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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Khadi: Handspun, handwoven and always on a see-saw

A few months ago, the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) made public its annual turnover for 2015-16. While the sales of its FMCG, or consumer goods, products had shot up by 14%, Khadi fabric and garments showed a 29% surge. In the last many years, Khadi’s annual growth had hovered around 5-6%.

Measured buoyancy defines the mood at the office of KVIC chairman V.K. Saxena in Delhi. “Handspun, handwoven", those two evocative terms that gave India the material and visual of nationalist identity during the freedom movement, still ring magical. For different reasons, of course. Handmade is luxury not only for the new world figuring out how concepts like slow fashion and sustainable can be fitted into our lives, but also for India, where our first purist handloom model once again holds promise like nothing else.

Such evocative terms are marketing buzzwords, borrowed entirely from Mahatma Gandhi’s persuasive socioeconomic campaigns, that still endure. The modern Indian body is not currently clothed in Khadi. But, then, the modern Indian identity itself is a work in motion, treading the path between globalization and a “new brand" of nationalism. In this scenario, Khadi, with its signature look, is the simplest option to create contemporary Indianness.

Saxena knows this well. “The campaigns are changing, marketing is being handled differently. I am meeting ministers and officials for nuanced conversations to adopt Khadi. I don’t want any order as charity. We are evaluating rates, quality, ensuring production ethics, diverting a portion of the Marketing Developing Assistance directly to artisans’ accounts instead of giving the entire fund to institutions, and setting up new charkhas, from Punjab to Kashmir," says Saxena, who took over as KVIC chairperson in December. The branding has changed from “Khadi" to “Khadi India"; the new logo can now be spotted in campaigns, on shopping bags, labels and hoardings. “One yarn, one nation" is the new tag line.

The world’s largest charkha at IGI airport, New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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The world’s largest charkha at IGI airport, New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

In June, the world’s largest charkha, 9ft wide, and 30ft long, weighing 4 tonnes and made of Burma teak, was installed at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport.

It’s raining orders. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, ordered 3,500 Khadi convocation robes for its graduating students in June; the photograph made front-page news. Air India, says Saxena, has placed an order worth 8 crore. The air carrier now gives Khadi India kits (with toiletries) to its first- and business-class passengers. Orders have come from the NTPC, the Railways and the Indian Coast Guard, confirms Saxena.

The Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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The Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Dressed in a blue Khadi denim shirt and khaki Khadi trousers, with two pens peeping out from his shirt pocket, Saxena agrees that the organization had been suffering from neglect. Minimum wages for spinners were poor, the work guaranteed was rarely more than 3-4 hours a day, and many unprofitable Khadi institutions had had to close down. He believes that perceptions have changed with the Prime Minister becoming the brand ambassador for Khadi. “We sell 300-400 Modi jackets each day just from the flagship store of the central Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Delhi’s Connaught Place," he says. Sales are expected to scale up by 50% this year.

One of Khadi India’s significant recent achievements was a fabric and products exhibition from 5 May-4 June in Srinagar. The first such event in militancy-affected Kashmir, it showcased products made by 198 Khadi institutions from all over the country—56 of them were from Jammu and Kashmir. More than 100,000 visitors and sales of over 2 crore sealed its success. In May, the KVIC also installed 25 charkhas and five looms near Pampore in Kashmir and started a napkin stitching project for women in Nagrota, reaching out to 6,000 people from militancy-affected families. Till last month, it was employing 296 women there.

So yes, Khadi is riding a wave. But then, it has always been perched on a see-saw. Different governments fall in love with it from time to time, then let it slip from top recall. From a nationalist symbol to an institution of utter neglect, with poverty-stricken spinners; from Vasundhara Raje’s efforts to fashionize Khadi when she was the Union minister for small-scale industries, agro and rural industries from 1999-2001, to Khadi’s utter decimation in the last few years, and this surge again—it’s been a story of tide, ebb and tide.

Currently, there are 7,036 KVIC-authorized Khadi Gramodyog Bhavans, as well as hundreds of others, from Punjab to Andhra Pradesh, which sell what Saxena agrees is “spurious Khadi". “By an Act of Parliament, only the KVIC is authorized to sell Khadi, so we have started enforcing legal action against companies that use or advertise it," he says. Even well-known fashion brands make it to this list.

This claim of centralized authority over Khadi manufacture and use, though, is as twisted as delicate yarn. Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), which launched Huts To High Street, a two-year-old, biannual Khadi fashion show staged in Ahmedabad, says he did so with support from the Gujarat State Khadi & Village Industries Board. The first show was held in January 2015 at the Sardar Patel Museum on the suggestion of then chief minister Anandiben Patel—she was also a front-row guest. Some of India’s top designers—Rohit Bal and Rajesh Pratap Singh included—exhibited here. The second show, held at the Indian Institute of Management campus, saw VIPs dressed in Khadi garments being welcomed with Khadi garlands. “We received a congratulatory letter from the Prime Minister himself that he was happy that Khadi was being made fashionable again," says Sethi.

The Khadi Mark. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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The Khadi Mark. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

India’s relationship with Khadi, whether as a fashion and luxury fabric or with its spinners and weavers, remains complex. K. Shivakumar, secretary of the Gandhigram Trust in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, is sceptical of the entire argument that Khadi is “commercially successful". “A Khadi spinner still earns less than an unskilled worker under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MGNREGA). They earn 100-120 a day, but to ensure that young spinners stay in the fold and enhance the quality of the fabric they use, daily wages need to be at least 250." Shivakumar makes another point: While agricultural loans are waived off if a farmer provides evidence of financial losses, loans given to Khadi institutions are seldom waived off.

The KVIC still pays 4 per hank for handspun yarn to a Khadi spinner, so even if 45-50 hanks are spun in a day (which only a normal-sighted, healthy, skilled spinner can manage), the wages per day come to 200—lower than what casual workers get under the MGNREGA. In rural Punjab, women spinners hired by some Khadi institutions are reportedly forced to settle for “sabun-tel" (soaps and oil) instead of cash payments.

One of the most meaningful observations comes from Rta Kapur Chishti, a Khadi expert, author and founder of Taanbaan, a label of Khadi saris and products made on a few private looms in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Chishti has been sceptical about Ambar Charkhas (hand-cranked mechanized charkhas introduced in the late 1950s that have now been modernized in many places to use solar power). Now, she says, “demand is rising and outstripping the production base. Unless Ambar Charkhas or other mechanized versions can give the quality of Khadi’s original textured, low-twist and well-woven fabric, what you will get is a lookalike of mill-spun cloth." Ninety per cent of Rajasthan’s Khadi institutions make Terry Khadi, says Chishti, while the demand for Khadi in places like Puducherry, with its French influences, has resulted in “French Khadi exponents"—the irony of this is not lost on anyone. There is merit in Chishti’s argument that the KVIC ends up “making mill-product lookalikes in rural enterprises, with none of the advantages of a handwoven fabric." If not corrected, this could rob Khadi of its definition: a fabric that is unlike any other Indian handloom product, where the yarn is mill-spun.

Demand-supply clashes are valid. The only Khadi cluster to create totally handspun, handwoven cloth is Ponduru district, near Visakhapatnam. A delight to touch and wear, Ponduru Khadi is priced at 1,100 per metre (Khadi fabric ranges from 50-300 per metre for basic varieties and 700-2,000 for finer muslin) but is sold out in Visakhapatnam itself. Even Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan’s flagship store in Delhi doesn’t stock it.

Back at the KVIC office, Saxena’s mild-mannered firmness cannot rationalize the choice of designer Ritu Beri as their fashion adviser for Khadi promotion. Never known for her work with Khadi or any kind of handloom interaction, viewpoint or collection, Beri’s appointment, and the recent launch of the first Ritu Beri Khadi collection (which took place after this interview), shows how the work of designers who have consistently worked with Khadi has been ignored.

It is hard to understand why the KVIC cares so little about Khadi’s fashion potential.

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