The New Khadi March

By Shefalee VasudevonJan. 03, 2023in Environment and Ecology

On the Assam trail of the Centre of Excellence for Khadi, which aims to unlock new branding, publicity, products and young markets for India’s historic fabric

Mukul Chandra Medhi, the 48-year-old head of Barkhetri Udyan Samiti, a Khadi institution in Assam is a Gandhian by habit, occupation and commitment. Some of these he inherited from his father who ran the institution before him, a verdant campus with harda (Terminalia chebula)jamun (Malabar plum) and kathal (jackfruit) trees. The weaving-spinning units are in rooms that look like a slow-paced hostel for naturopathy and yoga. 

Mukulda, as he is called, dressed in a Khadi waistcoat and shirt (he has only worn khadi shirts since he was 15) has been at its helm for 25 years. But it is only in the last one year that this Barkhetri institution has been exposed to newer processes of naturally dyeing yarn and weaving with contemporary designs given to them by the Centre of Excellence for Khadi (CoEK). 

As Mukulda chats with Juhi Pandey, the centre head of CoEK in the Northeast, he astutely uses the phrase “innovation while retaining identity”. It’s a struggle, he admits, as decisions are made in Delhi and a remote village campus is then expected to implement them. This tryst with Khadi’s identity could well work as an alternative headline for this story.

From left to right, Shivali Baidu, the eldest staffer at Barkhetri Udyan Samiti, with Juhi Pandey and head of KI Mukul Chandra Medhi and Anant Kumar, head of Tamulpur Gramdan Anchalik Sangh, Kumarikata, Assam. PC: Shefalee Vasudev

CoEk, a project conceived by the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) for Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), has a central hub in New Delhi run by the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT). Directed by one of its senior most professors Sudha Dhingra, CoEK aims to empower Khadi institutions (KIs) in different parts of the country while enhancing its quality for fashion apparel, home and furnishings to create younger markets for India’s historic fabric.

Pandey, a fashion and textiles designer formerly the director of Khamir, a crafts and cultural ecology platform in Kutch, besides holding other portfolios in design practice, is based in Shillong, one of the five spokes of CoEK. Since this report tracks the project’s Assam trail, Pandey is inadvertently the co-narrator and field guide for this story as it moves from Barkhetri and Bartola to Kumarikata and Rangia in Assam.

Khadi Table Runner.
PC: Khadi Special Report from the Northeast, NIFT

Live Locations: Barkhetri and Bartola 

The low lying villages of Barkhetri and Bartola in Nalbari district which get flooded every year, are noticeably green and clean as you drive in. The Brahmaputra belt wears a lush forest cover as baby goats bleat liltingly all around. The Barkhetri Udyan Samiti, a charitable trust registered with KVIC since 1977 is among the few KIs, which passed the diagnostic study by CoEK. The surveys were conducted to determine capacity building, skill enhancement and allied knowledge so that existing staff could be trained to make differentiated products. A group of women spinners supervised by Sewali Kalita—they address her as Sewali baidu, meaning elder sister in Assamese— some of who have been working for more than two decades here are learning to dye Eri yarn in natural dyes and create fabrics for home furnishings and table linen in designs ‘new’ to their aesthetic. Pandey’s delight is palpable as she touches a mekhla chador set and a table runner in natural Khadi base colour with apple green and onion pink stripes.

She says that before enrollment for CoEK, KVIC had asked for letters of intent from the heads of khadi institutes. “Intervention has to be easy and minimal,” she says explaining how natural dyes from local plants like turmeric, onion, harda (which yields the pale yellow myrobalan mordant), have been used during training.

Hand-weaving machines in the campus are also tasked with modern design formats and patterns. Weavers are taught to use local Eri-Muga silks blends, make Khadi cotton varieties for tailored occasion wear apparel as well as unstitched cloth. While the Khadi Gramodyog store inside the campus could stock these for local sales, Pandey says that linking them to direct buyers is critical. Currently the merchandise at the campus store includes gamochas in red-white or green-white combinations, table linen, Eri silks stoles, cotton and silk fabrics and saris and mekhla chador sets. 

The Barkhetri Udyan Samiti has already been linked to Injiri, the fashion label run by designer Chinar Farooqui in Jaipur, Calico Textiles, as well as a house for fabrics in Japan. Introductions have also been made, informs Pandey, with fashion brands like Sanjay Garg’s Raw Mango, Rina Singh’s eka and Harago among others.

Hand-weaving machines in the campus are also tasked with modern design formats and patterns

Khadi spinners, mostly rural women who hand-spin Eri yarn as an additional means of livelihood are taught how to derive fine quality yarn from the tufts of Eri cocoons they dry on the walls of their homes. The cocoons are purchased from local KIs at ₹5 a piece. Once handspun and handwoven, the silk costs ₹3,000 per metre. Many registered KVIC spinners now have brick houses, part of several benefit schemes accorded by MSME. Amita Bardan, an Eri spinner who laughingly tells us that she is “Amita while the fruit in her garden is papita” (papaya), demonstrates her work on the drop spindle. 

It helps that Mukulda is also the chairperson of the Northeast Khadi Gramodyog Maha Sangh, a cluster of 42 institutions. Having seen what his institution is now producing, other centres are reaching out for help with skilling and product category enhancement. The Northeast has Khadi institutes in Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The one in Meghalaya however shut down.

A display of tunics and dresses created for CoEK apparel lookbooks

Back to NIFT, Delhi

Flashback to early November, when Dhingra, the director of CoEK invited this writer to the New Delhi campus of NIFT to see a display of furnishings and fashion developed by CoEK. The light-hearted but persuasively engaging banter included Khadi related anecdotes from Gondal to Guwahati, Pondhuru to Dimapur and Dindigul. Nargis Zaidi, head of apparel, and Sunanda Dawar Srivastava, head of textiles, shared look books, product catalogues and design samples even as unmissably, the entire CoEK team was dressed in distinct Khadi saris or apparel. 

A three-year project, the MOU for CoEK was signed between KVIC and NIFT last year in February. From branding to publicity design, visual merchandising and training of artisans, it has an ambitious reach. “It has an allocation of ₹20 crores. If KVIC finds value in the project, they will allocate extra funds and keep running it,” says Dhingra. CoEK started with a revenue generation model in the form of a knowledge portal for KVIC registered Khadi institutions across India with access based on a subscription model. “CoEK can also generate income by taking consultancy projects within the khadi space,” says Dhingra.

While NIFT Delhi is the hub, Bengaluru, Gandhinagar, Kolkata and Shillong centres work as spokes for CoEk. Each has a centre head. A team of 23, which includes designers, merchandisers, marketing, administration and accounts, works centrally. 

2,800 Khadi institutes were reportedly surveyed across India of which 20 units showed readiness. Currently 12 KIs are working in different states though Dhingra says a total of 15 have been selected for the first year and subsequently 10 will be added in the next two years. Among the 13,000 plus people involved, the breakup includes 8,325 spinners, 3,549 weavers, and 1,597 tailors/store keepers/karyakartas.

The term karyakarta (activist), has a special meaning in Khadi.

Sumitra Singh, of the Tamulpur Gramdan Anchalik Sangh in Kumarikata who is the chief trainer for spinners works at an Ambar Charkha. PC: Shefalee Vasudev

Live Location: Kumarikata, Assam 

The Tamulpur Anchalik Gramdan Sangh founded in 1966, which was featured in a TVOF story for training 26 surrendered militant women as Khadi weavers, mirrors the philosophy of karyakarta rather vividly. It gets expressed through the manner and meaning that the husband-wife team of Anant Kumar Singh, the head of this KI, and his wife Sumitra Singh, who heads training at the institute, make through their work. Singh, a ponderous man too is a Gandhian by lifelong resume and karma. Attired fully in Khadi, he has been associated with Khadi institutions since he was a child as he was raised on one such campus. For him Khadi is not a product, but a bigger, broader way of life. 

The only Khadi institute in Bodoland, roughly 12km from the Bhutan border, Kumar responded to KVIC’s diagnostic survey with earnestness for innovation that stood out, says Pandey. 283 Khadi spinners and weavers work here using the drop spindle as well as Ambar Charkhas. Kumar is intent on getting the finest iterations of Eri, Muga (the golden-hued silk of Assam) and cotton weaves for products that leave his store for CoEk endeavours. The light and shade in the campus is knitted by tall coconut and neem trees whereas about 100mt away stand tall trees on which the muga silkworm breeds.

Khadi yarn died with natural turmeric.
PC: Khadi Special Report from the Northeast, NIFT

Kumarikata’s iron-free water let the natural dyes render more lightly on the yarns.

Kumar makes a fascinating point about the intensity of dyes in this institute. “The water in Kumarikata is totally iron free so shades of indigo or other dyes from turmeric or onion are not as dark hued,” he says. The same designs that CoEK may create elsewhere thus find a different colour rendition here as Kumar and Sumitra experiment with Eri

Pandey points out how KIs in some states use the barter system. So for instance, a KI from Kutch would send Kala cotton to an institute in Assam in exchange for Eri yarn. This economises budgets while enhancing cross pollination of design and fabric for local markets. The white-cream Eri x cotton blend shawls, at Tamulpur with slubs so textured that they become a grammar of design themselves are exquisite. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be seen and sold in urban luxury stores. An argument Dhingra makes as well. “We see many saris and pieces in local KIs which are not available in cities and CoEK wants to bring these to urban Khadi India stores,” she says.

Naveli Khadi 

The last day of September last year flagged off an exhibition at Delhi’s Crafts Museum. Titled Naveli Khadi, it marked 75 years of Independent India with a display of 75 Khadi saris developed and curated by CoEK. Representations of work from Guwahati to Dindigul, Murshidabad to Lucknow and Kanpur formed the 15 themes of Naveli Khadi. Interpretations honoured local weaving with imaginative interventions that draped the story of Khadi saris in ways beyond the seen and heard. ‘Thunivu’ from Tamil Nadu, ‘Ulhas’, a tussar series from Murshidabad, ‘Shyaamli’, a hand-block printed collection or ‘Paheli’ from Udaipur with appliqué work are a few instances. All CoEK lookbooks and catalogues include Khadi saris.

An instance of Naveli Khadi sari, woven as part of CoEK intervention.
PC: Khadi Special Report from the Northeast, NIFT

Experiments with Khadi are Neither New nor Few 

CoEK as a project directly enriches NIFT students with access to live classroom projects in design, printing, weaving, says Dhingra. “We have been offering four month projects to students at KIs and currently 12 such projects are underway.  Students get stipend, travel expenses and learn prototyping,” she says. It is a valuable takeaway. As is the widening of networks being prised open between village KIs and fashion designers for directly buying and sourcing fabric. Dhingra adds that CoEk will also introduce standardisation of size and quality across Khadi India outlets especially for high selling garments. 

However, a lasting change in the enhancement in Khadi’s branding may not be as straightforward a task. CoEk products are expected to land in niche Khadi lounges in cities or select Khadi India stores in about six months. That will be the road test. New or ‘fashionised’ Khadi apparel or accessories are, after all, not a new experiment. In the past, KVIC has worked with designers like Rohit Bal, Malini Ramani, product designer Vivek Sahni (who would later found Kama Ayurveda) among several other experts. Most experiments fly well for brief phases then get grounded.

Khadi sari, part of CoEK samples.
PC: Khadi Special Report from the Northeast, NIFT

On the other hand, outside KVIC’s orbit, Khadi labelled under different names is created in worthy and stylish ways by exponents like Rta Kapur Chishti through her label Taanbaan or designers like Shani Himanshu and Mia Morikawa for 11.11/eleven eleven, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Raymonds to name a few. There is an active, exciting competition when it comes to Khadi’s contemporisation and availability. 

How then might CoEk change the tide? 

What may be worth debating thus is if there is a design-centric way to retain the fabric’s unique simplicity and regional identity instead of “fashionising” it? That is not to argue for regressing Khadi but revaluating its original appeal, which remains unparalleled in the world. Sometimes sustenance is part of the change. Or as Pandey said in Bartola as we trooped out of a Khadi spinner’s home. “Intervention is about staying close to the ecosystem. Valuing who we are and where we come from.”

Banner: Models wearing samples for the CoEK fashion lookbook. Photo: Khadi Special Report from the Northeast, NIFT

First Published by The Voice of Fashion on 2 Jan 2023.

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