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A & T: Message in Handwoven Sari

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A & T: Message in Handwoven Sari
12 th Aug 2010

Is khadi redundant?” I ask fashion designer David Abraham of Abraham & Thakore.

“You mean, because it originated in a social and political context that doesn’t exist today?” he parries. “Because as a symbol, it is no longer relevant? It is the glorification of poverty.”

Maybe, but khadi can also be used as a powerful tool; and no one does this better than Sonia Gandhi. The fabric itself doesn’t take your breath away. As Abraham says, “Everyone is carried away by the romance of khadi but as a fabric, it is flawed.”

There you have it: the nub of the issue. Many of us urban Indians like the idea of wearing khadi. But the fabric itself is nubby, thready, thick, and yes, flawed. Ironically, true connoisseurs love these flaws because they reveal the fact that it is handmade. Imperfection is the hallmark of the hand. It is only soulless machines that can spin out yard after yard of perfectly alike and aligned yarn. When humans get involved with their hands and minds, the fabric changes. Not all of us have the ability or even the desire to appreciate khadi’s subtlety. Nuance is the purview of poets, not engineers. Khadi is flawed, yes, but that is its brand identity, its charm and indeed the reason it is today a luxury fabric. Unlike mill-woven cloth, khadi gets softer with each wash.
As textile maven Martand Singh, who put together a phenomenal Volkart Foundation-funded khadi exhibition eight years ago, says frequently, khadi is the ideal tropical fabric. In 2002, when he was director of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), Singh invited seven designers—Abraham-Thakore, Asha Sarabhai, Ritu Kumar, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Raghavendra Rathore and Manish Arora—to create designs using khadi for a travelling exhibition and two-week khadi mela. He also showcased 108 varieties of khadi—from the gossamer shahabadi to the coarse Punjabi khes. Today, according to the KVIC, khadi is a Rs800 crore business employing one million people, mostly women. In contrast, the Indian textile industry contributes a whopping 4% to the Indian GDP—around Rs23.5 trillion (source: Confederation of Indian Textile Industry). That, as a banker would say, is the spread. Khadi is 1% of the Indian textile industry. To a visionary director of the KVIC, this presents an extraordinary opportunity to promote khadi and grab a larger percentage of the Indian textile pie.

Home-grown textiles, much like local crafts, are children of the economy. When a nation’s GDP flourishes, so do its indigenous folk arts, crafts and textiles. With India’s thriving confident middle class starting to look inward for its style cues, design mantras and textile techniques, you could argue that khadi is ripe for reincarnation. Stores such as Anokhi, Fabindia, Bandhej and Soma are popularizing Indian weaves. A rising number of young fashion designers are seeking out local fabrics, crafts and techniques, ranging from Ikat to Ilkal. Then why aren’t more of us wearing khadi?

“The main problem with khadi is the KVIC,” says Abraham. “The marketing and the whole concept behind it is really mysterious. The stocks they sit on are quite incredible. It is a faceless organization… Ask my teacher, Aditi Ranjan at NID (National Institute of Design) if you like. She’s an expert in textiles.”

Which is how I find myself sitting across from Ranjan in Ahmedabad, eating poha upma at the House of MG’s Green House café. Ranjan has written an exhaustive coffee-table book called Handmade in India. I mention Abraham’s comment and seek her opinion of the KVIC. It is easy to bash a government organization, I say. But is it true that the KVIC is an antiquated organization that needs a revamp?

Ranjan pauses before agreeing with Abraham’s assessment. “If you go to visit the NGOs which work in khadi, you’ll see the weavers front and centre,” she says. “At the KVIC, you see more and more officials. The feel is different.”

There are numerous textile specialists working with khadi such as Neeru Kumar, Rahul Jain, Rta Kapur Chishti and others. For mainstream fashion designers, khadi is a luxury fabric “sold to a discerning few who are willing to pay the price for it”. Abraham says the Abraham & Thakore label sold hundreds of khadi throws at The Conran Shop in London for £100 (around Rs7,320) each. Only a minuscule percentage of that amount trickles down to the weaver. The average khadi weaver makes less than Rs100 a day; many leave weaving to work on road construction.

The trick is to make khadi accessible, well-priced, and stylish for urban Indians for whom this “freedom fabric” has a great cultural resonance. The Pingali Venkayya-designed Indian tricolour can only be made in khadi. The Congress party used to dress only in khadi. Khadi’s style icon is, of course, Sonia Gandhi. If any Indian knows how to use textiles as a political statement, it is Gandhi. Like Indira Gandhi before her, who wore handloom weaves, Sonia too chooses her saris carefully. In the Little Design Book, a wonderful blog about Indian design that includes an Ahimsa mousetrap, design writer Avinash Rajgopal makes a compelling case linking Sonia’s saris with regional politics.

“A handwoven sari does not exist in a vacuum,” he says. “Its size, materials, colours and motifs are all intricately tied to a geographic location. It is created by specific communities and holds cultural significance for them. Sonia Gandhi understands this well. While campaigning in Orissa, she wears Kotpad weaves or Sambalpuri Ikat, both of which are produced only in that region. In fact, a survey of the saris worn by her for various public occasions begins to reveal a surprising pattern. She favours Chanderis and Maheshwaris from Madhya Pradesh for official occasions; khadi cottons from Ponduru, Andhra Pradesh, or Tant handlooms from Bengal and Assam for Parliament and other political appearances; and just once in a while, she dresses it up in a fine Ikat from Sambhalpur, Pochampally or Puttapakkam from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. Every sari she wears represents a state that has a separatist movement, and/or an ongoing violent conflict with Maoist groups. On a map of India, these economically impoverished regions form a neat pattern of strife that is often referred to as the ‘Red Corridor’. Sonia Gandhi buys almost all her saris precisely from the same regions that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls ‘India’s greatest internal security threat’.”

You can poke holes in Avinash’s arguments and pick out saris that don’t conform to this Red Corridor theory. But the point is that Sonia Gandhi, like the world’s great style icons, uses her clothes to make a statement, one that it would behove the rest of us to consider, if not follow.

Shoba Narayan wonders where Sonia Gandhi sources her saris from—does she have her own version of an Ikram Goldman?

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