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The first true Indian designer was Mahatma Gandhi when he urged the people of India to wear khadi garments. It was not only a call to create self reliance but a call to create self reliance but a call to wear something that could prove the unity of India. Khadi was given a more important status by Gandhi after his return from South Africa. While in search of the charkha Gandhi felt that for a nation to turn self-reliant, it had to return to indigenous manufactured goods.

Gandhi wrote. Swaraj (self-rule) without swadeshi (country made goods) is a lifeless corpse and if Swadeshi is the soul of Swaraj, khadi is the essence of swedeshi. Therefore khadi became not only a symbol of revolution and resistance but part of an Indian identity.

Gandhi confessed though, When I first discovered the spinning wheel it was purely through intuition. It was not backed by knowledge so much so that I confused charkha with kargha (handloom).

These two forms of fabrics have always confused people. While khadi is hand made, handloom yarn is processed at the mills.

Many fashion conscious Indians will know that India’s rendezvour with textile dates back to ancient times when the Aryans in the Vedic period produced their own cloth. In fact, khadi (which means any cloth that is hand spun and hand woven) had a most religious role in marriages when brides in India were presented with a khada charkha in their wedding trousseau to encourage spinning of the yarn.

Roman gold, says history, paid for the import of Indian textiles, while Alexander the Great, when he invaded the country in 327 BC, was dazzled by the art of fabric making and printing as also was Marco Polo the Venetian traveler. It was in 1921 that Gandhi launched the movement of spin your own cloth and buy hand spun cloth which gained momentum making khadi the fabric of the freedom struggle.

Around that time Gandhi used khadi as the uniform for the first Non Cooperation movement and the Gandhi cap had strong symbolic overtones- that of the Indo-British battle over the looms of Manchester and a bid for a modern Indian identity. So deep rooted was the sentiment attached to this fabric that Pandit Nehru wove for his daughter Indira a wedding sari in salmon pink khadi while he was in jail. This sari is still worn by women of the Nehru-Gandhi family on their wedding day.

In 1953 when the Khadi and Village Industries Board was established it had only 156 registered institutions. Today every village however remote or small has it own khadi institutions. Initially the weaving of khadi was rather difficult as it was impossible tow eave a full length of cotton with the uneven khadi thread and at one time Gandhi is believed to have threatened to wear a sack if he was not provided with a khadi dhoti. Today the range of khadi products is unlimited from garments to household linen to furnishings, etc.

The weaving of khadi is preceded by the spinning of the thread on the charkha after which it goes to the bobbin winder, warper, sizer and finally the weaver. While spinning is organized by the khadi Board, weaving is done by the weaver at his home in an individual capacity. Spinning is mostly done by the girls and women in the villages, while weaving is dominated by men. Because of the work involved, the price of the khadi cloth when it reaches the shops is more than that of the mill or handloom cloth.

Khadi over the decades has moved from a freedom fighter’s identity fabric to a fashion garment. At one time it was scorned as fabric for the farmer and the rural wearer. Today there is such an increasing demand for khadi is such an increasing demand for khadi cloth that despite the million workers all over the country involved in spinning it they are unable to meet the demands of the market.

In 1989 the first high fashion khadi show was presented in Mumbai by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) where nearly 85 dazzling garments were created by Devika Bhojwani.

There was an exciting array of eastern and western attire. Devika had launched the Swadesi label in 1985 which was distributed through nearly 5000 Khadi Gramodyog Bhandars and Emporia.

In 1990 designer Ritu Kumar of Delhi presented her first Khadi collection at the Crafts Museum. Her Tree of Life show, an audio visual tableau spanning the history of textiles in India, showed the design lexicon of the country, the creators of textiles, those who have regenerated textile crafts and those who would wear the garments.

Eight collections were presented of which khadi was a very significant one. Since then the Tree of Life show has been presented several times for charity and caused a stir with its creations. Once again in 1997 Ritu Kumar presented the Tree of Life shown this time in London where the British were amazed with her khadi collections.

Once the sign of freedom, Khadi today holds it own on the fashion scene… it is a part of every wardrobe when it comes to selecting fabric with a discerning eye, informs Rity Kumar.

Today the younger generation may draw inspiration from the way film and MTV stars are dressing, but there was a time when fashion too was dictated by our political leaders More than the dresses it was what they signified and the fiery personalities behind them that caught the imagination of the masses and influenced them to unwaveringly follow the footsteps of their leaders, even in adapting the way they dressed, recalls Ritu Kumar.

Reveals Ritu, Actually, they were the first generation growing up after Independence and so the need to underline their identity was immense. There was also the need to emerge with something totally different and in opposition from the dress code foreign rulers had imposed.

Another person who ahs been working regularly with khadi is Kamal Wadkar, the well know promoter of traditional crafts. For decades khadi has been associated with rural wear. Although many would say it is just the right fabric for the Indian climate due to its loose weave and cool texture, khadi lacked that touch of style which other fabrics like rubia, linen or cotton had observes Kamal.

Kamal has been associated with the Gujarat Handicrafts Board (Gurjari) and the Mumbai Khadi Sangh. Her exhibitions in Mumbai for KVIC (Khadi Village Industries Commission) have netted nearly Rs.12.5 million. Kamal has presented nearly 4500 garments in 150 styles in different colours weaves and embellishment with prices ranging from Rs.460-750.

Her exhibition titled Elegance in Khadi and Khubsoorat Khadi with eight designer collections presented ethnic wear in varied forms besides western garments.

But since Khadi is woven by hand in villages it is often difficult to provide large quantities of the fabric at short notice. Yet it is this handmade quality of the fabric with its inherent defects that is the beauty of Khadi and that is what the buyer wants at times. Says Kamal it is not a poor man’s fabric although it provides employment to the poor man. It is a very up-market fabric emphasizes Kamal. Khadi dhotis are turned into printed Kurtas and dupattas.

There are times when the price and coarseness of the fabric deterred the fashion conscious from wearing it. But today khadi has many faces which are not just restricted to cotton. There is Khadi is quite competitive now and depending on the style of the garment it could range between Rs.400-2500.

There is a quaint story of how Gandhi while visiting a poor village spoke to an old woman huddled in her dark dingy hut asking if there was anything she needed. The woman said she had everything pointing to an old charkha in the corner.

The rediscovery of the charkha has brought in a new economic thinking for Indians. It has given new life to the individual made him more resourceful and self dependent. Making khadi a true start of democracy in the true sense. Khadi, however, can no longer be sold on an emotional level. A new approach has to be adopted for the new generation who are unaware of its original implications. It will be worthwhile for the young and trendy generations of the 90s to discover the beauty of khadi and support is as a fabric of our tradition.