Updated: February 3, 2015 8:11:25 am
I have been wearing khadi — the handspun, handwoven cotton fabric that is made all over India — since I was a teenager, when khadi was a potent symbol of the freedom movement in India. When Gandhiji encouraged freedom fighters to spin cotton and wear khadi, he was, in fact, making a revolutionary statement. He was saying that by choosing to wear handspun, handwoven cloth, a source of livelihood for millions of weavers across India, over machine-made textiles from Manchester, we are bringing power back into the hands of village weavers and building the local economy. He was encouraging the urban population to show support for their rural brethren. It used to be that when one bought khadi worth Re 1, 80 paise went to the village producers and 20 paise to the management. The ratio may be different now, but the idea is to get money flowing into the village economy. Khadi stands for all that is local and sustainable in the economy, society and environment. By wearing it, we honour the spinners, weavers and workers who work with their hands. Our money supports the poor village producer. When we wear khadi, we embody a worldview.
Handicrafts are no different. Our country’s potters, carpenters, weavers, dyers and embroiderers also work with their hands. They too are poor and live on the margins of society. They are highly skilled workers; they carry generations-old knowledge and traditions within themselves and keep alive the cultural identity of our country. Today, we are no longer under foreign rule. And yet, the urban industrialised world is wreaking havoc on our rural economy. Craft skills that take generations to acquire are being lost overnight because the craftsmen and women can no longer live by their trade. They are forced to work as unskilled labour at the bottom of the economy. The plight of village crafts workers is the same, whether you are in India or Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan.
So as urban consumers, when we buy a mirror-work choli, a tie-dye dupatta, a chikan kurta or an ikat sari, we are making clear statements with our money. We are saying we support the poor village craftswoman and her empowerment. We are saying we support non-polluting, environmentally friendly, local, sustainable development. We are saying we value the rich cultural heritage of our country. We are saying we can see alternatives to current, predominantly industrial modes of production. We are saying traditional crafts are not our past; they are our present and our future.
Gandhiji’s entreaty to support khadi has been taken far too literally. We tend to forget the spirit of khadi and the insight it provides into ideas of manual labour, self-sufficiency, employment, sustainability and local control.
Because, if we think along these lines, we can find “khadi” in all walks of life, in products that provide a key to making a difference in our world.
And you may well ask, what about our cars and our cell phones and our computers — the tools of modern-day life? We have certainly given them birth, and we do love them and marvel at their cleverness and speed, and wonder how we ever lived without them. But then they get old or perhaps old-fashioned. When they have served their purpose and we no longer need them, we abandon them. But where do they go to die? Body parts that came from nature, like metals, can be recycled. But what about the rest? Plastics do not disintegrate. They fester and litter and die unloved in toxic dumps, while we pointedly look the other way. Cell phones and vacuum cleaners, so far, are products without a life cycle. They live a short linear life and then enter a state that is neither life nor death. Mother Earth can neither save nor swallow them.
The problem is not with the products — they certainly enrich our lives. The problem is in our relationship with them. Whatever we consume, and whatever we produce, sets in motion a chain reaction that impacts the world around us. By taking conscious charge of our role as a link in this chain, called “anubandh”, we embody and perpetuate the world we live in — for better or for worse.
The writer founded Self-Employed Women’s Association of India
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