#SwadeshiModern: The State of Khadi

#SwadeshiModern: The State of Khadi

The fabric khadi, is in a peculiar bind. Once the handspun and handwoven symbol of Swadeshi pride; its process meditative, its pursuit patriotic, its wearers the masses of India, as well as the Indian intelligentsia who embraced it as part of the freedom movement under Mahatma Gandhi—is not so easy to define today.

Consider this. When its manufacturing processes, spinning, carding, weaving by hand are safeguarded by design mentors and khadi experts, it is at its purest. But this luxurious khadi is a designer product, is limited edition, expensive and elitist. For instance, designer Shani Himanshu’s organic khadi saris, handheld from start to finish with each set priced at Rs 60,000 and above (it is sold with a Bandhini blouse and an Ayurvedic beauty product)—is in conflict with the “khadi” that was the currency of nationalist pride before Independence.


Photo: Vivek Tyagi

A woman working on a mechanised charkha at Shri Gandhi Ashram, Sewapuri

Mechanised, Modernised But Is It Fashion?

On the other hand, in Khadi Ashrams across India run by the Khadi Village Industries Commission (KVIC), another tale is being fervently spun. Long produced on mechanised and semi-mechanised Ambar Charkhas, various “new model charkhas” and solar charkhas by neglected and underpaid spinners and weavers for decades, khadi is being re-employed as a tool of socio-economic welfare. More spinners and weavers are being co-opted and “uplifted”, their wages revised, their status redesignated to artisanal. That’s the goal of Vinai Kumar Saxena, the KVIC chairperson since October 2015, who strategically rebranded Khadi Gramodyog as Khadi India. Under him, Khadi is now mandatory official wear for the staff of public service institutions—railways, government hospitals and Oil and Natural Gas Commission to name just a few.

Khadi India’s ready-to-wear sections, where garments stitched from solar vastra (cloth spun on solar-powered charkhas) are stocked, is dubbed as “fashionable”. Fashion here is seen as being synonymous with “Western wear”, even though a churidar-kurta outfit made from solar vastra created by a tailoring supplier is perhaps as “modern” as a skirt made by the same supplier. In Khadi Lounges in cities—specialised stores which stock better-tailored versions of “designer” clothes—is a confused species. It is neither “contemporary”, given its look and feel, nor is it really fashionable if you judge it by trend parameters. Yet, it is modern because it is designer-made.


Photo: Instagram\Raymond

The Raymond campaign titled Khadi: The Story Re-Spun

Raymond’s Re-Spun story

Then there are interpretations like the recent one by Raymond Ltd. It has addressed this complexity to some extent. Smartly titled ‘Khadi: The Story Re-Spun’, the Raymond campaign tries to refocus the story where it belongs. Used for menswear and womenswear for casual and occasion wear and intended to “change the perception of Khadi”, Raymond’s khadi collections have been created in collaboration with KVIC through more than 100 khadi clusters across India. Even though the fabric used is high-quality solar vastra, the styling of the ReSpun campaign shows it is as modern as well as contemporary. Fashionable, as many will call it.


Photo: Instagram\Raymond

Raymond used khadi in both menswear and womenswear to change the perception of khadi

Proof of the Progress is in the Numbers

There is no arguing against Khadi India’s current commercial heft. According to KVIC’s progress report, titled ‘A Journey to Transformation’, that maps progress and profits from November 2015 to February 2018, khadi production that grew from 2004 to 2014 only 6.52 percent shot to 26.43 percent from 2015 to 2018. Similarly, if the growth of khadi sales remained stuck at 6.62 percent between 2004 to 2014, they jumped to 31 percent from 2015 to 2018. The average khadi sales by departmental sales outlets which stood at 44,77 percent till 2014 jumped to 120.09 percent between 2015 to 2018. Average exports of khadi and village industries products have shown a 133.28 percent increase between 2015 and 2018. KVIC has distributed about 30,767 charkhas between 2015 to February 2018, and in these four years created 14.75 lakh jobs.

The Modi-fication

A significant part of the reconstruction of khadi’s image in recent times comes from its endorsement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At least that’s how Saxena argues it (see interview). The Prime Minister’s personal keenness on khadi fabrics and garments for his local and international appearances are, according to Saxena, the biggest push that khadi has received since Mahatma Gandhi’s days. Not everyone was impressed when KVIC put an image of Modi at a Charkha—with women spinners from Punjab seated many rows behind him—in its 2018 diary. But, Saxena insists that Modi’s appearances in khadi garments have driven sales into boom time. Not just of the Modi jacket but also khadi kurta-pyjamas and fabric, thus bringing attention to multiple other products that Khadi Bhandars stock and sell.

Besides frequent mentions of the PM’s relationship with khadi through his quotes and images, KVIC’s media cell seems determined to convert every happenstance and special day on the calendar into a Khadi-positive event. Multiple press releases are issued each week. From Environmental Day to Yoga Day, from the installation of the world’s largest wooden charkha at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport last year to Champaran centenary celebrations this year in Bihar, from khadi showings in South Africa to honeybee box distribution among women workers (for honey collection) and farmers, charkha enablement across Punjab to the resuscitation of the worn-down Gandhi Ashram of Sewapuri near Varanasi, (see report), there are stories upon stories. Some stories—like the Khadi-draped train that carried Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, from Pentrich to Pietermaritzburg in South Africa in June—are plain amusing.


Photo: Courtesy FDCI

KVIC collaborated with FDCI to put up a khadi fashion show in the Capital

Full Circle With Fashion

Two months ago, KVIC joined hands with the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) to mount a khadi fashion show in Delhi. It included collections from some top designers like Rohit Bal and Anju Modi, among others. Those who follow the khadi story would know that the FDCI has been organising stylish khadi shows with some of the country’s most imaginative for the last three years in Ahmedabad. These shows are attended by the who’s who of Gujarat, including many political leaders. The former Chief Minister of Gujarat, Anandiben Patel, has been a fond guest. Yet, thus far FDCI and KVIC had remained mutually agnostic. The recent show helped bridge that gap.

Tellingly, KVIC’s progress report published this year has an image from this fashion show on its cover.

The PM has some competition from fashion.