<%-- Page Title--%> Cover Story <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 140 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

January 30 , 2004

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A Tradition That's Trendy

Shamim Ahsan and Kajalie Shehreen Islam

What is known as khadi today was produced and used for years by the middle and working classes of the sub-continent in the 19th century, especially during the Swadeshi movement. The turning point, however, came in the 1920s with Mahatma Gandhi's Non-Co-operation Movement. One provision of this non-violent movement was to produce and use only local goods, including homemade clothing, i.e., khadi. Gandhi gave the art of khadi a special status through this movement, writes Bijon Guha in his article, "Khadi Ebong Amar Jibon" ("Khadi and My Life” in a brochure for Kay Kraft's khadi Utsab). After the two movements, however, the popularity of khadi cloth came down.

Khadi is, however, unique. Its basic definition, say experts, is that it is hand spun and hand woven. "The difference between khadi and handloom is apparent in the texture," says Ruby Ghuznavi of Arannya and President of National Craft Council. "Handloom is smooth while khadi is uneven." Real Khadi can only be made from cotton yarn, says Ghuznavi. Muslin was a kind of khadi when the yarn was very, very fine, she says, but you can't get that kind of finesse anymore. What we have now is the kind Gandhiji wore -- thick khadi. "Real khadi has to be uneven, unless it's fine khadi," says Ghuznavi.

Many khadi wholesalers and retailers complain that dyed khadi will always have blotches of colour, or uneven shades within the same thaan. But Ghuznavi says that it is only when the yarn is dyed before weaving and not the whole thaan that the colour comes out in uneven shades. "It doesn't have to be this way", she says. " It wasn't this way when Guha Babu was alive."

In Bangladesh, no one can speak of khadi without referring to Shoilendranath Guha, probably the biggest contributor to the art of khadi and natural dye.

"I ordered 12,000 metres of khadi thaan from Guha Babu," recalls Ruby Ghuznavi, "and he fulfilled the order perfectly. I wouldn't dare do it today because I know it won't be done right. They cannot do it."

Today, the khadi tradition is being carried on by his sons, namely, Bijon and Arun Guha. Spun by weavers in Chandina, Guha's descendants seem to be the only ones producing khadi in Bangladesh supplying various outlets and organisations with the material.

"Shoilen Guha wanted the Bangladeshi flag to be made of khaddar," reminisces Shahid H. Shamim, Director of prabartana. "He did make some, but if the government took steps for all our flags to be made of khadi, it would be something."

Shoilendranath Guha believed that a big industrial revolution could be brought about with khadi. Khadi production is human-resource based, says Shamim. Its popularity and thus increased production would mean the employment of thousands of weavers.

Sadly, however, weavers are changing professions, moving on to better-paying jobs, and in the process, we are losing the art of weaving.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, use of khadi fell consistently. Towards the early nineties, however, khadi made a sudden and strong comeback, thanks to a number of fashion houses like Aarong, Kay Kraft, Prabartana, Arannya and many others who have successfully synchronised technology with heritage by complementing the local weaving industry with modern machinery.

The survival of khadi and subsequent rise in its popularity has been significant both in terms of heritage and economy. Khadi has been very much a part of our life and lifestyle, and in its hundreds of years of expansion it holds the history of a people's evolution, their struggle, their joys and tears.

On the economic front, khadi's growing acceptance since the early nineties has at least kept our local weaving industry going in a market that has been made free unscrupulously and consequently flooded with Indian goods. In the last ten years or so, these fashion houses have succeeded not only in bringing khadi back into the mainstream -- though in a very small way -- but, more importantly, in exploiting the originality of khadi by turning out khadi clothes into fashion wear.

Kay Kraft's Khadi Utsab

Kay Kraft is one of the leading houses that have contributed to this rescue act of khadi. Since its early days, Kay Kraft has taken it upon itself to provide khadi a much-needed platform and to help it blossom to its full potential. Those associated with Kay Kraft have scoured the country discovering, talking to and motivating the ever shrinking, endangered community who have been working with khadi for generations. At one point, Khalid Mahmud Khan, Director of Kay Kraft, met Shoilendranath Guha -- an extremely respected name in the khadi industry -- in Chandina, Comilla.

"The meeting was crucial for Kay Kraft," says Khan. "We had heard a lot about this man -- his struggle, sincerity and devotion to the khadi industry. As we met we talked about khadi, its problems and strengths." When taking leave, Khan invited Guha to his home and could hardly believe his luck when Guha visited him in just seven days. "He requested us to work with khadi and though we had already begun, his request made a great impression on our minds," says Khan. "We felt extremely inspired and motivated and embarked upon our goal with renewed energy," he reminisces. Guha's request and Kay Kraft's efforts did not go in vain.

It wasn't easy, though. One of their first challenges was to prove wrong the popular notion that khadi was only a poor man's garment. The somewhat rough texture, uneven finishing and, above all, the dull designs made khadi rather unattractive and failed to appeal to the fashion-conscious youth.

"Our first job at hand was to show that, if creatively done, khadi products can also be appealing and of high standards. When we started, punjabis and fotuas were still village people's get-up; the urban middle class were not very fond of it. Our first venture with khadi was to use it in punjabis and fotuas and our products were received extremely well by customers. While we were attentive to design, we also experimented on a kind of amalgamation, sometimes by combining silk with khadi and sometimes mill-produced fibre. The initial success boosted our confidence and we are now doing a lot more experimentation to develop new designs," Khan relates.

Khadi, because it is hand spun and hand woven, has its own distinct quality. "While developing new designs we have always endeavoured to keep khadi's characteristics intact," says Khan. "Even when we mix silk and artificial fibre with khadi, we do it in a way so that the end product does not lose the khadi touch, rather it brings out its effects," Khan says, explaining the main feature of their design.

Khan also believes that khadi is more expressive and designers have a lot more to do with the material. "The coarse texture of khadi provides a wider scope to experiment with design. Its distinct nature gives the space to use your creativity more than fine-textured artificial fibre," says Khan. "Again, mixing silk or other varieties with khadi gives one the opportunity to play with the weaving designs like putting the different fibres in different combinations, changing their frequency and density here and there," Khan explains, referring to textile designing.

Khadi is our heritage, connected with our soil and lifestyle and it has lived on for hundreds of years across generations. Fortunately, many fashion houses felt they must try to save our heritage at all costs. "When we established Kay Kraft we wanted to create a niche in fashion wear by developing our own style," says Khan. "You cannot claim originality borrowing others' things and depending on foreign ideas, so khadi was our automatic choice. From a business point of view khadi was also the preferred choice. If people get trendy, good quality khadi products they will certainly prefer them to foreign ones and won't even mind paying a little more. So khadi serves both purposes -- of satisfying the demand of fashion as well as making people proud of wearing local products. And this is where lies Khadi's potential," Khan says.

Over the last decade, khadi goods have come a long way both in terms of quality and design. What has made various fashion houses like Kay Kraft or Prabartana or Arannya succeed is their ability to adapt their khadi products to contemporary tastes. "We have always been very sensitive to changing trends and experimented with new ideas in our products," says Khan.

One particular change has been the diversification of products. For a long time the use of khadi was confined to only a few items like punjabis, kurtas and kotis, so Kay Kraft recently began experimenting with other products as well. The Khadi Utsab, held from January 15 to 18 of this year arranged by Kay Kraft was in fact the result of their experimentation with specially developed products with some very creative designs. "We had a whole variety of khadi products including sarees and shalwar kameezes where we tried to explore new ideas in terms of design," explains Khan. The four-day long festival drew a large number of visitors and Khan adds that they spoke very highly of the products.


THE problem with khadi isn't the market," claims Ruby Ghuznavi. "There is a big enough market for pure khadi compared to the production. The problem is that production of genuine khadi is low and definitely not enough for export."

Much of what is sold as khadi in our country today is fake, says Shahid H. Shamim. That is, it is not hand spun and hand woven but produced in machines and mills. "Many of the punjabis and other khadi cloth sold are hardly khadi," he says.

"Most people don't buy khadi because it's khadi," says Ghuznavi. "They buy it because they like it." So why not sell khadi as khadi and handloom as handloom? Blending is fine, agree both Ghuznavi and Shamim, as long as it remains pure khadi, that is, as long as it is, in fact, hand-spun and hand-woven. Among silk, however, says Ghuznavi, only endy silk is hand-spun from caster leaves and so combination with any other variety of silk is not really khadi.

Arannya itself mainly produces curtains made of khaddar for export, as well as accessories such as scarves along with Western wear. The market is good enough, Ghuznavi believes, but to compete in the foreign market, we cannot just accept things like "the colour will be uneven and this will be like this" and so on.

"At Prabartana we are making souvenir scarves with yarn made from jhum cotton from the hill tracts," says Shamim. "We are also experimenting with fine khadi which is not available here and which we will be exporting to countries like Japan. It is still at the development stage, however," says Shamim.

"Indigenous societies in our country also make a green cotton, that is, there are no chemicals in it," adds Shamim. "If we could market this abroad, it could also be quite profitable."

Sarwat Abed, Director of Aarong, puts emphasis on the diversification of khadi goods. "If we cannot multiply khadi products and create a bigger market all our sincere efforts to support and patronise the local looms will fail," she says. She however admits that Aarong has not worked extensively with khadi in recent times and at the moment does not have a huge collection. "But we have our plans. At the moment we are doing a lot of research work and our designers are working to develop new khadi products and designs," Abed assures. She says that Aarong is also working on making household products along with the traditional khadi apparel such as punjabis, shawls, fotuas, tops, etc.

What we need more than a market for khadi is to create awareness, inform people and promote genuine khadi, says Ruby Ghuznavi. And we need to increase production. If Guha Babu was alive today, she says, he would have expanded the production to five times its present size, involving more spinners and weavers and building a huge market.

Every patron of khadi will quote the Late Shoilendranath Guha as saying that if we all used one khaddar payjama-punjabi a year, it would do wonders -- for ourselves, the tradition and the country. In Shoilen Guha's own words, "Apnara ei khaddar kapor babohar kore khaddar shilpoke bachiye rakhun." Use khaddar cloth and keep the art alive.


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