Much before mill-made yarn and fabric was invented, handspinning and handweaving, was the only way to make cloth. Since ancient times, so evolved was this skill and technology, and so evocative its product- that it helped create and internationally position the demand for rare qualities of textiles, which, although unique to India, found resonance all over the world. Towards the end of the 19th century, when mill-spun fabric was fast-replacing handloom fabric, mill-spun yarn also replaced hand-spun yarn in hand weaving- marginalizing, in the process, hand-spinning and the dexterous abilities of the hand to do what no machine can ever do- manufacture differences in every millimeter of the yarn, and every inch of the yardage.
Colonial rule hit us where we were most prosperous- our textile trade, causing irrepairable damage to Indian hand-skills, and mass-scale poverty. Mahatma Gandhi made khadi the tool to fight that very same oppressive rule and its impact. It was this unique combination of the economic, social and political that made khadi the all-encompassing, powerful tool it was to become- an effective means of communication, of expressing a unified identity, a symbol of pride, and of hardcore economics.
Never before has any single fabric created such a public and private memory as khadi…
What does it mean to us today? Where does hand-spinning fit in the evolution of the technology of cloth manufacture today? What kind of a dialogue is required in contemporary India for the handmade and the machine-made? Some of these answers will inform how we as a country evolve our own unique design vocabulary in a fast globalizing world and how we chose to express and explain who we are to ourselves and to the world.
Hand-spinning, has died in most parts of the world, and stands today as our only global USP in textiles. An activity which today employs millions of people through a governmental programme for it, and a larger number hand-spinners, weavers and craftspeople outside of this. Together, they include hundreds of different qualities of hand-spun and hand-woven fabrics – from the finest 500 count muslin to the thickest blankets – across cotton, woolen and silk fibres.
The context of such hand-spinning also varies…For communities in Pitthoragarh in the lower ranges of the Himalayas, it suggests supplementary income to agriculture. Here, even Re 1 more for a day’s work of hand-spinning makes a considerable difference; such is the value of money. For spinners in Wardha, where Gandhi founded his second ashram after Ahmedabad, it is an activity of service and livelihood creation- guided by the meditative spiritual strength it brings to the spinner. In Ponduru, Andhra Pradesh the entire process of manufacture- from separation of the cotton to the spinning is done by hand- and the spinners will tell you that the machine-made techniques afford for them no joy of creativity- hundreds of spinners, some as young as 19 years, and some as old as 80, pride in their knowledge that no advanced mechanised technology can replicate what they make by hand. In Ladakh, it fits into a community movement to preserve the ecological heritage of the world. For the Varanasi weavers, affected by the import of cheaper machine-made replicas of Indian brocades that once made India famous- it could suggest a way of differentiating their product in the high-end luxury market- a strategic move that could give an edge in design, business and profits.
There are many more social, economic and cultural contexts for khadi. Yet its potential as an International brand has not been targeted. It survives on Government Subsidies with huge unsold stocks, poor sales infrastructure, and a lack of any pro-active competitive Market Strategy. On the other hand, involving young designers and craftspeople, textile technologists and engineers would give us innovative products.
Today, when our markets and homes are inundated with things that look increasingly similar, when the mill-made finds greater strength due to its own merits in textile manufacture, khadi stands foremost in our search for products and processes unique to India that can find place in global markets. In a ‘mass-produced’ scenario, hand-spinning offers limitless artistic and creative potential- an immeasurable luxury both for the maker, and for the wearer, in a world where time itself, indeed is the ultimate luxury. A process which makes improvisations, innovations and explorations possible at every stage of manufacture- producing rare textural, aesthetic and functional qualities.
While Gandhi’s khadi evolved within the context of economic nationalism and the non-violent struggle for freedom, modern contexts for khadi echo similar moods- a resurgent nation, taking global economic strides, a young India in search of a rooted identity and the pressing need to balance the many divides globalization creates.
Developments around the world create the right atmosphere to launch khadi as an international brand. While globalization and free trade creates a world with increasing homogenization, khadi stands for individual uniqueness. In the face of mass-production it stands for the glory of the handmade. In a mechanized world its stands for handcraftsmanship, not in opposition but as something that aids the fast-paced forces that enable other human achievements and marvels- the pauses that enable greater speed, the moments of quiet contemplation that foster human genius and achievement. In a world affected by war, and pollution; terrorism and destruction it stands for creative, constructive, healing energies that hold the key to peace. As people the world over rediscover Gandhian ideals, the merits of organic food and agriculture, natural fibres and their products, appropriate technologies, renewable sources of energy and architecture; several international movements towards non-violence, ‘slow cities’, ‘slow food’ and ecological sustainability create a global atmosphere that is just right for khadi.
But before, and beyond all this, the most important question remains of the craftspeople themselves…how can the expanding opportunities presented by global markets mean a higher wage for them? For their hand-skills, which today can command high prices from international audiences…This is the real challenge. To restore to a sophisticated skill the respect it truly deserves, and to its extension as an important expression for creative India, suggesting a product at the same time- capable of standing on its own on international runaways and Meccas of high-fashion.