Saturday, October 27, 2001

Khadi turns hip
Dinesh Rathod

IN what should seem a fitting tribute to the Father of the Nation, the humble homespun is finally being elevated to the level of a trendy design statement for the Indian elite. No longer is it associated with weather-beaten social activists, pseudo-intellectuals and politicians. Khadi is hip and happening.

"I love the feel and that element of human touch khadi brings about," says filmmaker-turned-designer Muzaffar Ali. "You can see the dexterity of human labour writ on the fabric. To me the machine-made feel of other fabrics is quite artificial."

"Khadi is such a versatile fabric and such a potent national symbol that there’s so much Indians could have done about it," observes Rohit Bal, who has recently designed an exclusive range of chic khadi wear. "We are yet to recognise and exploit its potential."

The many khadi bhandars across the country have been retailing plain dress material, kurtas, white salwars, rugs, bed sheets, carpets, cushion covers, floor mats, shawls, sleeveless jackets and napkins. Much of this is produced by rural artisans under the aegis of the Khadi Village Industries Corporation (KVIC).


In a bid to promote this enterprise, the government has invested an unprecedented Rs 12.15 billion on the KVIC for various initiatives that range from establishing khadi as a brand name to enforcing stringent quality control measures and eliminating "unauthorised manufacture and sales" of products.

"So far 10,000 marketing outlets have been verified for bonafide use of the khadi brand name," informs Vasundhara Raje, the Minister of State for Small-Scale Agro and Rural Industries. "Our primary aim is to turn khadi into a heritage fabric every Indian can be proud of."

Producing khadi is not as simple as it might seem. The cotton is hand-picked from the fields and left to dry for days till the texture of its fibre becomes "settled and firm". This fibre is then passed through charkhas (spinning wheels) and fine threads obtained. The fabric is then woven using different means.

The simplest and the most traditional method is using a takli, having two spindles on the spinning wheel. Spinning wheels that have up to 12 spindles make softer and thinner cloth. Nowadays, the process is simplified with various kinds of handlooms, including pit looms, wardha and gram laxmi.

According to Himadri Ghosh of the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, the quality of khadi produced has traditionally remained "substandard", primarily because the skills of village artisans have not been upgraded, even as the market turned increasingly responsive towards the fabric.

The design institute thus conducted surveys, followed by workshops at several KVIC units in Gujarat to train artisans to produce different grades of fabric in varying shades, with or without embroidery, and design different kinds of garments.

One such experiment was weaving polyester and khadi together so that the fabric became more durable and did not lose any of its traditional qualities. On the design side, some garments were created in earthy colours (terracota, ochre and henna) with minimal embroidery, bead-work and hand-crafted buttons.

"We have worked with the bawaria style of embroidery, which is very typical of the Kutch region," explains Anuj Sharma, a designer associated with the NID project. "We reworked some of the stitches and left others untouched. We found we could get the effect we wanted by merely changing the colour palette."

While NID designers have been restrained, Bal turned adventurous with a range of exquisitely tailored shirts, churidar-kurtas, night gowns, tunics and baggy trousers. So has Malini Ramani, another KVIC-appointed designer, soon to be followed by others like Tarun Tahiliani and Rajesh Pratap Singh.

"You can make both ethnic clothes and western outfits with khadi, something the western markets cannot replicate," says Rakesh Rathore who has been selling khadi kimonos to Japan. "The only thing you have to be careful about is that the outfit is tailored well."

Mona Lamba of the Monapali label, feels that if worked carefully, khadi can lend a very cool, elegant appeal to women’s clothes. "Traditionally, one associated khadi with churidar-kurtas, but it works equally well with sarees," she points out. "Why, even with menswear, it gives a macho look to shirts and kurtas."

The khadi story will soon extend to home furnishings, handmade paper, herbal cosmetics, health food, leather items and even furniture. Already some hotels in Delhi have replaced shampoos and body lotions of different brands with khadi cosmetics in all the bathrooms. Next in line is khadi stationery! — MF