Khadi - A cloth and beyond
- By Ektaa Jain*
Clothes have always been integral to human identity. They have defined not only individuals but are often seen as markers of particular groups, communities, towns, and even countries. A potent sign of resistance and change, clothing can be seen as a power changing mechanism. The idea of meaning associated with what we wear is dominant in our society. It is in this light that the paper tries to explore Gandhi's meaning of the fabric 'khadi' in the freedom struggle. It has been referred to as the 'fabric of Indian independence' and had a key role to play in the freedom struggle. The article attempts to explore this role and the meaning that the cloth conveyed during the struggle and after.
The clothes we wear have played an essential role throughout history. They reflect the personality of individuals and can be used as a marker of a group, community, family, region and even country. Indian culture is older than history. The building up and casting aside of different identities by means of clothes has been a recurring theme in it. In this essay, it is proposed to examine how these very identities were constructed and used through the medium of a simple yet powerful cloth— khadi.1
The theory that clothes were necessary due to climatic conditions is not without its opponents.
It is always unsafe to make sweeping statements about customs, for customs are often fossilized results of individual minds. Partial or complete nudity might also be attributed to social taboo or some religious system. Modesty is an instinct ranging between shame and fear. Modesty is dictated by custom and usage. Anthropology gradually undermined the belief that clothes are needed to shield us from extreme cold or heat.2
The fact that hand-spinning as well as hand-weaving were quite prevalent in prehistoric India is quite evident from the oldest Vedas and Manusmriti.3
It was in the beginning of the seventeenth century that the English first set their foot in India as a company of traders. The Englishmen had never really actively propagated their dress earlier. However, a tendency was noticeable among the younger generation of disposing the flowing cuts of previous eras and adopting a new European style of trousers. Side by side with these changes in Indian fashions, English dresses were themselves being worn commonly. Moreover, When a country like India, with a rich heritage or well-founded traditions, has always been made the hunting ground of many opposing but tempting cultures, it puts on a hide of complacency which makes it insensitive to sudden shocks and incapable of quick reactions.4 The people then begin to suffer from a sort of an intellectual cowardice which keeps them torn between shyness and desire. They are drawn towards the new, but are afraid to relinquish the old.
Within this dilemma of the new and the old came khadi. However, as an effective and powerful symbol of freedom struggle, it came to its fore due to its association with M. K. Gandhi and the indispensable role that he played in elevating it to the status of a national cloth. This is also evident in khadi being the result of Gandhi's own sartorial choices of transformation from that of an Englishman to that of one representing India.5 The choice of Khadi as a symbol was thus not the result of a whim. It was a well-thought-out decision of Gandhi. The key to Khadi becoming a successful tool for the freedom struggle lies in its uniqueness which picked up and re-crafted the then existing politico- economic critiques with its own distinctive qualities. It thus became a material to which people from diverse backgrounds could relate to. To put it simply, 'khadi was the material embodiment of an ideal' that represented freedom from colonialism on the one hand and a feeling of self-reliance and economic self-sufficiency on the other. It embodied the national integrity of all as well as acted as a marker for communal harmony and spiritual humility.
It is amidst this that one finds Simmel's work on 'fashion' quite interesting. Simmel regarded fashion as a means for social equalization with the desire for individual differentiation and change.6 Khadi has done exactly this in the Indian context. While, on the one hand, it became a tool to blur distinctions and cover all within its canopy, yet, on the other hand, it gave Khadi a distinct identity as a common man's cloth. The supremacy that Khadi entailed as a national symbol was due to the reason that everybody could wear the same form of clothing without any distinctions of high and low and thus demonstrate responsibility towards the nation and the struggle going through. To opt for Khadi, therefore, was to emphasise one's being over appearance, substance over form, and 'character over clothing.' The spinning wheel gradually became what can be termed as an innovative tool for attaining swaraj. It was thought that Indians could actually regain their lost autonomy by donning the fabric and spinning, which would mean more than just struggling for independence; it would rather be a feeling of being independent totally.
The reasons for Gandhi recognising the humongous potential of the fabric rose both from personal experiences as well as gradual national awakening. Gandhi was undoubtedly overwhelmed by the early nationalist critiques of colonialism that found the stagnation and deterioration of India's textile industry as a major cause for India's growing poverty. The critiques all saw the importing of mill cloth on such large-scale as a hindrance to self-sufficiency.
Khadi Textiles: Representing India
The development of Mohandas Gandhi's ideas about Khadi termed as the “fabric of Indian independence," and as both a symbol of India's potential economic self-sufficiency and a medium for communicating to the British the dignity of poverty and the equality of Indian civilization. Mahatma Gandhi used his own appearance in a communicative manner to send across essential messages. This too was done in a way that could be comprehended by one and all through his clothing practices.7
People create symbols through daily interactions. By fashioning himself as a symbol and an example for others to follow, Gandhi created a symmetry and transparency with which others could view him as an exemplar. He spoke wisely, but it was his actions that spoke louder, enabling him to be a more credible leader.8
“Gandhi regarded visual experience as a neutral and transparent kind of communication that was open to everyone."9 Gonsalves seems to think on similar lines when he puts forward the argument that Gandhi's experiments with his dress shows his gradual understanding of clothing as a powerful visual discourse in itself, which could be used to influence people and persuade them into the freedom struggle. He could thus bring his audience closer to himself.he moral language behind Gandhi's sartorial changes, was giving space and thus helping in reviving the earlier beliefs of magic or sacredness that cloth had always signified within the Indian society through this symbolically laden language of Khadi, one could witness creation of an 'imagined national community' encompassing all, even the non-literati.10
For many centuries prior to the nineteenth, India had been a major producer and provider of textiles of all kinds. Textiles were manufactured in large quantities all over the subcontinent to provide for consumption in the domestic as well as the world market. Regional specialization in the subcontinent in the manufacturing of textiles was an important element in the history of the textile sector over the centuries.
From the late eighteenth century onwards, the basis of competitiveness changes as a consequence of technological and institutional changes in British cotton manufacturing.11 For years the fate of the Indian textiles and the political authority of the British have been hotly debated. For many nineteenth century historians it is an accepted fact that this rising power led to the wiping out of Indian textiles. The British were seen as the torchbearers of a modern industry. Only from the 1970s was research undertaken on changes in the size and scale of textile industry.12
Khadi as Embodying Meaning
There exists a wider issue of the relationship between clothing and its wearer. What do clothes mean to the people who wear them? Why do certain individuals and groups dress in a particular way? What can be the constraints within which they decide the way? And what could be the consequences of choosing one dress over another? Clothes then become central to a person's identity but not in a rigid or deterministic way.13 The recurrent themes of destruction of 'Indian tradition/ the futility of 'western imitation' and the need for a revival of local textiles were expounded in a number of different forms in India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Clothing choices can lead to a gamut of issues of conflict between various groups. These issues could be concerning respect, honour, modesty or simply choice.14 A tiff between different dress codes can thus be read as a sign of some wider dispute between two groups. In India, clothes have a special meaning, since they are considered capable of retaining the very essence of people who wear them. The pre-colonial view of cloth as a thing that can transmit spirit and substance and that cloth could evoke such powerful symbols of community and conduct was due to the important role it played in the Indian society, not merely in fixing and symbolising social and political statuses, but in transmitting holiness, purity and pollution.15
The English conquest of Bengal in the second half of the eighteenth century was of great import from the point of view of the textile industry of the province which later reflected the scenario for the entire country to some extent. The artisans and the intermediary merchants associated with the industry no longer received their due in the value of the total output of the industry. It was in the second half of the nineteenth century that the impact of British cotton textile industry was felt with its full force by the Indian handloom sector.
When the dhotis re-emerged in Bengal in 1905, it was seen as a sign of protest against the British policies. It signified the incompatibility of Indian and European dressing styles which were symbolic of the incompatibility of Indian and British interests. Clothes were thus an important expression against colonialism, but they still had not gained a central place in political debate. This was to change with the coming of Gandhi.
The unrestrained weakening of the Indian textile industry and in turn the Indian economy in addition to the vast scale disillusionment of the masses caught the eye of Indian patriotic leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji, Bipin Chandra Pal, Ranade and Tilak.16 The Indian National Congress at its 7th Session in 1891, passed a resolution urging people to use only Indian goods to the exclusion of imported ones and gave a clarion call for 'Swadeshi' (use of things made in India only).
With the partition of Bengal (1905), the movement reached its climax leading to boycott of the imported goods particularly English cloth. In spite of this, the movement really went through a sort of mutation only with Gandhi's idea of swaraj and a change in politics was evident soon with his coming back in 1915.17 As suggested earlier too, handspun and hand-woven cloth had been common in the Indian cultural fabric since a very long time. However, interestingly enough, only with the decline of production and usage of Indian cloth that the idea of 'khadi' as more than just a cloth entered the lexicon of nationalism making headway to being the prominent symbol of freedom from the yoke of colonialism.
Khadi, the ever present fabric of the country became part of the independence struggle because of the way it was popularised by Gandhi. The vocabulary that the leader used was that of denoting the fabric as an entire way of life, a way of life that could symbolise the unity of the vast nation.18 In this sense, Gandhi can be seen as the first true Indian designer who in a way counselled the people to adorn their bodies with the nation's fabric— Khadi. Khadi came across as leading India away from the shackles of the British rule for it encompassed the values that had been integral to the identity of the country including first and foremost, simplicity, humanitarian attitude towards all and the virtue of being independent. This was also seen as a way to infuse dedication, discipline and perseverance among all. One of the greatest qualities of Khadi that made it so popular was its existence as a social equalizer. Though it was meant for the masses and could be worn by thepoor, it also caught the eye of the sophisticated, thus bringing all under one canopy.
When Gandhi remarked that swaraj in absence of swadeshi would literally be a soulless body, it was understood that if swadeshi was the soul of swaraj, then its essence would definitely lie with Khadi. The key to self-reliance for a nation was harking upon its indigenous goods of which Khadi was a very important one. In his words, "I am a salesman of swaraj. I am a devotee of khadi. It is my duty to induce people, by every honest means, to wear khadi."19 Khadi thus became an emblem for the revolution that India was waiting for. Moreover, the revolution led by the emblem soon made Khadi a part of Indian identity.
The movement for Khadi began in 1918.20 The movement was marked with its own changing dynamics. While initially, a clear emphasis could be seen on using Khadi as a medicine to the masses ridden with poverty due to economic stagnation, from 1934 onwards the fabric became something that the village people could use for themselves. It was no longer seen only as a commodity for sale to bring economic prosperity. The meaning became more humble. In 1942-43, right after coming out of the prison, his ideology behind khadibecame that of making the fabric useful for the villagers themselves. His ideas came out clearly by 1944, when he left no stone unturned to bring this change into effect.21
You have asked me why wearing of Indian mill cloth does not amount to boycott of foreign cloth. This is colossal ignorance. For fulfilling the boycott, it is not enough if we wear mill cloth. The Bengalis even today complain of the exploitation of Bengal by the mill-owners at the time of the Partition. Their experience should teach us that boycott cannot be achieved with the help of only mill cloth. The propaganda should, therefore, be in favour of Khadi only. It is obvious that mill cloth has no place in the house of the Congress.22
The uniqueness about Gandhi and his understanding of Khadi also lies in the fact that he was one of the pioneers to recognise the need of a craft based society in which not only Khadi but all indigenous arts and crafts could flourish and sustain themselves. Khadi could thus help in building up a community that for the first time would include the non-literates in an equal capacity if not more than the literate ones.
Gandhi created a new form of swadeshi politics that encouraged the production and exclusive consumption of hand-spun, hand-woven cloth of Khadi. The campaign to popularize this movement took many forms, including the organization of exhibitions that demonstrated cloth production and sold Khadi goods. On the occasion of one such exhibition in 1927, Gandhi explained the significance of exhibitions for the movement: "[The exhibition] is designed to be really a study for those who want to understand what this khadi movement stands for, and what it has been able to do. It is not a mere ocular demonstration to be dismissed out of our minds immediately..... It is not a cinema. It is actually a nursery where a student, a lover of humanity, a lover of his own country may come and see things for himself.'23
Clothing and other consumer goods of the Swadeshi Movement were important mediums for creating a national image, as they linked a distinct material culture of nationalism to what were seen as the nation's basic values. The Swadeshi Movement made use of cloth in many forms, including new hats, new flags, and a new style of dress. Khadi could then be seen as a popular symbol in the so-called modern sphere of life. The performative tool that it was, it got the urban Indian community together with its widespread display and consumption. Swadeshi enthusiasts quickly (recognized that the support of urban India was not enough to bring about the economic and social changes that they sought. The All India Spinners' Association (AISA), therefore, set out to bring its ideas to India's rural communities, which were otherwise isolated from India's urban population. AISA created a body of visual images to communicate with India's diverse population.
The Khadi programme was formally established in 1919, but was made clearly distinct from the medieval period's charkha. The latter was a symbol of exploitation and helplessness of the spinners while the wheel of Khadi was to become a symbol of revolution in thought and action, as well as an embodiment of non-violence. Non-violence itself is seen as a defining characteristic of Gandhi's idea of change, development and growth.24 The first Khadi production centre was soon established in 1921 in Kathiawad, Gujarat. It was in the same year that the charkha too found a proud place on the Indian national flag. For Gandhi, charkha was the genius with the support of which people could get together and attain an independent state of mind leading to their social, political, moral and economic development.
He further emphasised, "I never suggested that those, who are more lucratively employed should give up their lucrative employment and prefer spinning. I have said repeatedly that only those are expected and should be induced to spin, who have no other paying employment, and that too only during the hours of unemployment.'25 Gandhi was totally convinced with the invincibility of Khadi that he asserted, "Khadi is the only true economic proposition in terms of millions of villagers until such time, if ever, when a better system of supplying work and adequate wages for every able bodied person above the age of sixteen, male or female, is found for his field, in every one of the villages in India."26
It is an undisputed fact that no nation having its masses unemployed or under-employed, can hope to advance in any appreciable manner, for the contributions by the unemployed would be negligible while they shall actually continue to consume and thus, would add undue strain on the working population. Charkha thus was seen as an attempt to put to use this mass of unproductive resource to some use.
Gandhi fervently appealed to one and all to wear Khadi, with the intent of satisfying one of the basic needs of mankind. "Khadi is meant for everyone. Even a depraved man, a sinner, a drunkard, a gambler, anybody, can wear it. I would not hesitate to urge them to wear khadi even though I cannot induce them to change their mode of inner life. But the sacred quality of khadi is that it is a symbol of freedom. Those who wish to live in free India ought to wear Khadi."27 Despite laying emphasis on the economic dimension of Khadi, Gandhi's economics had a different connotation and basis. For him it was not based on competition in which patriotism, sentiments, and humanity play little or no part. Khadi wholly concerned itself with the 'human?
Khadi for Gandhi was situated in a larger context in a symbolic manner wherein it was the focal point of regeneration and diversification of rural economy. He remarked, "But khadi is the sun of the village solar system. The planets are the various industries which can support khadi in return for the heat and the sustenance they derive from it. Without it, the other industries cannot grow."28 Gandhi's emphasis on the villages and Khadi's role in villages also pointed towards his vision of decentralisation. Non-exploitation is the hallmark of a non-violent society. The former could be ensured only when power in all spheres including economic, social, political, was decentralised, so as to ensure vast participation of the common public. Charkha was seen as a mechanism to decentralise the economic dimension.
Khadi occupied a distinguished place in the pre-iruiependence era and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru gave the poetic expression to Khadi as the 'livery of India's freedom.' For Gandhi, wearing Khadi was symbolic of wearing freedom. Khadi thus became an indispensable tool to restore the lost ancient glory of Indian industry and commerce which led to greater confidence amongst the people. This emblem of patriotism was seen as a bad omen for the British, who then tried to curtail the Khadi movement. However, the more it was controlled, the more powerful and widespread it became. By reviving Khadi and other village industries, national life could be reorganised on the lines of simplicity. Gandhi saw a potential market for Khadi among the town. What he wished for was an integration of town and country in a way that would stop the starvation of the peasants, that would include them in the development process fully, and that the profits made from their labour would be beneficial to them.29
Khadi had been found to be a unique instrument to promote communal harmony and religious tolerance amongst the artisans easily due to their daily face-to-face interaction. It appeared as a medium to come closer to lakhs of 'harijans' and provide them a way of living through spinning and weaving. Khadi provided a prepared platform and organisational support to launch a movement against untouchability. The charkha became an unparalleled means to provide gainful employment to a very important segment of the population— women. This was bound to raise their social and economic status and ensured dignity of labour.
The boycott of English cloth was undoubtedly a boon for the cotton Khadi fabric to prosper. The dying industry once more came to life with considerable vigour. The emotional appeal of Khadi compensated to a large extent its qualitative shortcomings in addition to gaining respectability in the circles of the elites and learned people.
Khadi: Tradition and Modern - The Limitations
The journey of Khadi saw a major struggle for maintaining a balance between tradition and modernity. Both these concepts played a pivotal role in shaping a new national identity for the country. While tradition was indispensable for the nation to sustain its legitimacy and preserve the culture, modern aspects of life could not be overlooked if the nation had to compete on a global scale. Khadi was thus redefined in the following ways by its proponents which made the fabric distinct and also added an element of flexibility to the idea of Khadi for it to sustain itself:30
The multiple meanings of khadi made it a versatile tool with which nationalists could tailor swadeshi to suit different political circumstances.31
With independence the status of Khadi was all of a sudden elevated from being "livery of freedom' to the 'rulers' costume" and there was a mushroom growth in the number of wearers of Khadi overnight. However, this was mainly for political reasons. While the new government had full faith in Khadi as being a medium to provide employment to the masses, it did not have much faith in the philosophy of non-violence and decentralisation. Gandhi being disappointed by this wrote, "Neither in Kathiawad nor in other parts of India, had people real faith in non-violence or Khadi. It is true that I deceived myself into the belief that people were being wedded to non-violence with khadi as its symbol."32
However, with a vast and diverse country like India, the vision to get every person under a single canopy of Khadi was most seemingly an ambition quite difficult to be achieved in totality. The clothing practices of the country not only varied from one region to another but also on each and every basis including age, religion, caste etc. Moreover, Gandhi's quest for reorganising India around the idea of self-sufficient villages had not caught the attention of many noteworthy people. These important people included B.R. Ambedkar who associated Khadi with the means of restricting people to conditions of poverty further by denying them access to modern machinery and development. It was perceived as a way through which the natural growth and progress of the country would be stunted. Another prominent critic was Tagore himself. The prolific writer opined that a man cannot be stunted by growth of machines. However, Gandhi had a very unique opinion on machinery. According to him, "How can I be (against all machinery) when I know that even this body is a most delicate piece of machinery? The spinning wheel is a machine, a little toothpick is a machine... I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of mankind but for all."33
The art of spinning was also assumed to be a woman's prerogative which demanded hard labour as well as a good duration of time.34 These criteria were difficult for the male members of the household. Khadi somehow could not succeed in bringing together different religious groups due to the dominant Hindu imagery that it used. Muslims did not support the fabric to a large extent for the Hindu rhetoric of Kamadhenu and Sudarshan Chakra was something they could not relate to.35 Others complained that spinning was women's work and that it was a laborious and repetitive activity.
In addition to the above mentioned limitations, Khadi could not be accessed with much ease by the poor people. As India had already begun to export raw cotton on such a large scale, its shortage within the country led to serious problems of availability to spin the fabric. Obtaining raw cotton with its high price was gradually out of question for the rural Indian. The hand-spun fabric also had to face stiff competition with the much inferior yet cheaper and easily available mill-spun cloth. In fact due to the difficult condition of accessing raw cotton, the rural parts of the country could really not get rid of the cheap and easily available English mill cloth.
Concluding Remarks - The Continuing Journey
Three trends can be seen to have shaped the contemporary fashion: technological development, independence movement, and changing social identities.36 Khadi has always evoked memories of India's great past before the British mills drove weavers out of business and onto impoverished farms. Khadi thus serves as an appropriate example of technology, independence and identity.
Khadi shows how customary consumption logic of small communities are intimately tied to larger regimes of value as defined and constructed by large-scale politics.37 Gandhi actively encouraged people to interpret one another's clothes as a political or personal belief. The result was that people became increasingly self-conscious about their public image and found their clothing choices open to close scrutiny. Historians have emphasised the fact that Khadi brought within its canopy the wealthy and the poor. This was certainly Gandhi's intention and at some level he was successful. However, khadi itself had become diversified by the fineness of its weave. We may conclude that if material culture is the primary focus of a study, then human agency becomes the subject, for people manipulate objects such as clothes to define themselves, and Khadi did exactly this.
Notes and References:
* EKTAA JAIN is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Address: Room 215, Ganga Hostel, JNU New Campus. New Delhi. Email: email@example.com