Khadinomics

MINT

Khadinomics

Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel will be there too,” said Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) last week, discussing a Khadi fashion show he was organizing in Ahmedabad. What a way to highlight the event, I thought.

“From Huts to the High Street” was scheduled to be held after the 2015 edition of the Vibrant Gujarat summit. With collections by designers Rohit Bal, Anamika Khanna and Rajesh Pratap Singh, the aim, said Sethi, was to not let “serious nationalist fashion become just entertainment for non-resident Indians”.

But if fashion is body, entertainment is body language. If fashion is sociological theatre, entertainment is its voice-over. These truisms were shouted from the rooftops on 17 January when Khadi fashion walked out of the wings. Red, green, yellow lighting, reminding us of a touristy sound and light show, bathed the rooftops of Ahmedabad’s Moti Shahi Mahal. Built in the 17th century by Mughal emperor Shahjahan, this is now the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Memorial.

The historical setting, offered to the FDCI for the event, is a sign that the Gujarat State Khadi and Village Industries Board—an event collaborator—wants to explore Khadi’s fashion quotient. Not only that, the Gujarat government wants to blow this trumpet loudly by mixing history, heritage and nationalism with mainstream fashion. These ideas have been cleaved into separate compartments in the past by those who believe fashion is too superfluous as a commentary on contemporary India. That view is changing.

But let’s face it: “Entertainment” was coded into the formula that helped make the point—1,000-odd people attended—and understand the numerous possibilities of fashion and Khadi. Or, as Patel said in her pre-show address: “Khadi vastra nahi, vichar chhe (Khadi is not a garment, it’s a thought).”

It was an excellent show despite the provincial notions it rejigged. Live music by the Manganiyar vocalist Samandar Khan and his group from Barmer rendered Kutchi, Rajasthani and Urdu folk songs. Installations and hanging decorations made from handwoven Khadi dressed up the grounds for the open-air show. Seats wore Khadi covers though the chief minister and her entourage sat on faux leather sofas.

Gujarat Vidyapith students.

Interestingly, girls from Gujarat Vidyapith’s MEd programme were seated near the ramp, spinning on charkhas. According to their professor Ashok Makwana, they learn Khadi spinning for their Industry course and must compulsorily spin Khadi for 2 hours every day in college. Ahmedabad’s glitterati, chatterati, causerati and powerati were in attendance.

The risk is that at such events, where folk artistes, nationalism, political agendas, commerce and business opportunities are in a head-on collision, fashion can be reduced to a backdrop, mere furniture. But Bal, Khanna and Pratap are no ordinary defenders of their game.

The first two couturiers sent out fine Khadi couture as elitist luxury. Many of Khanna’s garments, her lovely signature capes especially, were over-embellished, submerging the character of Khadi’s naturally uneven texture.

She argues though that “it was to break the notion that Khadi cannot be a part of the luxury market”. She had used West Bengal cotton in different counts from fine to coarse for different fashion interpretations, she told us. Valid point.

 

Bal’s wide and wild mental canvas as a designer was mirrored, once again, in his fluid ghagras and beautifully constructed Mughal tops. Flowing white ensembles with large red roses straight out of the Spring/Summer 2015 collection, Gulbagh—which Bal showed at New Delhi’s Qutub Minar last year—added to the aura of the heritage backdrop.

But it was Pratap whose clothes stood head and shoulders above the rest. Indian fashion’s reclusive Mr Minimalist was the maximalist here. Setting the bar high, much of his collection was handwoven Khadi denim in contemporary silhouettes—dresses, easy pants, cropped pants, jeans, jackets, jumper suits with drapes—that he produces in Gujarat in association with Arvind Mills.

We have seen some of these clothes earlier at his Spring/Summer 2015 collection but he added some crucial pieces and worked on the styling in a way that lent relevance to his core canvas. He was true to his belief, “How clothes are made is more important for me than what’s put on them”. Stark and simple, with a clean design, the garments were created in three colours—white, which is the natural state of pure handwoven, hand-spun Khadi and cotton, technically called “grey”; natural indigo-dyed blue denim; and red, which Pratap explains as “red is the selvedge of my denim”.

The collection had modern garments styled with brown leather boots. Some models had their faces wrapped in crushed Khadi fabric, only the eyes peeping through. “I wanted people to only see the faces of the Rabari men and not of the models,” says Pratap, adding that in the desert, villagers shield themselves from storms by wrapping their faces. He sent out some garments—dhotis, kurtas, “rural” shirts (loose, rather shapeless and unfitted, with unstructured collars and no darts) and indigo-dyed denim jackets—on a handful of men from the pastoral Rabari tribe, adding “realness” to his ramp.

Now reconsider the formula. A historical setting, the memorializing of Mahatma Gandhi as the author of Khadi philosophy through quotations and photographs, a sound and light show, live folk music, breathtaking couture, modernist prêt, the Gujarat CM stressing Khadi’s commercial viability (she even cited figures), a sherwani-clad Bal honouring her with a large, hand-spun white shawl, film actor Chitrangda Singh felicitating political dignitaries on the ramp and Sonam Kapoor representing Bollywood as the show-stopper. It had it all. Each ingredient carefully counted, measured, mixed. High street taken care of, let’s say.

But what about the huts? Or to borrow from Lisa Trivedi’s book Clothing Gandhi’s Nation: Homespun And Modern India, how (can) Khadi become symbol and commodity, product and style of dress? Trivedi describes the Swadeshi movement’s various techniques for popularizing Khadi textile production—posters, exhibitions and tours—in its attempt to bridge differences of language, literacy, region and religion. Is that possible today? Does Khadi even have a market—for those who live in India’s ordinary households, for those who do not see it as a marker of their elitist status, Rohit Bal garments notwithstanding?

“The two Khadi rumaals in audience takeaways are my way of executing what the Gujarat government says: Khadi should be in every Indian wardrobe in some form or the other,” argues Sethi. He adds that the FDCI has already placed an order for 5,000 such handkerchiefs as potential gifts and he has purchased 100 gamchas (absorbent towels made from hand-spun cotton Khadi) for the big names in fashion in Milan and Paris. To set the tone, he even wore a Khadi jacket worth Rs.1,800 that he had purchased from Delhi’s Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan and accessorized it with a pocket square worth Rs.50. “I will invite our designers to add linings, buttons, fine finishing and make jackets for Rs.5,000 each. It’s a style statement, don’t you see?” says Sethi, adding that the FDCI is in talks with Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan for a fashion-designer shelf at its stores. Bal, who has made a few Khadi collections for the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) in the past, says it is time to go further and declare Khadi India’s national fabric.

The coin has indeed dropped. But as experience of fractured collaborations between the fashion industry and KVIC tells us, the production, marketing and sale of Khadi isn’t just about spectacular shows. If it really wants to make a difference, even the FDCI may have to mount a Khadi show every season at fashion weeks—and get different designers to participate for a wider variety of wearable, saleable designs.

Most importantly, skilled Khadi-spinners from many weaving clusters in the country who have moved to other jobs for better daily wages will need to be brought back. Charkhas need to travel back from museums, colleges and fashion events to “huts”.

Today, it is easier to develop a “Khadi product” for the international fashion and décor market; but why should a toiling, undernourished labourer prefer textured cotton Khadi to cheap, wash-and-wear fabric?

Neither Sonam Kapoor nor the Rabari men need to attempt these answers. But Anandiben Patel should. So should her counterparts in other states.

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