Never in history has a length of cloth played as central a role in shaping a nation’s destiny as khadi has in India’s freedom struggle. For that matter, never has cloth been as intrinsic to a country’s formative ethos as khadi has been to the notion of Indian nationhood. For what Mahatma Gandhi achieved, when he first sat himself down at the humble charkha, was not only to set in motion a mass rebellion to Colonial rule, but also lay the tenets of simplicity, self-reliance and empowerment which went on to become the cornerstone of an entire generation’s belief-system .
Such is the near-umbilical connect between khadi and the ‘Indian way of life’ envisioned by the nation’s founding fathers. Paradoxically, while independent India has exorcised the ghosts of its painful past with moderate success and edges towards global prominence, khadi, the fabric, finds itself pretty much on the margin - not quite consigned to the history it once so effectively wrought, but fairly close.
“If in this generation we do not revive khadi, we will lose it forever. It is important to support something that is so Indian, something that is the ethos of who we are,” says Devieka Bhojwani, director, Brite Idea, and one of the early proponents of the khadi revival during the 1980s. Khadi, as a ‘way of life’ or as a philosophy, isn’t entirely dead - as social scientist Shiv Vishwanathan points out, echoes of that philosophy continue to resonate in movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
However, as a material object, its decline in popular imagination is irrefutable. “The spirit of khadi was alive for the generation that had seen the Independence movement, and for the one born into the aftermath of a discourse that had transcended the narrow confines of personal identifications,” says Vinita Kapur, social anthropologist & head - ethnography division, Quantum Market Research. She adds that today, the average Indian has fallen out of the discourse of freedom which is an integral part of the Indian ethos, and therein lies khadi’s problem of relevancy.
Viewed from a brand marketer’s prism, ‘Brand Khadi’ is beset by textbook brand marketing problems - issues pertaining to the product, its supply, its image perception and competition . In the decade following Independence, khadi’s popularity stemmed from the values dear to free India; it’s no coincidence that India’s political class, which embodied those values, was synonymous with khadi. However, through the following decades, this ‘brand ambassadorship’ became a liability, once the moral fibre of India’s politicians became open to question.
“Khadi’s association with politics is very strong and gives it a ‘not so clean’ image,” points out Nabankur Gupta, marketing consultant, and chairman, Blue Ocean. What compounded matters was that khadi began acquiring an anti-establishment , counter-culture image among younger Indians; colleges were full of wild-eyed teenagers in khadi spouting Marx and Engels - which was fine only till such time as spouting Marx and Engels was in fashion. While subsequent generations of college kids steered clear of Marx, khadi failed to make a clean getaway.
Consistency in product quality was another issue, something that Bhojwani grappled with during the time she worked with India’s best fashion designers to introduce khadi into haute couture. “There was the issue of paying a fixed rate to the tailors, which was then Rs 20,” she adds. “Since the structure was such that only 10 per cent of the profits went back to them, we had to find designs which would fit into that structure.”
Designer duo Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla were associated with the movement to make khadi fashionable, but Khosla reveals that while they were keen on increasing their khadi offering, they could never get enough supply. “Now, linen has come as a contender to khadi, it has a similar kind of feel, is a breathing fabric and is easier to maintain,” he says.
Another issue was credit facilities, “which you cannot get from khadi, so the lure to move to other fabrics is there as well,” Khosla adds. And as Manish Kelshikar, design head, Shoppers Stop, observes , khadi also suffers from limitations in usage occasions. “Khadi is best used in social occasions; at best it has two-days-a-week usage, and given the high degree of maintenance it requires, that’s a problem,” he says. Equally important is the poor retail experience that khadi offered shoppers. Alluding to the khadi bhandars scattered across India , Gupta says: “Look at the places where khadi is sold — I feel I have grown 10 years older when I go in there. Instead it must be vibrant; customers should feel younger and youthful when they go to these places.”
None of this, however, can take away from the fact that Brand Khadi has the resilience to bounce back. Vishwanathan, for one, believes that even in the current scenario, khadi will “easily survive another 20 years” . He adds that khadi is pretty popular the world over, “Go to any American campus — and not just South American campuses — and you will find a number of people wearing khadi,” he says.
Quantum’s Kapur concurs , saying: “Khadi may have diminished internally, but outside India it still enjoys high patronage. The values surrounding khadi is respected highly even today.” What’s helping khadi maintain a toehold is the efforts of companies like Fabindia and Anokhi, which have played a significant role in making khadi contemporary to consumers. Says William Bissell, MD, Fabindia: “Khadi is a natural cultural asset that we all should be very proud of. I find it very amusing that people who pride themselves in being able to differentiate between 50 different French wines, can’t differentiate cultural markers closer to home, despite the symbolic significance.”
The challenge, of course, is to connect with today’s consumers in a relevant manner , and Bissell says Fabindia has been able to create a resonance with all segments of consumers. “From college kids to their grand-parents , we’ve held the interest of all age-groups . That’s also because what we do very well is to create a contemporary context for the traditional: this is as true for khadi as it is for our other products,” he says. Kelshikar, who holds Fabindia’s efforts in high esteem, adds that Shoppers Stop has just completed a pilot for its ethnic wear store brand Kashish, keeping khadi in mind. “We are experimenting with kurtas in terms of styling, surface ornamentation and graphics; the thigh-level kurta is easily adaptable for youngsters, and we are seeing if there is consumer interest,” he says.
There are plenty of indications that khadi can reclaim its pride of place — as long as efforts are made to understand consumer trends and khadi is branded properly. For one, khadi can ride on the ethnic chic wave. For another, the fabric can cash in on what Kelshikar calls the ‘glocal trend’ in fashion — say denim jeans and khadi kurtas . Then there’s the entire shift in global mindset towards eco-friendly products.
Gupta believes positioning khadi products as “organic and green” is an opportunity to move the brand up the value chain, particularly in the west, adding that khadi suffers from a lack of sharp branding and positioning . “Khadi needs to be positioned well; it has to move forward as a national entity. Brands like Raymond, Arvind Mills and others can come together and release a khadi collection every year, just like you have the spring-summer or autumn-winter collection. Then you can declare October 2 (Gandhi Jayanti) as Khadi Day and promote khadi products.”
Kelshikar also points out that with the explosion of large format retail, initiatives to promote khadi stand a much better chance of succeeding than in the past. Bhojwani also thinks khadi’s potential can be exploited in the home and bed linen space. “The world over, pure cotton is so expensive that a fabric that breathes will work wonderfully,” she says.
However, khadi’s best bet, it seems, lies in tapping into young India’s sense of Indianness . “There is a huge ‘I am for India’ spirit amongst this generation and this is the right time to revive khadi,” says Bhojwani, “Because the new generation of weavers are not going to sit forever waiting to augment their meagre income.” Kapur adds that for the post-90 s generation, it is only through ‘Gandhigiri’ that the meaning of khadi can be plumbed. “Khadi symbolised freedom and self-reliance so powerfully that awakened by the right ‘kiss of love’ , it can still symbolise those values in those whose hearts the desire for freedom still flames,” she says. Bissell puts it best, perhaps, when he says: Khadi is a complex fabric — versatile, distinctive, adaptable. It’s a brand ambassador in its own right: it’s time we recognised it as such and looked upon it as a symbol of what is best in our evolved and adaptive culture.”