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Charkha comes full circle

The Mahatma's fabric of austerity has evolved into a funky designer brand

In the loop Khadi has shifted gears from a symbol of renunciation to couture Photo: R. Raghu

Time was when the charkha and khadi denoted sacrifice. Even when celebrating occasions like marriages, the leaders of the Independence movement gave up brocades and silks in favour of the hand spun, hand woven material that stood for defiance against the British rule. The story of Vijayalakshmi Pandit's khadi sari, woven by Kasturba Gandhi for her wedding to Ranjit Singh Pandit, is well known.

Cut to the present, and we find khadi has shed its austere image and acquired hues of opulence.

For decades derided by fashion designers as a fabric without fall or elasticity, sheen or sophistication, it seems suddenly to have developed redeeming features that render it attractive to the czars and czarinas of couture. The result is this `poor man's' cloth for all occasions, perennially being offered at discounted rates at Khadi Gramodyog outlets across the nation, has evolved into a highly priced product.

Readymade clothes were introduced long ago at Khadi Gramodyog. But they had a reputation for being closer to a sack than a tailored garment. That complaint, however, is a thing of the past, with designer names like Jattin Kochhar and Riya Fashion displaying the latest trends in tops, kurtis, skirts and salwar-kameez. If price tags make for prestige, the skirts here priced at Rs.1,300 and kurtas at Rs. 1,050 certainly fit the bill.

All this doesn't mean indigenous fabrics are now beyond the budget of the commoner. Says postgraduate student Atika, dressed in hand-spun, handloom, hand-printed, hand-tailored cotton, "It's summer friendly, and it's cheap. I got into it because I stayed on the North Campus for five years." Denims may be the mark of the world's young, but Atika points out, "These are really intellectual and funky that are glamorised now."

More than clothes

But clothes are not all. Since all manner of indigenous crafts, textiles, and even traditional medicines have come under the umbrella of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission over the decades, artisans and other skilled workers in hamlets and hovels across rural and urban India have been benefiting from its market reach. But now they seem to be getting a run for their meagre money from the very institution that nurtures them. Because Khadi is now a brand. One that stands for quality, says an employee of Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan.

The products made and packaged under this brand name are monitored by a body that comes under the Central Government, he says. The difference in packaging and pricing shows. But since, in matters of cosmetics and shampoos, honey and achar, it is really a question of personal taste and pocket, the consumer is likely to remain king, as long as `brand khadi' does not ease out the other companies.

So if it makes no difference to you whether the substance you wash your face with is called a soap or a beauty bar, if you prefer the rustic ubtan to a beauty bath, then you are free to go for the likes of the Goratna range from the famous Kanpur Goshala, the beaten-up cardboard packing notwithstanding, at unbelievable rates.

Gone are the days when Khadi Gramodyog outlets had to hang up paper signs plaintively declaring, "Khadi is cool in summer." Khadi is just plain cool!


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