To The Khadi People

To The Khadi People

India is far from being done with khadi. It’s time in fact, to find our own story inside the sea of flowing narratives

On the 20th of January, two days back, I attended the launch of Meanings, Metaphor: Handspun and Handwoven in the 21st Century, an exhibition of 108 khadi saris and fabrics. Displayed at Lakshmi Mills in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, presented by the Bengaluru-based organisation The Registry of Sarees and curated by Mayank Mansingh Kaul, this collection was first commissioned for the Fabric of Freedom exhibitions by the late textile scholar and expert Martand Singh. Watch out for a full piece on this exhibition tomorrow. Also about the involvement of both the current and long-term textile practitioners such as Rahul Jain, Rta Kapur Chishti and Rakesh Thakore who I call the khadi johris (jewellers) who can distinguish the quality, type and hallmark in an instant.

However, this piece is about how we, a section of readers, viewers, consumers and creators in current India find khadi wrapped around us so many decades after it rose and rested as the symbol of the Indian National Movement. Today it is enterprise, cause, fabric, fashion. An enigmatic contemporary complexity inside the textile dialogues of modern India. From an umbrella label for many consumables generated through the village industries model to a sophisticated, expensive, luxury fabric.


Photo: wikipedia

Mahatama Gandhi spinning Khadi.

Khadi Times

At least a dozen and more arguments are constantly spinning around this issue. The wrangle behind Khadi Mark, private versus government ownership, the authenticity of the Khadi label, what is truly handspun and handwoven, what is not, the infiltration of semi-mechanised Ambar charkhas, various new-model charkhas and thus the change in personality, truth and texture of khadi itself, what the Khadi Village Industries Commission (KVIC) is doing with it, or not doing with it, how the Prime Minister emphasises the cause of Khadi, the reported upliftment and increase in Khadi spinners co-opted through the changes brought about by KVIC. There is of course, undeniably, the lament of Khadi purists about the deepening loss of a heritage, a fabric that is exceptional, unparalleled and uniquely sustainable.

A multitude of khadi stories are up in the air at all times. Fascinatingly, each of these have a context and a set of arguments. Collectively, they suggest that India is far from being done with khadi. Gandhi or not. Sari or not. If displays like Meanings, Metaphor “evoke reflections on its near and far histories” as the exhibition note says, then KVIC’s daily job of installing charkhas across the country, reviving old khadi ashrams like the one at Sewapuri near Banaras, inaugurating fairs and fashion shows tap other reasons. Of massification: “more wear”, “more sale”, “more employment”.


In April, 2018 KVIC collaborated with FDCI to put up a khadi fashion show titled, Khadi – Transcending Boundaries.

At The Voice of Fashion itself, since we launched last July, we have already published 10 stories on khadi. Some are ground reports, others are columns, opinion pieces, videos, and updates on new fashion collections, even a shopping list. On August 2, in a piece called #SwadeshiModern: The State of Khadi, in the periphery of which sat an interview with VK Saxena, the chairperson of KVIC, I argued that the swirl around khadi is neither contemporary nor fashionable. It may be modern yes because of the “newness” in which Khadi is being explored.

However, Meanings, Metaphor: Handspun and Handwoven in the 21st Century has compelled me to tweak my thoughts.


An installation from the exhibition Meanings, Metaphor: Handspun and Handwoven in the 21st Century.

The Khadi Thought Trail

So my current khadi thought trail is like this…

Khadi is a brand.

Can Khadi Mark really argue for that brand?

Khadi is valuable.

It has a cost.

It also has a price.

It is not fashionable. But is it trendy?

It is a cause.

It is not a lost cause.

Is it a cause celebre?

It is spun in the villages.

But is it spun by hand?

Much of it is not handspun and handwoven.

Only the warp is handspun.

Only the weft is mechanised.

Should mechanised Khadi be called something else? Like Me-Khadi?


A weaver hand processing cotton.

Pure cotton is pure cotton. It is not khadi. So let’s get it right. Or as the Sanskrit saying goes: “Ka-Ka, Ka-Ka, Pee-Ka, Pee-ka.” Translated: Crow will be a crow and koel will be a koel even if the two look the same.

But don’t we also buy our papads and amla juice from Khadi Bhandar?

It is not Khadi Bhandar anymore silly. It’s Khadi India.

Will a material history of 21st-century India include Khadi? Of course. But not as Fabric of Freedom. Right?


Freedom is not just from colonial rule. Can we align khadi to new freedoms that the fashion and cultural narratives of India need?

Should khadi be renamed as an opinion piece on The Voice of Fashion argues?


An artisan working at Shri Gandhi Ashram, Sewapuri.

The Khadi Way

Clearly, in terms of sale, creativity, cultural cachet, representation of the Indian way of life, curatorial finesse and excellence, its value for the study of weaving technologies and the resoundingly reassuring reality that khadi spinners still live among us in villages and there are khadi scholars, curators and scholars studying it, India is full of Khadi People.

So how do you and I make sense of this? Buy it? Wear it? Love it from far? Write about it? Learn spinning and meditate with it? Send our sons and daughters to learn spinning? Or just be spectators and applaud loudly when we realise through a film to release this week, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi that even she spun khadi.

I am struggling to write my own khadi story in the current narrative despite being raised in a Gandhian household. I want to distance myself from associating khadi the fabric from a self-deprecating lifestyle and mindset. I can’t remember how the two got coiled as one in my head—daridrata (poverty) and khaddar were somehow one. Coarse, both.

They are not anymore. So most of us who feel moved, sentimentally evoked or touched by the uneven, body and soul of khadi, its magical diaphanousness, its warmth and its cool on the skin, the way it looks in white and the way it lights up with indigo dye or turmeric yellow and the way it talks to us through exhibitions—we must find our own khadi Way. Our personal khadi story.

The visual narrative of modern India is incomplete without it, the “voice” of India in textiles speaks clearly in Khadi. It sings in fact. Its political heft, its philosophical value for its old linkages to Gandhiji’s ruminations and reflections, its power as a tool for new livelihoods and its artisanal and technological value as a skill gives us reason to dig for renewed meanings. We cannot but be the Khadi People.