How Gandhi’s khadi got a denim spin
On the outskirts of Rajkot in Gujarat, there is a room filled with the din of 12 noisy mechanical handlooms in operation. The clamour is so loud, machine operators have to wear either large orange headphones or stuff their ears with cotton buds. There are however some who wear neither. They are simply too used to it. Speech seems impossible here, let alone chitchat. Yet, oddly, the operators have no trouble pursuing conversations, even with their ears muffled. Some banter, some gossip and some even crack jokes. “They are so used to this,” explains a manager, “they can read each others’ lips.”
But that is not the only odd thing about this khadi making unit in Gondal, near Rajkot. Amid a sea of white being woven, one handloom works the warp and weft of a suspicious material. In colour, it is dark blue, almost indigo. It has red borders. Upon touch, it appears slightly thick and weighty. Like denim.
A unique material is being woven in India’s westernmost region. Khadi, that traditional Indian handspun and woven cloth which Gandhi used as a political symbol against imperialism, is getting a new spin. It is embracing an archetypal Western cloth and making it its own. Ten different khadi institutes in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region are creating what they call ‘khadi denim’.
Khadi, according to various institutions that run khadi making centres, is in a bad way. They claim government neglect, with large sums of money often held up that are supposed to reach them as rebates. Many weavers of the traditional Indian weaving community of Bunkars are quitting the profession for better opportunities. At the retail end, things are no better. Sales of khadi have seen a drastic decline over the years. About 20 years ago, when many of these troubles were first being noticed, various khadi institutes in Gujarat started experimenting with different materials, one of which was a khadi version of denim.
“We showed it around,” says Ajay Doshi, general manager at Khadi Gramodyog Sangh, “We tried to get various companies and retailers interested, but it was all a big failure. People thought it didn’t make sense. And we shelved it and forgot about it.” The idea, though, did have power. “With the right pitch,” adds Doshi, “it could have worked—a unique denim material suited for warm climates like ours. Great for the skin, eco-friendly and extremely comfortable.”
A little over two years ago, one of the largest denim makers in the world, the Ahmedabad-based Arvind Ltd, contacted Gujarat Rajya Khadi Gramodyog Board, the apex body of khadi institutions in Gujarat. “They said they have an idea,” recounts Doshi, “Could we make denim that was handspun and handwoven?”
Thread for Khadi denim, like any other khadi material, is first spun on spindles. However, while most khadi thread nowadays is spun on spindles and then wrapped on cones, that for khadi denim is spun on spindles and later accumulated on wooden charkhas (wheels). This is done because when thread on a charkha is dipped in vegetable dye, it gets uniformly coloured. This dyed thread is then woven with handlooms like any other khadi cloth.
The khadi industry has undergone many technological changes. For example, the charkhas are now mechanical units called ambar charkhas, which have ten spindles running on a single machine. Udyog Bharti, one of the khadi institutes producing khadi denim, also possesses solar ambar charkhas that demand no manual labour. But these aren’t being used for khadi denim because Arvind Ltd has asked for handspun materials that would lend weight to its marketing pitch of ‘handmade denim’.
Many weavers at the institute are not even Bunkars. The traditional handloom has been tweaked and the weaver now simply has to work her feet on two pedals to operate the loom.
In all, three types of khadi denim are being produced. The thinnest of them is used for shirts, while two thicker materials are used for trousers. Some like Udyog Bharti get the denim shirt materials woven at their units with mechanical handlooms. But for the thicker varieties, they still have to depend on the traditional handlooms of Bunkars who work at home.
Udyog Bharti is one of the oldest and largest khadi makers in India. It was set up in 1957 by a Gandhi follower named Hargovindbhai Patel. It began with just a room with 10 weavers. Today, it boasts a network of 2,004 weavers and craftsmen, of which only 300 work at Udyog Bharti’s five mills. The others work at home.
The mills have an all-woman workforce. On the windowsills of one such mill, you see soapboxes and torn plastic bags with facial creams and lipsticks amid a variety of bolts, wheels and tools of mechanical handlooms. There are mirrors and combs tucked away in various crevices of some looms. Some of the women in their early twenties hope to make and save enough money for their weddings and leave the job once they get married. Some are older women in their late fifties and sixties whose children have abandoned them. A few are divorcees who have turned to weaving to support their families. It is a mix of people faced with different circumstances in life, but there is a convivial atmosphere at the workshop. Children of employees sometimes visit and the women take breaks to sit and talk to the child.
“We cannot let khadi disintegrate,” says Chandrakant Patel, the current secretary of the organisation and son of the late founder, “We need to keep it alive. Too many people depend on it.”
One of the women working at the mill is Akhruti Pakwara, a 25-year-old who separated from her husband a few months ago. She now lives with her parents in a village about 7 km away from the unit. After undergoing three days’ training, she has been working here for a week. She is now an operator of a mechanical charkha, spinning out thread for khadi denim. “When I asked the manager in charge why I was spinning thread into a charkha and not a cone, like the others, I was told because I was making ‘jeans’. The others also said so,” she says. “But I thought they were pulling my leg. So I stole into the store room one evening to catch their lie. And just imagine what I saw: rolls and rolls of dark blue material among whites!”
Doshi remembers how many of his weavers at Khadi Gramodyog Sangh struck work in the initial days. “We were weaving thread immediately after the dying. We were not letting the colours settle down. As a result, the weavers would be covered in blue by the end of a day’s work. Then a rumour started doing the rounds—that the colour was composed of harmful chemicals,” he says. “I had to go about visiting them,” he adds between laughs, “telling them that the colour was absolutely harmless and made of vegetable dye.” Khadi denim is not without its naysayers. Patel says that some institutes believe that it amounts to a sell-out. In 1971, his late father faced a similar hurdle when he headed the institute. His father had wanted to introduce what’s now called ‘polyvastra’: a dash of polyester in cotton for shirts and pants that would crumple less and look smart. “But for most people, this was sacrilege. They said, ‘You are going against Gandhi’s teachings.’ But my father stuck to it, and, look how commonplace it is today,” Doshi says. “We have to understand that these are differ•ent times,” he goes on. “Gandhiji’s time was different. Today is different.”
Since the process of making denim is so labour-inten•sive, very little is produced. Each weaver produces no more than 5 metres of cloth every day. Udyog Bharati, which produces the most khadi denim, has been able to deliver no more than 12,000 metres in the past two years. “They say, ‘Make more.’ But we just can’t,” says Prakash Panchamiya, general manager at Udyog Bharti. “I hear they produce more than one lakh metres of denim them•selves each day,” he adds, “What are we in comparison?”
It is evening and the storeroom is shutting for the day. In a corner are stacked up rolls of blue and white kha•di denim. A month later, all of this will be lifted onto a truck and disappear into an Arvind Ltd warehouse in Ahmedabad. So far, the company hasn’t launched any khadi product of its own in the consumer market. Khadi institutes believe the company is stocking up on materi•al to make a big splash later.
Asked about it, Panchamiya says, “We’ve heard they are going to launch it abroad—in Paris or London. They are going to market it as a premium product: handspun, handwoven, coloured in vegetable dyes and eco-friend•ly.” Contacted by Open, Arvind Ltd declined any comment for this article. About eight months ago, Arvind Ltd supplied some of its stock to designers of a luxury brand called 11.11 by CellDSGN in Delhi, which plans to unveil a line of khadi denims titled ‘100% handmade’ by the end of this year. It will retail at boutiques in Tokyo, Paris and New York, apart from some in Indian cities. Smita Singh Rathore, a designer and one of the brand’s founders, calls the material a beautiful product with a beautiful philosophy. “What we got to do was make a traditional Indian textile meet modernity,” she says, “Each piece of ours will be a cultural conduit. [It is] an optimistic—and at the same time rebellious—luxury approach to traditional garment creation.”
CellDSGN has also made a film on the process of mak•ing khadi denim that they plan to screen at exhibitions during the line’s launch. Each khadi denim item will also be accompanied with a darning kit to repair any damage. “Not only will patching and darning extend the life of ev•ery item, it will give each piece its uniqueness,” she says. “It will [extend] the amazing story of its creation.”
Travelling 110 KM from Rajkot to Surendranagar—a journey across vast expanses of cotton fields and a few barren patches that extend into the Kutch desert—I reach an old warehouse tucked behind some industrial units. This warehouse is managed by Khadi Utpadan Vechan Kendra, an institute that produces khadi denim and has a couple of weavers working on handlooms. These are clas•sic handlooms, intricate contraptions of wood with four pedals that only a trained Bunkar can operate.
Bhanji Gullabhai and Chavda Devji Chagganbhai are both Bunkars, and work the pedals with ease. Much of the khadi denim woven for the institute by weavers in villag•es was being rejected by Arvind Ltd for not being up to the mark, so the two of them were employed to work right at the warehouse. Yet, between the two, an entire day’s work produces no more than 10 metres of khadi denim.
Gowardhanbhai Wagela, a 68-year-old weaver who rose through the ranks to become the unit’s manager, be•moans the lack of interest in khadi among youngsters. He cites the example of his son who is in college. “Woh bolta hai, ‘Khadi boring hai’ (He says khadi is boring),” Wagela says. When his son recently learnt of khadi denim and asked for a few samples to be brought home so he might consider using it, Wagela claims to have told him, “‘Boring hai na? Dekhna hai toh godown pe aana” (Its boring, right? So come to the warehouse if you want to see it).
Surendranagar, a hub for Indian textiles and weavers, is in transformation mode. Factories and industries are springing up everywhere, luring away Bunkars from their traditional occupation of weaving. As far back as Gullabhai and Chagganbhai can remember, their ances•tors have been weavers. But they be the last of them in their families. Gullabhai, 50, moved from his village in Gautamghat, about 20 kilometres away, to a rented apart•ment in Surendranagar a few years ago after his two chil•dren found jobs as electricians in a local factory. Chagganbhai, 42, hopes to save enough money to move to the city in a few years. His children work as labourers in a pharmaceutical company.
The two turn up at work by nine every morning and help each other out whenever the need arises. According to Wagela, the two of them are very good weavers. Had the unit not required weavers for khadi denim, they may have had to quit weaving. “If you weave at home, you need the whole family to help you out,” says Wagela, “In their case, like in many others, when children take up other profes•sions, they also quit weaving. Khadi denim has helped them continue with it.”
At around 6 pm, the two weavers leave for home. Wagela has already left an hour earlier. Gullabhai takes a cycle, while Chagganbhai waits to hitch a ride on a truck. At a distance, an amber sun is setting. Inside, the ware•house bears a forlorn look. In the rapidly vanishing light, the only thing striking is the sight of indigo on a couple of traditional handlooms.
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