At most of the 12 departmentally-run Khadi Gram-udyog Bhawans in urban areas and 7,050 institutional/retail sales outlets across the country, the stores stand desolate for the better part of the year, the staffers sporting an impassive look. Shabby ready-to-wear garments rest on dusty shelves and hangers. There may be an increased thrust on quality control, design and development, but it doesn’t show here.
The charkha was a motif of India’s struggle for freedom. And khadi is the fabric of national pride. It symbolized patriotism, Indianness, rebellion.
But decades after a freedom won, this proud and revered fabric is now frayed, threadbare and struggling to survive.
Vasundhara Raje may have tried to glamorize khadi’s brand equity when she took over as Minister of state for Small Scale Industries in 2001, but 11 years down the line, it seems as if the clock is ticking for the humble, hand-woven fabric.
At most of the 12 departmentally-run Khadi Gram-udyog Bhawans in urban areas and 7,050 institutional/retail sales outlets across the country, the stores stand desolate for the better part of the year, the staffers sporting an impassive look.
Shabby ready-to-wear garments rest on dusty shelves and hangers. There may be an increased thrust on quality control, design and development, but it doesn’t show here. No wonder then that most shoppers bypass these, giving khadi the thumbs down.
Coming at a time when organic, indigenous and handcrafted are buzzwords for most companies and retailers, it is shocking that India’s own offering finds few takers.
In Mumbai, Mahesh Manjrekar, at the Khadi Bhandar in Fort, admits that sales do an on-and-off jig. The price of khadi fabric ranges from Rs. 80 to Rs. 500 per meter for cotton and can go up to Rs. 2,000 per meter for silk. “Sales are just about okay,” he says.
When Raje was in charge, she took steps to reorient khadi to the changing needs of the time — new charkhas and looms were introduced to ensure greater productivity, quality and earnings; designers were brought in to give products a new look; exhibitions were held regularly; and a Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) store was launched.
The fabric, once the preferred dress code of politicians across parties, acquired a fashionable ethno-chic image.
Designers redefined their commitment, be it veterans such as Ritu Kumar, who has been working with khadi for over 30 years, or new ones such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who devoted a wedding collection to the simple fabric.
The distinct character of the hand-crafted fabric has enthralled designers over the years. The process of turning fiber (cotton, silk or wool) into yarn on a charkha leads to an unmatched textural quality.
The rough, crushed fabric may not provide the best of drapes, but the fibers provide a splendid base for dyes, leading to gorgeous colors.
Sangita Kathiwada, the force behind Mumbai fashion house Melange, has been committed to redefining the role and reach of khadi over the last many years.
“Khadi has an individuality all its own. It’s a hand-woven short-spun fiber with varied textures, and uses different kinds of techniques and skills. Each meter of khadi differs from the other,” she says.
Ritu Kumar, the grand dame of Indian haute couture, agrees. The designer, who has a khadi range in each collection, says the fabric is special in India and across the world.
“Handspun and hand-woven spells exclusivity, and hence, by its nature, it is niche,” she says, adding that the “hip hue” of khadi is sporadic and comes during Gandhi Jayanti.
While khadi was once synonymous only with a coarse texture, a variety is available now — khadi silk, khadi cotton and khadi wool.
Efforts are on to produce 100 percent eco-friendly khadi, something that should bring more takers considering the interest in organic fabrics these days.
In a time when machines have taken over everywhere, the hand-woven and hand-patterned fabric stands out as a magnificent offering that contrasts sharply to factory-made products.
In the next fiscal year, a mark of authenticity, Khadi Mark, will be in place to guarantee khadi that is hand-woven, hand-spun and of natural fiber.
Riyaz Gangji, the designer behind Libas, is “passionate” about khadi and started working with the material when he was 20 years old.
“To date, I consider khadi to be one of the finest fabrics available. It’s handmade, naturally vibrant and has a rich texture. When it comes to breathable materials, nothing matches khadi.”
“That’s why this fabric remains in demand, nationally and internationally. I use a lot of it — in my kurtas, sherwanis or dhotis. It’s a staple like rice; one has to have it,” says Gangji.
According to the 2010-2011 report of the Ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises, the value of khadi produced during 2010-11 (till December 2010) is up at Rs. 510.91 crore as against Rs. 484.45 crore in 2009-10.
Estimated sales of khadi (up to December 2010) were pegged at Rs. 784.63 crore in 2010-11 as against Rs. 762.55 crore the previous year (up to December 2009).
But numbers notwithstanding, the state of the industry doesn’t seem to be very healthy. Weavers and artisans are drifting away, the common man still shuns the fabric, and machine-made fabrics are gaining ground.
Noted textile researcher Rita Kapur Chishti decries the involvement of the fashion industry. “The problem is that the fashion industry is, by and large, not involved in production and design of the fabric.
The production of the fabric is being increasingly mechanized these days. More people are using Ambar charkhas, spinning wheels with up to 32 steel spindles and a hand-turned lever introduced in the 1950s to boost production.”
Gandhi’s charkha may have been replaced by the Ambar charkha, but, for the best texture, fiber has to be prepared and spun entirely by hand.
Only then does it have the rough, crushed look and textural quality that separate it from jersey or other mill-made fabrics.
“Hand-crafted khadi can never and should not compete with mill-made fabric when it comes to counts. Hand-woven khadi has a texture quality that is far superior to mill-made fabric — that is its strength.
What we need to do is use quality yarn to produce textured fabric of superior quality. We can then value adds with hand skills,” says Chishti, who has authored Saris: Tradition and Beyond.
Rich man’s fabric?
The slow, handmade process of manufacturing quality khadi can never compete with the machine-made technology in factories. There’s a catch-22 situation here — not many people buy khadi and, consequently, disgruntled weavers often move on to other occupations.
Production shrinks and prices of the fabric, already considered expensive, rise. And with khadi soon to carry the Khadi Mark for authentication, prices are likely to rise further.
But when consumers don’t mind paying through the nose for a meter of power loom-spun fabric, why would they not shell out the bucks for hand-made fabric that costs about Rs. 80 per meter? Perhaps because the fabric doesn’t appeal to them.
Decades after independence, the perception of khadi has not changed. The common man still views it as rough, coarse khaddar — the poor man’s fabric. Add to that the fact that it is heavy on maintenance, low on draping style and high on expense.
Gangji admits that the fabric is expensive. “It is hand-woven and needs intricate workmanship. But as it’s our national fabric, the government has come to its aid. Promotions are done, subsidies are offered and the weavers are paid what they deserve,” he says.
Chishti feels that the rise in wages hasn’t done any good. “In the last four to five years, wages have gone up. But the increased pressure of volume production has lowered the quality.
Weavers can only benefit if better quality is produced. We need to introduce new patterns, provide design inputs and then better wages. Volume is undermining quality presently.
Add to those schemes such as NREGA where Rs. 120 is paid per day for breaking stones! Skills need to be built in and upgraded continuously; providing skilled labor and unskilled labor the same monetary compensation will not help either labor or their skills,” she says.
According to the MMSME report, as many as 10.01 lakh people were employed in the khadi industry during 2010-11 as against 9.77 lakh during the corresponding period last year. The numbers may tell one story, but reality tells a different tale.
The KVIC seems aware that all’s not well. In a message to the “Khadi Parivar,” Devendrakumar R. Desai, chairman of the recently re-constituted KVIC, spoke of broad new initiatives that “need to be taken for strengthening khadi activities across the country to bring smiles to spinners, weavers, artisans and entrepreneurs living in rural India.”
Need of the hour
While the government and allied agencies may try their best to promote khadi, the fabric doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere. Singh feels that khadi is stuck in a time warp. “Not enough product development or R&D is being done.
The sector provides employment to numerous artisans, but a fresh perspective is needed. The red tape of the Khadi Gramudyog is also perhaps responsible for stifling its development,” he says.
Kathiwada agrees. She says she was tireless in promoting khadi initially, but a sense of frustration has crept in over the years.
“We can’t have one-off promotions when one Minister comes in. We need to stop treating this wonderful material as a stepchild. A continual engagement of all the parties involved must be made and pursued relentlessly. A proactive sustained effort is key to ensuring that the focus stays on this fabric.”
Kathiwada sums it up. “The fact remains that, to date, it’s all about being politically correct in khadi. Why can’t we be fashionably correct in khadi?”