khadi and village industries. The best quality handspun yarn (100 counts) fetches Rs 30.80 per hank (one hank has a thousand threads) while the most inferior variety (44 counts) earns the spinner Rs 16.50 a hank.

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Two weeks ago,the government cleared the proposal for a world-class khadi store at the Commonwealth Games Village in Delhi. It is doubtful if Ponduru khadi will be stocked there; it has not made its way to stores in the national capital in many years.

India’s relationship with khadi is fraught. The man who espoused its cause and tied it to the narrative of independence has himself become a token,invoked twice a year. Dusty portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and faded colours of the national flag stare at you from walls of khadi stores; the perception that it is primarily the dress code of politicians has not changed. “But even politicians who have done nothing for artisans want a rebate on khadi,” says Uday Kumar,accountant at AFKK.

According to the 2009-2010 report of the Ministry of Micro,Small and Medium Enterprises,the value of khadi produced in the country fell from Rs 585.25 crore in 2008 to Rs 484.45 crore by December 2009; sales plummeted by Rs 40 crore. The khadi commission employs a million-odd artisans,80 per cent are women; they are also some of our most impoverished citizens.

The charkha that Gandhi made into a symbol of swadeshi politics has been replaced by the Ambar charkha: a spinning wheel with multiple steel spindles and a hand-turned lever (even Ponduru,one of the last shrines of handspun khadi,has them). They were introduced in the 1960s to boost production and increase earnings of spinners.

For the best texture though,the fibre has to be prepared and the khadi spun entirely by hand. The semi-mechanised Ambar charkha can produce the finest muslin. But the weave is not distinct from good handloom or mill-made cotton. The buyer is left to figure the difference from the cost of the fabric.

Most government-run khadi bhandars have the weary air of export-reject warehouses. Tacky ready-to-wear garments hang sullenly at the central Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Delhi though the prestigious label “Handmade,Handspun in India” sits on them. And the customer in search of good bargains is easily lured by private stores that pass off mill-made cloth as khadi.

Cut to the Khairatabad area of Hyderabad. At least 12 private khadi bhandars flourish here,selling cotton fabric and men’s shirts. None of them has the requisite licence to sell authentic khadi. Some claim they buy the fabric from middlemen,who abound in nearby Tuni village and parts of Guntur. Their rates are lower than KVIC’s: a 10 per cent rebate all year round,which goes up to 20 per cent during festivals. “No one buys khadi from government showrooms anymore,including politicians,” says Venkat Rao,owner of Swaraj Khadi Bhandar,a 40-year-old shop. Selling spurious khadi is punishable under the Khaddar Act of 1950 but it is difficult to crack down on offenders when the government has not attempted any standardisation. “It’s an open market. But we are now developing the Khadi Mark,(like the Agmark) to help customers identify authentic khadi,” says SK Sinha,director,KVIC’s reform implementation division.

In 2001,when Vasundhara Raje became Minister of State for Small Scale Industries,revamping khadi’s image was on her agenda. Stores got a new logo,products were better packaged,designers were roped in. A KVIC concept store was introduced at Delhi’s Khan Market. Vivek Sahni,who was the design consultant for KVIC that year,says,“Designer garments by Rohit Bal and Malini Ramani and better quality of handmade goods pulled in new customers,” he says. The Khan Market store’s revenue increased ten-fold in about a year. “But KVIC could not sustain it,” says Sahni. It could not supply quality fabric to designers,who withdrew from the project in months.

“Designer” is now a desperate decoration for the government. The central Delhi showroom calls its garments ‘Designer Men’s kurtas’ (sic),‘Designer Ladies Kurtis’ (sic) but most designers are wary of the government’s best intentions. “I don’t want to be part of the government khadi movement. It is too complicated,” says Rajesh Pratap Singh,one of the few designers who weaves Ambar khadi at his Faridabad factory.

In this landscape of neglect are khadi’s unsung soldiers: scholars like Martand Singh and Rta Kapur Chishti,who have spent decades doing valuable research on Indian weaves and textiles. And small measures that could spark off a bigger change. A KVIC cell has been set up at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad to bolster khadi sales and attract new design ideas. Lifestyle store chain Good Earth recently launched Sustain,a line of fine khadi.

On top of this pyramid is Fab India. Since 1960,it has taken affordable khadi to the middle class. It offers more than 30 textiles but khadi remains a staple. The men’s khadi kurta remains a best-seller of 50 years. Last year,60,000 kurtas were sold across India.

A large section of Indian designers,though,remains sceptical about khadi: it is simply not sexy enough. “Why khadi,I don’t even use cotton in my commercial collections. It is easier for stores to position silk as luxe. Cotton is still considered humble,” says Anupama Dayal.

Not all designers have turned away from the khadi’s spartan aesthetic. Indian fashion’s grand dame Ritu Kumar,for example,has used khadi for 30 years now. “It dyes beautifully,is more eco-friendly than any other Indian textile and its matte texture looks fabulous with subtle embellishment,” she says. Khadi should be used for ready-to-wear garments instead of couture,she insists. Rajesh Pratap Singh would agree. His minimalist khadi garments,priced below Rs 10,000,are impeccably cut and very wearable. Young designer and NID graduate Rahul Mishra,whose khadi line Threads of Freedom won over critics at the Lakme Fashion Week last year,is now set to launch luxurious khadi abayas in association with a Saudi Arabian company.

It is Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s use of khadi for bridal wear — he showed a rustic,heavily embellished line at the couture week last month — that has provoked both admiration and controversy. A Sabyasachi prêt piece costs between Rs 9,000 for tunics or churidar sets and Rs 30,000 for simpler saris; but a bridal khadi piece could cost a lakh or more. The journey of the fabric from the home of a poor weaver in a Bengal village to an expensive,over-embroidered garment drives the poor-rich dichotomy home.

More worryingly,designers use the term “khadi” interchangeably with handloom or other textiles,befuddling the customer. Chishti is not impressed by what the fashion industry has done for khadi. “If it is for Gandhian reasons that you want to use khadi,at least have the integrity to tell the truth,” she says. She is unwilling to endorse designer khadi as genuine unless she gets to examine the fabric in detail. William Bisell,MD of Fab India,agrees. “My gripe with the fashion industry is that it is too much about hype,less about value. Some humility is in order before they announce themselves as revivalists,” he says.

Glamourising khadi is not enough. It needs to reach younger buyers. “It is also not going to remain cheap,” says Bisell,who says the price of khadi will escalate in two years.

What khadi needs is freedom from tired bureaucrats and poor policy. Once profit becomes the goal instead of subsidy,its potential as a luxury brand can be unbeatable. Chishti puts it more succinctly: “Khadi needs a vision not because of Gandhi. But because we may be the only country in the world with the ability to create a completely organic,eco-viable,luxury fabric.”
(The writer is former editor,Marie Claire,India)

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