Home-spun cloth an emblem of national pride

When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Ahmedabad in September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented him with an off- white khadi vest, which Mr Xi promptly put on after removing his jacket and tie.

Mr Modi, wearing a similar vest, then took his guest on a tour of the Sabarmati Ashram, where independence icon Mahatma Gandhi and his wife Kasturba lived for many years.

Khadi refers to hand-spun and hand-woven cloth, but in the hands of Gandhi, it signified a freedom movement against the British.

Among the personal items that Mr Xi saw at the ashram was the charkha, or spinning wheel, that Gandhi used to spin khadi as part of a campaign to boycott foreign- made goods, especially those from Britain, and to promote self-reliance. India gained independence in 1947.

Now, in the 21st century, khadi is getting a fresh and equally high-profile push under Mr Modi.

The Prime Minister, who took office in May, boasts a wardrobe filled with khadi vests and kurta pyjamas in colours ranging from soft pastels to bright hues.

Not only that, he has been urging the people of India to buy khadi.

In a radio address on Oct 3, a day after Gandhi's 145th birth anniversary, Mr Modi called on all Indians to buy at least one khadi item, be it a bedsheet or a handkerchief, to help the nation's weavers.

"If you buy khadi, you light the lamp of prosperity in the house of a poor person," he said.

Even before Mr Modi's call, khadi was seeing a resurgence, thanks partly to a "makeover" by the country's top designers.

They include Rajesh Pratap Singh, who launched a khadi denim line of jeans this year. Levi's launched its first khadi range in a "purple shade of natural indigo". These khadi jeans, jackets and shirts retail for 5,000 rupees (around S$106) to 15,000 rupees.

"Each piece is marked with the name of the person who hand-wove the cloth and the place where it was woven," said Mr Jonathan Cheung, a senior vice-president for global design at Levi Strauss.

Khadi - woven from natural fibres (mainly cotton, but also silk and wool) - is no humble cloth. It costs three times more than factory- made fabric.

A metre of the ultra-soft white muslin khadi can command as much as 1,500 rupees, while khadi with a rougher texture can be had for 200 rupees.

Designer Gaurang Shah, who unveiled a khadi line at the Berlin and New York fashion weeks in 2011, calls it one of the world's most versatile fabrics.

"A (khadi) sari can be worn in summer and winter," said Mr Shah, whose line includes saris, flowy dresses and layered tunics.

"Demand is increasing," he said, adding that khadi has become as popular as silk. He has adopted a village of 150 to 160 weavers in southern Andhra Pradesh to make khadi for him.

Overall sales of khadi, spun by hundreds of thousands of poor weavers in remote villages, have risen by 6 per cent a year.

According to the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, khadi sales reached 10.8 billion rupees in 2013-2014, up from 10.21 billion rupees in 2012-2013.

Even Gandhi's granddaughter feels that appreciation for the cloth has perhaps surpassed what was seen during the Gandhi days.

Ms Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, who is now in her 80s, grew up wearing only khadi, and is committed to promoting the home-spun cloth.

"It is stunningly aesthetic, comfortable on the skin, and it is handicraft. We are keeping a legacy alive," said Ms Bhattacharjee, who revealed that fabrics in her house are "99.9 per cent khadi".

At the newly furnished Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Delhi's Connaught Place, part of a chain of popular government shops selling khadi across the country, sales have increased since the Prime Minister made his "buy khadi" call.

Sales for last month nearly doubled to 59 million rupees from 30 million rupees for the same period last year at this outlet and seven other government shops in Delhi.

The shops have already chalked up 700 million rupees in sales so far this year, eclipsing last year's 350 million rupees.

"The popularity of khadi has grown, as has public awareness that it is a natural fibre that keeps warm in winter and cool in summer," said Mr S.P. Singh, the director and resident representative of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission.

Even so, growing awareness aside, this popularity is still confined to a small segment of Indian society.

The reason has to do with economics.

In today's wholesale market, a metre of mill-made cotton cloth costs from 35 rupees to 40 rupees. In contrast, a metre of "basic" hand-spun khadi goes for between 110 rupees and 130 rupees.

Khadi also has an image problem - it has been the cloth of choice for India's political class, currently a discredited lot following a series of corruption scandals.

Mr Rajneesh Raghava, who runs a consultancy firm, became a khadi "convert" five years ago. The 32-year-old, whose father is a farmer, said he first learnt about Gandhi and khadi in school.

"People say khadi is expensive, but that perception is wrong because you can get different ranges. It is much cheaper than some goods available at the malls," said Mr Raghava, who had a silk khadi jacket tailored recently for a wedding.

"Any Indian who is patriotic should go at least once (to a khadi shop)," he added.


This article was first published on November 9, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.