The future of khadi production

The widespread mechanisation of khadi production means more jobs. But purists highlight how our ‘freedom fabric’ is losing its skilled artisans. What is the way forward?

January 25, 2019 04:24 pm | Updated 06:14 pm IST

Last Sunday saw a non-verbal ‘performance’ in Coimbatore, of 108 handspun and handwoven textiles: 54 saris and 54 fabrics. Showcased against the bare walls of the cavernous, 100-odd-year Lakshmi Mills, the weak light coming in through its windows casting interesting shadows, fabrics floated in mid-air, draped linearly, in circles, and over wave-like bamboo installations created by designer-scenographer Sandeep Sangaru — from cloudy whites to midnight indigos, interspersed with a few mustards, an onion pink, a cinnamon.

Presented by Bengaluru-based The Registry of Sarees and curated by designer Mayank Mansingh Kaul, the exhibition, Meanings, Metaphor - Handspun and Handwoven in the 21st Century , drew incredulous gasps as we saw handspun and handwoven textiles like never before. It is a precious collection, the result of 20 years of research and documentation by a dedicated team mentored by Mapu, or Martand Singh, who revitalised the textile traditions of India through his seminal Vishwakarma Exhibitions in the 1980s and intensive engagement with the spinning, weaving and dyeing communities. Mapu is no more, but his protégés — like designer Rakesh Thakore, textile scholar Rta Kapur Chishti and Kaul — are, and they continue to uphold the cause through exhibitions such as this, which will be travelling to Bengaluru next.

Kaul walked us through the displays, which were brought to Coimbatore as a nod to the city’s history with spinning. He drew our attention to the fabrics that ranged from austere, coarse, rough-and-ready handlooms to the most fine gossamer, famously described as “webs of woven wind”. They certainly looked nothing like the khadi saris I own. “I urge you to touch them,” he told me, and I gingerly did, terrified my fingers would go right through the stunning indigo affair. “Bengal muslins were world famous; this one is woven in Bengal,” he explained. Bengal and Andhra Pradesh are where most of the fabric we saw at the exhibition came from. It was a 5,000-year-old textile heritage we were looking at and as Kaul explained, India is perhaps the only country in the world where this kind of hand-spinning and hand-weaving still exists.

An evolving narrative

This brings the conversation to the khadi of today. The fabric, which was once the symbol of the Indian National Movement, has since evolved. It is now fashion, luxury, everyday, enterprise, meditation, a cause and so much more. And, it is not handmade. “Most of what you get in the name of khadi now is mechanised khadi, woven with ambarcharkhas and new-model charkhas ,” says Shefalee Vasudev, editor of The Voice of Fashion . “The Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) has only a few centres that hand-spin. At the one in Ponduru in Andhra Pradesh for instance, the production is so small in scale, it doesn’t even manage to leave AP; it is only sourced by and sold in the local Khadi Gramudyog Bhavans.”

Purists like Kaul are not comfortable with mechanised khadi. He feels it is time to reclaim the uniqueness of the fabric, usher it into the 21 century and give it new direction. He feels that with the government consolidating ‘Khadi’ as a brand that encompasses food, honey and other village industry products, it “may be time for us to think of a new vocabulary for the cloth, like handspun or handwoven”.

“The collection that we are showing was originally shown 20 years back, as an exhibition titled Khadi - The Fabric of Freedom . The fact that I am choosing to call it Meanings ..., without the use of the word khadi, but just emphasising the material quality of the fabric, which is handspun and handwoven, is, in many ways, my comment on this,” shares Kaul.

So, does khadi need a rebranding? Perhaps not. Does it need a rethink? Yes. “The powerful marketing tool that the name khadi is, the resonance it creates, the association both visual and tactile that it evokes, is hard to replace. But original ideas [like a new vocabulary] should be put out there to see if they have any takers,” says Vasudev.

Khadi recap
  • In its purest avatar, khadi is entirely hand spun and woven from desi cotton.
  • Before the freedom metaphor, handspun and handwoven textiles from the sub-continent were made from short-stapled cotton.
  • The Industrial Revolution created demand for cotton suitable for machine weaving in Britain. So the long-stapled variety was imported from the US.
  • Desi cotton died out. Today, there are barely a few acres that grow it, despite it being drought resistant.

Poor man’s fabricno more

The need of the hour, however, is to understand and nourish handspun and handwoven. An idea that is in sharp contrast to what is being practised at the various KVIC centres across the country, where solar-powered charkhas are increasing production and scale. “Khadi is green, zero waste, with zero carbon footprint, and these charkhas save electricity. The move to switch to solar charkhas makes the khadi industry a shining example of an employment-generating, eco-friendly industry,” says designer Ritu Beri, who was named advisor for khadi promotion in 2016.

While more employment is always welcome, a growing tribe wants the handspun origins of the fabric to be revived. One of the ways: celebrate its uniqueness. “Khadi is still looked at as a poor man’s fabric, and that has to change. I blame us as consumers and makers because we want to make things cheaper, rather than understand the beauty of it, create refined products, and target the right audience,” says Shani Himanshu of contemporary brand 11:11, whose denim khadi caught our attention a few years back. “The fabric created on the single-spindle charkha , where the artisan spins every millimetre of fibre by hand, is the most luxurious in the world and should be priced more.”

Chishti, a khadi expert who worked closely with Mapu, agrees, stating that it is the only way we can prevent the highly-skilled weavers and spinners from abandoning their centuries-old craft and moving over to menial labour. “We are talking about sustainable luxury at high value to those who can afford it. Handspun and handwoven cloth has moved away from the Gandhian dream of it clothing millions. That is not viable any more,” she says. To restore khadi to its rightful place, we need to promote it as a sustainable industry and market it as a niche, high-end fabric.

Expanding the market

Designer Rakesh Thakore — one of the prime movers of the Meanings... project — has no doubt that real khadi falls in the luxury category. In fact, internationally, it is thought of as such. The Japanese are some of the biggest fans of the handmade Indian textile. “The way it is spun and woven, and is so sensitively handled, makes it special. It is also one of the most wearable textiles. Layering of khadi garments can be beautiful, with each layer being of a different feel and texture,” he says, adding, “Issey Miyake was very fond of Mapu and he recently had a show in his memory, where he showcased a small selection of woven fabrics. It was well attended. Even today, Japanese designers quietly work in their own little spaces with our fabrics.”

Keepers of heritage
  • Ally Mathan — who acquired much of the saris from Mapu’s original set — started The Registry of Sarees in 2016, to study Indian handmade textiles, their histories and makers, and provide materials and documents beyond what was accessible in the prevailing formats of exhibitions and writings.

Rooting a revival in a skill that only India possesses, and a highly differentiated product that no other textile ecology in the world has, is the way forward. Khadi also has a deeper meaning — of being produced locally, by locals, for locals. An idea that finds resonance in the younger generation, especially millennials. “The face of khadi has to be younger, cooler. Right now the image is all about the Gandhi charkha , which is not even being used!” says Himanshu. “A design intervention is needed here, and [the government and designers] should encourage artisan units to build their own brand, tell their own story and stand by what what they are known for.”

It is not as arduous a task as it may seem. Raymond did it last year, entering India’s corporate lexicon with its linen line. “To make it aspirational, I think there should be more of a story and campaign around the fabric,” says ShriVyshnavi Annush of Pookari, a curated online site that recently organised a pop-up of khadi saris from Chishti’s brand, Taan Baan. “It did surprisingly well, despite the pricing (in the ₹30,000 range). While many found it expensive, there was a handful who loved the texture, the higher thread count. Those who think nothing of buying international brands should take pride in our own textile heritage. That is the way to sustain the industry.”

— With inputs from Surya Praphulla Kumar

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