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Like the wings of a grasshopper
- spotlight on mahatma khadi

The name khadi is so inextricably linked with the ‘naked fakir’ that we cannot help associating it with the rough, homespun, decidedly unglamorous fabric one waits patiently to buy during the grand Puja sales in October at the local khadi bhandar. Jholawallas inevitably go in for it, as do half-baked left-inclined intellectuals. Because of the ideological baggage that khadi would find difficult to discard, the material has, rather unfairly, become a byword for dowdiness. It is common knowledge that it is relatively cheap because it is heavily subsidised by the government. But the ready-to-wear bhandar variety khadi is so retrogressively tailored that city slickers wouldn't be seen dead in such togs.

Such a perception could change once one has met Martand Singh, the man who spearheaded the movement to save from extinction the genuine khadi, made entirely by hand (as opposed to the widely marketed variety with its partly mechanised technology). Singh is in town now for the opening of the travelling exhibition, Khadi, at the Academy of Fine Arts on Friday, when the catalogue will also be launched. Singh, a man given to responding to queries with cryptic replies, summarily dismisses the notion that khadi, as he sees it, is a common man's fabric: “No. It is too expensive.”

So, is it a luxury material' "It depends on what you mean by luxury. It is the most comfortable cloth conceivable. It improves with age," says Singh, himself a walking-talking exhibition of the impossibly soft material he promotes, dressed as he is in a flowing khadi ensemble. “It is the cloth that every mother would want to use for her child … if she can afford it,” he says in continuation of his eulogy. “It is the ultimate organic cloth. It is just the thing for export and the urban Indian market has enough money to be able to afford it. And if it is to survive, the people who produce it must be paid commensurate wages,” he stresses.

Rahul Jain, part of the core team which organised this exhibition that celebrates this fabric through displays of 108 varieties of plain khadi fabrics and in addition, 108 saris from Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, explains that khadi covers a wide range of fabrics, yarns and technologies, only a small proportion of which is Mahatma khadi. The latter is a “material as well as a spiritual object”.

The only time-warped pocket where it survives is Srikakulam district, in Andhra Pradesh. There, the artisans live in photogenic poverty, as the beautiful black-and-white shots in the catalogue attest. The artisans are mostly women and producing this khadi, where “every single process is painstakingly handspun” with that “most rarefied” of implements — the “desi charkha” — comprises their social activity as well as leisure. Thereby, they produce a cloth, which blind children who visited the exhibition earlier, said feels like a “grasshopper's wing” or “membrane of pistachio”. To quote Martand Singh.

For 50 years, says Jain, the state has supported khadi (even if it is produced by a partly mechanised method), which, though it comprises 0.5 per cent of the textile market, allows one million artisans to eke out a living. In such a situation what Mahatma khadi needs is an “enlightened patron”, he says, because private entrepreneurs may be exploitative. A pipedream' But only a dreamer can keep it alive.

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