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Vacuous tribute to Khadi

A fashion show on khadi was held in the old Bangalore Central Jail. SARAH JOHN records her impressions.

IT was well meant. The invitation to the show, I mean. It was the day on which, all those years ago, a fanatic had gunned down the greatest promoter of Khadi. Gandhiji had indeed spent long periods in prisons in various parts of British India, and what better backdrop than a one-time prison setting to evoke a respectful memory of the father of the Nation?

The Khadi Utsav 2003 in Chennai ... from a poor man's wear to rich man's fancy.

I was told that the Central Jail of Bangalore had been moved to the outskirts of the city and the city-authorities were still searching for an appropriate way to put the old jail grounds to use. I was curious to see something of this search and so went along for the Khadi show in Central Jail! When Bangalore suddenly found itself elevated to the status of a mega city from that of a pleasant cantonment town and the traffic on its roads multiplied rapidly, there was only one way to relieve the utter chaos in the central areas. Most roads were made one-way for vehicular traffic.

The city's old Central Jail built during the British Raj was located very centrally. Our cool-headed driver bought us to the venue by which time, to our great relief, the chief guest (no less than the Chief Minister of Karnataka) had departed having declared the show open!

As we made our way through the open gates into a courtyard, we saw a few men and women seated on a raised platform and working on the charkas. This was a poignant scene, reminding one of the pictures of the nation's freedom movement. The way inside with high walls from all sides held the objects on exhibition: Sarees made of the finest cotton yards spun on the charka. The fabrics were delicate and soft and flowing, in shades of white, cream and pastels. This was certainly not the Khadi one was used to seeing. Innovations in spinning Khadi had clearly made great progress and this was something to feel proud of.

And then we were in the inner courtyard — a vast circular area with a circular building in the middle, which was used to house the prison guards. On that day, mannequins wrapped in Khadi stood in place of the guards. All round the courtyard behind iron bars stood barrack like structures. We took the path in order to have a look inside. The narrow halls with barred windows on either side for ventilation were lined with hard smooth stone beds on either side of the aisle. So this was where the inmates were quartered. There were common washrooms and toilets outside all walled in and exposed to the scrutiny of the guards. A grim perspective.

My mind rushed back to the days when thousands of noble freedom fighters with Gandhiji as their leader were put in such jails all over the country by the British. Even now in independent India, few are perturbed by the harsh treatment and violation of human dignity of the prisoners.

On this day, the crowd in the courtyard were definitely not prisoners. In the falling dusk, it was an awesome scene. Men and women of Bangalore's elite — fashion designers, well known artists, writers and theatre personalities, and socialites representing all kinds of organisations, press, photographers and industrialists who like to sponsor shows... all dressed in expensive simplicity, moving around gracefully, making the right contacts and quiet small talk, seeing and being seen! I was the fly on the wall watching this surrealistic scene. There were two counters where you could have your pick of exquisite desi snacks, served on platters made of palm bark and excellent South Indian coffee. There were even mineral water dispensers to quench your thirst. If only the inmates of the jail could see this scene, I mused.

And then we were seated (in a good location) to watch the show. The representative of the government was seated prominently in the first row, his cronies just behind us. The show began to the strains of the sacred song "Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram".

As we held our breath, mercifully some one thought the better of playing Gandhiji's favourite bhajan to the full on such an occasion and the tune changed. The female models were suitably made up to look unglamorous. As they made their torturous way up and down the catwalk clad in fine Khadi sarees and other garments, their poor, emancipated bodies seemed ready to disintegrate.

The cronies of the government official watched open-mouthed, their eyes nearly popping out at some of the suggestively cut garments. The male models walked out bare-chested showing off their mandatory sculpted torsos rather than the scant khadi they wore below the waist. They flounced down the catwalk to the tunes of the sacred bhajans, which seemed out of place and incongruous.

Designer after designer was announced, their wares shown. It appeared that this simple fabric — with which Gandhiji had intended to clothe the poor who could not afford the British textiles — is now for the wealthiest section of modern Indian society.

The symbol of a prison would have been appropriate to evoke a respectful memory of Gandhiji as he spent much time there.

But in reality, the evening turned out to be another stage for privileged socialites used to meeting in the foyer of a concert hall or five star hotels to spend some time watching a fashion show which was a vacuous tribute to the legacy of Khadi. This was evoking the under belly of society without having to touch it ... a poor tribute to Gandhiji.

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