IT'S THE GREAT INDIAN PARADOX. One of the most emblematic images from India’s freedom movement was Mahatma Gandhi sitting and spinning khadi on a wooden charkha. Nine decades later, fashionistas and couturiers believe the handspun cloth has the potential to become a luxe product, at a price beyond the reach of its original consumers, the common man. The charkha is clearly spinning in the opposite direction.
Umang Hutheesing, scion of the Hutheesing family that Krishna, the sister of Gandhi’s heir Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, married into, believes khadi had luxe potential well before Gandhi’s time. “Everything about khadi is bespoke,” says Hutheesing, who designs and produces fine handspun silk and cotton. “My ancestors and all the royals wore the finest handspun silk, wool, and cotton. The cloth was so fine that it could pass through a ring. Gandhi made it a powerful symbol and the government supported one end of the line. It’s time to rediscover the other end of the spectrum.”
Khadi evangelist Rta Kapur Chishti, founder of Ananda Delhi Textiles Development, which produces khadi fabric, believes that moment is here. “In 10 years, India may be the only country where the skill of hand spinning, passed on from generation to generation, will still be available,” she says. “There is a huge value attached to the material that emerges from the process.”
The cloth derives its name from khurdara, which means ‘textured cloth’ in Hindi. Growing organic cotton is a long, laborious, and expensive process. Spinning cotton by hand takes five to 10 times longer than mechanised spinning. “Currently, most commercially grown cotton relies heavily on pesticides and fertilisers,” says khadi guru Martand Singh. “Growing it organically and spinning it by hand raises costs by 10, even 15, times.”
For khadi silk, the moth isn’t killed but is allowed to escape from the cocoon, which takes longer. In some labour-intensive cases, it’s even reeled on a wet matka (clay pot) or on the smooth thigh of a woman. Imperfections like uneven yarn add value by giving the fabric character that’s missing in machine-made cloth.
What sets luxury products apart from the ordinary is creativity, craftsmanship, precision, and innovation. With khadi going luxe, these boxes will, no doubt, be ticked. But catering to the affluent consumer today is a challenge. This means the industry, boasting sales of around Rs 581.20 crore last year, will need a significant marketing push if it is to build a niche customer base. While the new luxe entrepreneurs may not be able to match the global advertising spends of a Louis Vuitton just yet, the growing market may help kickstart the process.
With India’s $5 billion (Rs 22,110 crore) luxury market expected to grow six times in the next five years, reclusive fashion designer Rajesh Pratap Singh believes “it’s the right environment to pitch a new idea, a new product”.
Currently, most khadi is bought in government shops, which gives the product a mass image, adds Hutheesing. “But say that handspun is being showcased in Paris, and the impression and mindset changes immediately. That’s what we intend to do: global exhibitions, global clientele.”
Chishti says one challenge would be to differentiate the cloth from the brand. “For instance, if a global brand bought the fabric here and put its label on it, that’s also good use of khadi,” she says. “It’d be better if Indians developed brands using khadi. We have to be open to both.”
At the same time, she says khadi’s heritage of luxury could be a great pitch. “It should be treasured like a piece of history. Think like that and no price is too high,” she says. Among the fabrics Chishti sells is an organic cotton and gold handspun priced at Rs 2,200 a metre (wholesale). An average handspun that costs Rs 30 to Rs 50 a metre retails for Rs 100 to Rs 300. For a high-end product, the final price may not sound like much, but the premium is considerable at 70 times the cost of average cloth. “Fine cotton is difficult to maintain and very delicate, so it’s only for connoisseurs,” says Singh.
There have been several attempts to revitalise khadi, including a $150 million Asian Development Bank loan taken by the Indian government. The funds would help institute strict quality checks, improved branding and marketing (including the creation of a khadi mark of quality), and better pricing strategies.
Such support has kept 111 million square metres of khadi rolling off the loom every year. Producers of luxury khadi say the industry needs smart money to come in. “We have concentrated on volumes, since we needed to support farmers and weavers,” says Chishti. “But it needs a different model: small production, high value.”
Martand Singh compares khadi’s potential with natural oils and the mushrooming spa business in India. “We thought the natural oils of India are lost, but the spa business brought them back to the centre of a booming business,” he says. “The attributes are the same—upmarket, green, contemporary, and very sustainable.”
As Gandhi said: “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” Let’s see how this yarn spins out.