Sunday, March 2, 2008

Cottoning on

Gandhi didn’t always wear a loincloth, you know. Before he was the Father of the Nation, when he was still Mohandas to his mates down the office, he wore suits, like lawyers should. He adopted the loincloth to make a political point. Support local industry, or it will die. Importing machine-made cotton from the looms of Manchester would pierce the heart of the villages of India with their own spindles – “If the village perishes, India will perish.” The loincloth said, Freedom. The fabric of his simple dhoti was always coarse cotton, khadi - undyed, homespun, homewoven by locals. What they call, “the turban used for trousers.” Gandhi put his money where his mouth was – or rather, his wardrobe where his principles were. His dress never varied, whether he was meeting widows and orphans in rural India, or foreign kings and princes. When Churchill met Gandhi, he said the Indian leader’s ‘posing as a fakir’ was ‘alarming and nauseating.’ Not our proudest moment.
Gandhi’s symbol, the spindle, or charkha, is a traditional part of a bride’s trousseau, to encourage her to clothe her family from home. The charkha was the centre-piece of India’s national flag, until recently, when it was replaced by the Buddhist symbol of the wheel (confusingly, the chakra).
India invests a lot in her flag. According to the Code, it’s supposed to be made of homespun, khadi, neatly combining symbolism with practicality. Today, the demands of production over-run manual capacity, so this particular rule goes into soft focus, sometimes. The Code also dictates that no other flag or bunting should be placed higher than the Indian flag; it can’t be hung out of windows or draped on vehicles. (Think, World Cup football stadium.) We find an article in the Bombay Times, which shows Sania Mirza, a female Indian tennis-player, at an international tournament in Australia. She’s leaning back in her chair, her bare feet, crossed, resting on the table next to a small copy of the flag. The writer’s scandalised: the runner would have been punished - imprisoned even - for such rudeness, in India – disrespecting the flag, not only by slouching next to it, but by turning the soles of her feet in its direction. Think of the tourist tat foist on us, from Trafalgar Square to Blackpool Pier – Union Jack milk-jugs, Union Jack boxer-shorts, and even Union Jack toilet-paper. I wonder where we went wrong?
Nehru, the architect of modern India, educated at Harrow and Cambridge, was so impressed by Gandhi, he gave up his habitual western dress, and obliged his family to do the same. He embraced the homespun ethic whole-heartedly, putting the enforced idleness of political imprisonment to good use, weaving a pink wedding sari in khadi, for his daughter, Indira. This sari’s still worn by brides in the Nehru/Gandhi family to this day.
Gandhi, and then Nehru, upheld the importance of the homespun philosophy, because they wanted to wipe out discrimination on the basis of caste. Things have moved on since the 1920s. With the irony of wheels turning full circle, it’s almost inevitable that khadi now has designer chic. In 1990, Delhi designer, Ritu Kumar, launched the Tree of Life collection, which landed her on the world stage. She not only championed khadi as a fabric, she resuscitated interest in neglected traditional embroidery crafts. Villager spinners and weavers can barely keep up with demand. Nearly twenty years on, at our favourite Mumbai mall, In Orbit, the Ritu Kumar shop specialises in bridal dresses, prêt-à-porter, and fusion wear.
Meanwhile, on the building-site here in Powai, workmen wear western shirts and polyester trousers.