Come October, and one always thinks of Gandhiji. Greatly venerated, often maligned, one has to accept that he changed the course of Indian and British history, and every Indian worth his salt should recognize Mahatma Gandhi as a leader who led the way to India’s freedom. The bonfire of British textiles, those gossamer chiffons and silks which the Indian ladies of yore thought most fashionable were cremated in a consuming fire as more and more patriots threw their foreign clothes in. A powerful statement, it later burnt a hole in the British exchequer as Gandhiji himself sat quietly and began spinning cotton on his humble charka. It morphed into a movement as foreign goods were boycotted and Indians were encouraged to use Indian handlooms. This marked the beginning of khadi an icon of the Swadeshi movement .and the spinning wheel became a national symbol, and khadi became known as the freedom fabric.
Khadi is a handspun fabric — rough due to its being handspun and woven on simple hand operated looms. It symbolized self sufficiency and freedom and a resurgence of the craft movement in India. The saris today are plain, with small borders, and usually have a natural ground of off-white for the body with understated pallus. The modern versions carry a thinner quality fabric, with small butis all over the body; at times with zari to make it more dressy. Some high end designers from Ponduru and Srikalulam from Andhra Pradesh have worked with khadi. Jagada Rajappa works with natural dyes and brought out some beautiful saris which are quite pricey.
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Rta Chisti, textile expert who has worked on khadi and was herself wearing (along with her protégé) the most stunning khadi sari, so fine that it was transparent, and draped in an unusual way, without an underskirt…a cross between the Iyengar, Orissa and Bengali style. What was even more unusual was the way Pallavi ( in her early twenties) carried off the sari, with an off-the-shoulder blouse. The off white sari was in fine count khadi with a korvai mustard border and a simple pallu. Both the ladies wore their saris for the whole day and were very comfortable!. Only the price tag would be heavy for most of us. Priced at 10K the saris are sold out as soon as they are woven.
According to Chisti who has committed herself to handwoven textiles, there is a possibility of recreating the finest of handskills in the region of traditional textiles, given a form of limited period patronage, enabling the handskill sector to rediscover its relevance both in terms of application and material. If this premise were developed consistently in all areas that still retain handspinning skills capabilities on the traditional Charkha (spinning wheel) combined with handloom weaving, then in ten years we could perhaps be the only country in the world with this unique resource for a national and international market.
After the initial exhibition titled ‘Khadi – The fabric of freedom’ in 2002-2003, the original sponsors Volkart Foundation on the recommendation of Martand Singh, handed over the exhibition for its promotion and development of Khadi fabrics to Rta Kapur Chishti and her team. After the first year, it was realized that the cotton quality and availability was not reliable so a collaboration was initiated with farmers to cultivate local cotton varieties organically which would be bought back and distributed to spinners for cleaning, combing, carding and spinning which was passed on to weavers. These cottons are ideal for fine textured, inlay patterned and three shuttle weaving which is supported and promoted. The challenge is to combine the unique skills in spinning and weaving for contemporary usage for both stitched, unstitched garments, furnishing & home products.
With the passage of time hand spinning on the indigenous charka had become obsolete. It was the semi mechanized Ambar Charka which come into popular use from the last 50 years. Chisti worked on developing hand spinning to about 115 counts on the desi charka and 115-500 count on the Ambar Charka. This way the fabric was way above mill cloth which had an average of about 120s count.
Designers and craft activists have to work on new ideas to contemporarise traditional skills, enticing the young to look at the sari as a fashion statement which holds its own against any designer apparel. At the Bridal Mantra fashion show, Indian designers had outdone themselves in retaining traditional skills and seducing young buyers with their designs. The pavadai davani which is today hardly seen, looked priceless on the ramp, as they had combined it with swirling, yards and yards of skirt with a stiffener inside to make it look flouncy. Of course, set off with skimpy, exquisite blouses, each creation was gorgeous. I for one keep hoping that we will never lose sight of our priceless sari heritage whichever form it might take.