Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 2, Issue 16, Tuesday, October 12, 2004




textile timelines… khadi and the guho family

IN 1921-22 Mahatma Gandhi and his followers were on a mission for peace and patriotism. Their approach was simple, as was their choice of attire. They embraced the rough textures of the spun cotton material known as khadi.

In our country Shoilen Guho is considered as the pioneer of the khadi creations and was known as Khadibabu. During his school days in Chittagong he took a deep interest in the creation of this material. The carpus cotton of Rangamati was spun into fibre for all kinds of ropes, strings and fishing nets. At that time one of the landlord's sons came back from abroad and set up a weaving factory. Shoilen Guho learnt the rest of his trade at the factory.

The cotton needed to be soaked overnight and later would be treated with starch before being put on the loom. Around 1931, during his teen years, khadi was a very popular material. Shoilen was so into the craft that he used to gather the thread from surrounding villages and spin and sell his own cloth. At the same time he used to work at the Chittagong National Textile Mill as the dyeing master. What he learnt there regarding the coloring of cloth served as an invaluable experience later on.

Abhoy Asram in Chandinath, Comilla was a centre for spinning yarn. Warda cotton was used for this purpose, resulting in a much better product. Shoilen spent a lot of time there to create and promote khadi as well as to educate and train the locals in the art of spinning. His business expanded, as there was a boom in the demand, and he started supplying his products to Calcutta. It reached a high with a conference featuring the textile, which was directed by Shoilen.

Despite the popularity, the hand-cut material could not catch on in the market at the time. Shoilen died in 1995 continuing his undying love for the simple clothing material. He implored everyone to at least purchase one sari, panjabi or dhuti made of khadi every year. He felt that it was necessary to protect the heritage.

Shoilen had three sons and two daughters. The elder sons worked with the father while Arun, the youngest, studied mechanical engineering in Calcutta. His first work experience took place in Kumudini related to dyeing and block printing. He worked with his father later on to supply materials when Aarong was established. Some time before and after Shoilen's death famed fashion designer Bibi Russel had a hand in promoting khadi. With her help and Shoilen's creative usage of colours and quality control, the rural clothing item has achieved international recognition. At the same time it has provided employment for countless artisans.

In the 50's khadi had risen high in the Indian market due to intense promotion. The quality improved greatly with government aid and a lot of effort on the personal level. Comparatively that did not seem to happen in our country. Shoilen and his fellow craftsmen produced enough to meet the market demand but khadi could not take over the market from the other cloths although it came to a lot of uses and was inexpensive.

The following years of the Liberation War saw a rise in patriotic feelings. Joblessness brought about many entrepreneurs and some of them started promoting home made clothing with the aid of khadi. Ashraful Rahman Faruq was one such youth who presented khadi as a fashionable ensemble. He opened the first shop catering khadi goods at Malibagh in Dhaka. The outlet was called Nipun and there was everything on offer from blankets and napkins to panjabis and shawls. He did not rest at simply creating the clothing materials but went further to add value by utilising colouring, printing and block techniques. Thus, other shops displaying khadi sprouted such as Champak, Kumudini, Joya etc. It was the birth of a new country and what better way to join the jubilation than to revel in the country's own product? With such a mindset, K S M Faruq opened up Khadi Bitan near the Dhaka Science Laboratory, selling khadi from Comilla.

The 80's saw a revolution in the demand for khadi. Men could find everything from winter jackets and scarves to summer outfits like panjabi. Aarong, Kumudini and later Prabartana promoted khadi in a different light as something desirable. They had their own designers along with their own factories and craftsmen.

Prabartana has been able to increase the demand for khadi with its unique offerings throughout the past decade. They have used their own personnel, production techniques and expertise to make khadi into a comfortable cotton fabric fit for regular use.

Bibi Russel and khadi
Internationally famed designer and model Bibi Russel came back to Bangladesh in 1994 and started work on developing the local weaving industry. She set her sights on the jamdani, muslin, check and khadi centring the materials for a fashion development program. A lot of the work revolved around Shoilen Guho's khadi products. The duo helped to bring khadi further into the limelight during the mid-nineties. Bibi arranged fashion show at home and abroad to increase the popularity of khadi resulting in a significant following alongside Indian khadi.

Bibi commented that people prefer to use natural and ecologically friendly materials like khadi. She is endeavouring to further the work that Shoilen Guho started and also trying to protect the Comilla khadi society. She also said that nowadays, real khadi, whose threads used to be a little thicker, is no longer prepared. It had its own elegance. At present khadi is made with mixed fibres.

She also informed that the fashion shows have been organised to promote khadi and these will help the artisans. Unfortunately, this year the flooding has almost brought the industry to a standstill. The financial hardships have to be overcome by providing extra orders for the weavers.

The challenges
In the words of Gandhi, khadi is a fabric for human values and ethics. It delivers the people from the bond of the rich and creates a spiritual bond between the classes and the masses.

The creation of khadi follows a certain rhythm for which even an old woman who cannot see can sit and spin out the thread with utmost skill. A weaver can use that thread to churn out 8-12 yards of material. In return they get a stipend of 12 taka per yard. In cases where there are two designs on one cloth then they pay charges accordingly. Most of the khadi in the country is made from waste cotton. Now, the word 'waste' may sound bad, but in reality it isn't. It's more of recycling. You see, the textile mills discard a lot of cotton and this is used in turn to spin a thick thread.

Khadi has a lot of potential. In the past two years there has been a dramatic rise in the demand with a wide range of clothing for both men and women available in this material. The many different designers and boutiques are in a race to create the most desirable ensemble. The thick khadi thread is used to create different patterns incorporating modified weaving techniques.

Those who are involved with khadi are also facing many difficulties. Arun Guho, the country's primary khadi producer, explained that proper cash inflow is needed to keep the industry on a winning streak. Many times items are delivered on credit. Also the cotton required for production is often unavailable according to demand. As a result the workers have to make do with whatever is available. A continuous twelve-month work period cannot be maintained. Thread made with pit loom and power loom does not provide a good finish. Producers of khadi spend about eight months using thread from textile mills and the other four months using cotton threads. Despite the fact that some other producers are doing well using foreign yarn Arun Guho wants to stick to using local material.

Shamim Hossain, director of Prabartana, informed that the greater demand of khadi comes from the middle class. Sales are good but not as much as expected. One of the reasons is that good quality cotton is not easily available. Without good cotton the weavers lose interest in the work. Also there is the ongoing system of middlemen that just exacerbates the condition.

Khadi's acceptance among the new generation is increasing. It is used not only for clothing materials but also as part of home furnishing in the form of curtains, bed sheets etc. Khadi is an old tradition and it only goes to show that old is indeed gold.

By Sultana Yasmin
Translated by Ehsanur Raza Ronny
Special thanks to Bibi Russel, Bibi Productions and Shamim Hossain, Probartana, Model on the cover: Faika



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