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Elegant, majestic and yet trendy—not traditional. That is the vision for khadi at Kamal Haasan’s recently-launched fashion line, which has a presence both in India and the United States. Sure enough, KH House of Khaddar, the new clothing venture raises the fashion quotient for a hoary fabric and places it squarely on the ramp, with models sporting smartly designed, neatly cut, tight-fitting clothes in bright colours. No traditional overhang here.

Khadi or khaddar was part of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent confrontation of colonial rule. His vision was imbued with the message of swaraj. The entire process of producing cotton yarn in every household, weaving it into cloth and helping people easily exchange cloth for yarn was not merely a part of economic activity but a galvanising anti-imperialist force.

Khadi or khaddar was part of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent confrontation of colonial rule. His vision was imbued with the message of swaraj. The entire process of producing cotton yarn in every household, weaving it into cloth and helping people easily exchange cloth for yarn was not merely a part of economic activity but a galvanising anti-imperialist force.

In the post-independence phase, many would argue that emphasis on producing khadi, a symbol of freedom and self-reliance, was subsumed by the imperative to quickly modernise, industrialise and orient a young new India towards a future of contemporary production and consumption.

Over the decades, though, khadi has come to be represented not by individual small home-based spinners and weavers, but by large scale participants who have been producing not plain khaddar, but polyester-mixed clothing that forms the bulk of production. There may be scores of disused charkhas and small looms in the country, but they don’t hold the torch for the fabric of swaraj anymore.

Over the decades, though, khadi has come to be represented not by individual small home-based spinners and weavers, but by large scale participants who have been producing not plain khaddar, but polyester-mixed clothing that forms the bulk of production. There may be scores of disused charkhas and small looms in the country, but they don’t hold the torch for the fabric of swaraj anymore.

Growing, but…

In December of 2021, former Minister Prakash Javadekar of the ruling BJP asked a question in Parliament on the state of khadi since 2016, to which the Minister of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises said the production of khadi had been going up, except for the pandemic year. Before the virus hit, India recorded Rs 4,211.26 crore worth of khadi sales in 2019-20.

However, what Minister Narayan Rane was talking about included polyvastra, which is 67% polyester yarn and the rest cotton (this still gives it the benefit of special khadi discounts). The fact that COVID-19 brought down the output of khadi is apparent testimony to the shift away from small home and community-based producers to larger formats, where labour was affected. Officially, the Union government claims that there are 4.97 lakh artisans in the khadi sector, which, importantly, includes weavers who may be big or small.

Kamal Haasan models a coat in the color ‘Ultimate Gray’ from the KH House of Khaddar collection

If khadi is adrift today, its freedom compass long forgotten, Kamal’s KH House of Khaddar venture is trying to conceptualise khadi anew, much the same way that the NDA government at the Centre is upscaling its own presentation.

Rane said in the Rajya Sabha that the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) had retained KVIO Ventures Ltd to sell khadi products online at www.ekhadiindia.com where prices go up to Rs 76,499.15 for a Banarasi silk saree in the premium range, while everyday khaddar articles are comparable to conventional fabric in the market. By contrast, Kamal Haasan’s range, designed by Amritha Ram, lists a cropped wrap jacket with pants in ‘fruit dove’ colour for Rs 8,000.

Not the original at all

Khadi as high fashion does not quite appeal to those who prefer its traditional image, of the fabric of India’s freedom, although that has frayed and faded over the years.

A KH House of Khadar pantsuit in the color ‘Adobe’.

“To call the cloth now being sold as khadi would amount to cheating. In fact, it is not possible to buy pure khadi easily in India today. I had to ask the people at Sevagram to provide me some traditional khadi clothes,” says Dr S Kulandaisamy, the secretary of Gandhi Peace Foundation, Chennai. The philosophy of khaddar has always been to involve every member of the community in the spinning of yarn and weaving, as a form of resistance to oppressive mass production foisted and controlled by an imperialist system.

“It is lamentable that the very basic skill of spinning yarn out of cotton using a charkha and creating the material to weave an elegant, soft and climate-friendly cloth is now almost lost,” says Kulandaisamy, whose office at Gandhi Peace Foundation with its musty Independence-era ambience on Ambujammal Road, Alwarpet, is just around the corner from that of KH House of Khaddar on TTK Road in Chennai. He advocates the wide adoption of the Ambar Charkha, a relatively advanced version of the more familiar charkha seen with Gandhi, in order to mass produce yarn across the country. This would also give the cultivation of indigenous cotton a big boost.

This film made by the Union government on the Ambar Charkha in the first flush of Independence traces its roots and strengths https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSs0_i3BFho.

On KH House of Khaddar’s website, Kamal Haasan is seen with a senior traditional weaver, and the Brand Story section explains the credo of the fashion house thus: “We will be working directly with the weavers and various craft communities across the State including block makers, printers and GI certified clusters. Blending western silhouettes with Indian techniques is what sets us apart.”

Before the pandemic hit, India recorded Rs 4,211.26 crore worth of khadi sales in 2019-20. But it includes polyvastra, which is 67% polyester yarn and the rest cotton. (this still gives it the benefit of special khadi discounts). The fact that COVID-19 brought down the output of khadi is apparent testimony to the shift away from small home and community-based producers to larger formats, where labour was affected.

Does this trend of khadi as high fashion, going beyond the trademark faux khadi coats and attire of the political class, portend a new paradigm for mass employment?

As Independence seemed close at hand, Gandhi was quite confident that if Indians chose to patronise only Khadi, the residents had the resources to make enough khadi for all their needs, generating mass employment and self-reliance, with none of the hostility that was faced during colonial rule (“Mahatma”, by D.G. Tendulkar, Vol 8, pages 177-78).

A KH House of Khadar pantsuit in the color ‘Olive Branch’, which is also available in the tone ‘Fruit Dove’.

How does this vision fit in with the intensive growth economic models favoured by India’s rulers, who actively use Gandhi as a mascot? Certainly, the glamour of a KH House of Khaddar should spark a rethink: Can the KVIC Khadi Bhandars and other sales outlets—which are already too expensive for the average citizen compared to mill cloth—be refashioned as mass clothing stores with genuine hand-woven khadi, in which the village economy can participate in big numbers and reap rewards? If cotton can be grown more widely, and yarn spun by almost everyone as Gandhi envisioned in a free India, genuine khadi could become affordable for all, reward the small producers and engage millions of unemployed.

In an alternative provocative vision, can houses of fashion make mass market designs and provide a platform for the small, rural spinners and weavers, sharing their own prosperity?


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