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Half-naked Fakir
By Emmo Tarlo*
Of course, one can never fully know Gandhi’s ‘intention’ in wearing a loin-cloth, for what he actually wrote and declared in his speeches may have differed to some extent from his personal reflections. Yet through analyzing content of his expressed intention, one can gain considerable insight into how he tried to construct the meaning of his loincloth publicly. It is suggested here that Gandhi wrote and spoke so much about his dress because he wanted people to understand it and because he realized that it could easily be misinterpreted. Misinterpreted it was, but this does not mean that the misinterpretations were necessarily detrimental to Gandhi, or that Gandhi did not to some extent enjoy the ambiguity of his own sartorial gesture.

Misinterpretations of the loincloth
Gandhi-Cartoon-published-in-Hindi-PunchWhen Gandhi first announced his intention to shed his dhtoi and cap, a cartoon appeared in the Hindi Punch showing him sweeping back the tide of civilization with the broom of ‘old time barbarism’. To many Britons and educated Indians alike, his loincloth was a backward step, a return to the nakedness of the ‘primitive’ and ‘barbaric’. Even his closest followers were concerned, as we have seen, to dissuade him from taking such a drastic measure. Some feared that they too might be expected to shed their clothes. Since Gandhi discussed his decision with them at length, they became the people closest to understanding his proposed intention. Maulana Azad Sobhani immediately reacted by reducing his own dress, replacing his pantaloons with a lungi and his shirt with a waistcoat, and removing his cap which, from then on, he wore only for prayer. Krishnadas, after agonizing reflection, finally decided to discard his vest but not to adopt the more drastic and ‘humiliating’ loincloth.
First reactions to Gandhi’s change of dress from those outside his immediate circle varied from puzzlement to fear and misapprehension. Some, like the ex-chief justice of Baroda, Abbas Tyabji, laughed. Others like the Muslim Maulana Abdul Bari, feared that Gandhi’s loincloth violated Islamic codes of decency. But whatever the reaction, it certainly attracted attention and drew the crowds. As it became a well-known feature of his identity, people came to interpret it increasingly as a sign of Gandhi’s saintliness since he looked like a religious ascetic. He has already been labeled Mahatma (Great Soul) some years before he adopted the loincloth and by 1921 he was frequently perceived as a saint (Amin 1984). But somehow his new loincloth garn seemed like the confirmation of his sainthood. People came from miles around to get Gandhi’s darshan (holy sight). The loin-clothed ascetic was an image they could relate to and admire. Even today it is the image of Gandhi that is most preserved in popular posters and calendars.
But there were two major problems with people interpreting the loincloth as confirmation of Gandhi’s sainthood. The first was Gandhi himself hotly denied being a saint on many occasions and cursed what he called his ‘mahatmaship’. And the second was that by seeing Gandhi’s dress as the clothes of a Hindu ascetic, people ‘naturalised’ his loincloth and accepted his poverty. It was after all what you would expect of a holy man. If these interpretations are judged according to Gandhi’s proclamations about the meaning of the loincloth, they are clearly wrong. For he did not want people to accept his nakedness passively as if it were a purely religious act or a sign of asceticism. He wanted them to ‘measure the agony of his soul’ and to spin in order that he and the poor whom he represented might be clothed. In fact, Gandhi was so vehemently opposed to the notion of ‘saintly garbs’ that he even refused to grant Ashram membership to the well-known sanyasi, Swami Satyadev, on the grounds that the latter would not replace his ochre robes with plain white khadi. The sanyasi’s robes were, he felt, inappropriate to the task of serving the nation, for they invited the adoration of the people and distracted both the wearer and his followers from their path of duty.
To reduce Gandhi’s own clothes to a mere symbol of sainthood was clearly to undermine most of what he had to say about them. But the situation was, of course, ambiguous for although religious interpretations deconstructed Gandhi’s message, they simultaneously brought the crowds to him and actively increased his popularity ‘as a saint’. Furthermore much of Gandhi’s behavior, including his adoption of ‘voluntary poverty’, was typically characteristic of Indian saints, if not saints in general.
This ambiguity was further exploited by Gandhi himself, who frequently used highly emotive religious terminology when speaking of khadi.
Another common interpretation of Gandhi’s loincloth was that it was purely strategic. Most famous was Winston Churchill’s description of Gandhi as ‘a seditious Middle Temple lawyer’ now ‘posing as a half-naked fakir’. More extreme still was Beverly Nichols’ assertion that Gandhi was really a fascist and that khadi was the equivalent of the Nazi shirt and swastika. Gandhi, like other world leaders, had created his own uniform which was all the more distinctive for being shirtless. Some were even suspicious of this very shirtlessness. One communist group, on hearing of his imminent arrival in Britain, issued a statement warning that ‘the dramatic tactics of his not putting on a shirt and living on vegetables and goat’s milk should not mislead the working class. Such the ends of capitalist interest in the East.
Clearly people were capable of reading all manner of things into Gandhi’s loincloth regardless of what he himself said about it. It was partly because of this ambiguity that so many of his followers tried to persuade him to reclothe himself when visiting Britain in 1931. Apart from anything else, they worried that he would not be taken seriously and that ‘he may become a music hall joke’. Even before his arrival, there was much talk of Gandhi’s appearance in letters and in the British press. Sometimes he was described as ‘Christlike’.
On one occasion he was dismissed as a ‘naked nigger’. But to the British authorities he was largely an embarrassment, particularly when it came to the question of whether he should be invited to afternoon tea at Buckingham Palace. King George V had intended to welcome all the Indian delegates from the Round Table Conference but he was reluctant to invite ‘the little man’ with no proper clothes on, and bare knees. The situation was awkward since his dress was a blatant breach of court etiquette, but Gandhi had already announced in a speech that even if he met the King he would not reclothe while the Indian poor were still naked at Britain’s expense.
Finally, the King relented and Gandhi appeared in his habitual, loincloth and a large white shawl which he turned inside out since he had not had time to wash it. The event was much enjoyed by journalists and cartoonists, and Gandhi himself participated in the general air of sartorial amusement. Asked if he had been wearing enough clothes for his meeting with the King, Gandhi is said to have replied: “The King had enough on for both of us.” (Laugh with Gandhi, C. Lal, 1969:20)
While remaining naked and thereby exposing Indian poverty was a vital priority to Gandhi, it was not always easy to sustain, for there were often a number of well-wishers anxious to reclothe him. This was true not only of children, but also of some of his closest followers. Gandhi’s frustration at their lack of understanding was revealed in an incident on the ship bound for England in 1931. Unknown to Gandhi, many of his supporters, anxious that he might be cold or uncomfortable, had offered him gifts of stockings, shawls, muflers, bags, wallets and even an American-made folding camp-bed. These had been packed on board the ship by Gandhi’s closest associates who were accompanying him to Britain. Gandhi was furious when he discovered them, remonstrating that he was a representative of a poor country and could not possibly arrive in England with a collection of ‘swanky suitcases’. It was an embarrassing situation which was finally resolved by posting all the most expensive-looking luggage back to Bombay from Aden so that he could still arrive in Britain looking the poor man.
Not only was Gandhi’s nakedness physically difficult to maintain but it also became problematic in the metaphorical sense, particularly among some of his Western admirers. Out of their immense respect, they could not resist reclothing him in their minds, thereby making him more decent in Western terms. Bernays, for example, preferred to describe Gandhi as ‘not half naked, but three quarters naked’. And the American Haynes Holmes talked of his ‘royal air’, saying he looked and spoke ‘like a king’. It is difficult to imagine any description of him that is further away from what Gandhi was trying to portray; the poverty and needs of his naked, illiterate countrymen. Yet, like the religious interpretations of his dress, these interpretations were well meant, even though they entirely deconstructed most of what he was trying to communicate. The ambiguity of his symbolic dressing did not necessarily harm his reputation. On the contrary, the fact that he looked like a Hindu ascetic or Christ or even a ‘king’ actually served to increase his popularity. Furthermore his nakedness and simplicity remained a powerful contrast to the pedantically clad European image. And even if he did not recommend nakedness as an ideal, he none the less advocated a complete rejection of the previously idealized European look.

Examination of Gandhi’s speeches and writings concerning dress reveals that he developed a personal theory of clothes. For him they were an outward expression of the moral integrity of the wearer – an expression of truth. He first voiced these ideas in South Africa, but later came to concretize them after his return to India. They became a consistent theme and in later life he usually described his own dress in these terms. But if one examines his attempts to encourage the Indian nation to adopt khadi and the Gandhi cap, one finds him utilizing a number of different and often contradictory arguments about the meaning of clothes. The final section of this chapter explores Gandhi’s elaborate rhetoric as he tried to fulfill his ambition, “The whole country will be clothed in khadi. That is my dream. This is a fight to finish.”
Source: From the book, Clothing Matters; Gandhiand the recreation of Indian dress, by Emma Tarlo
Courtesy: The Asian Age, 18.07.1997

*EMMA TARLO is professor and Chair of Learning and Teaching in the Anthropology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. She aims to encourage students to develop and expand their research and writing skills to assist them within and beyond the academy. E-mail: