Gandhiji’s textiles of peace

A chance visit to the Khadi and Malkha exhibition at the National Archives of India, New Delhi spurred a chain of thoughts. A huge white banner greeted me amidst the serene greens of the lawns of the venue. The banner, not in the least ostentatious, proclaimed, “Gandhiji’s textiles of peace”.

That the fabric of Khadi is symbolic and imbued with the very notion of “Indian-ness” is not something which any Indian is unaware of. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the ultimate patron of Khadi, used it literally and symbolically to fight the British way back in the 1930s and the 1940s to foster a notion of swaraj and self reliance for the multitude of village economies which collectively constitute what we know as India even today. Given the quality of patronage this humble fabric received then, it is not surprising that, years after the freedom struggle, the very threads of this fabric continue to be weaved with the spirit of Gandhian values and principles.

Organically dyed wool in a riot of colours at the exhibition

Yet, are we doing a great disservice to this beautiful fabric by associating it only with Gandhi and the intangible notions of peace and non-violence? Are we limiting the appeal of Khadi to only a selected set of Indian population who actually associates herself with the Gandhian values and principles? I am going to stick my neck out and opine that yes, we are really limiting the appeal of Khadi.

I am not denying the definite shift that has happened in this traditional sector to modernize itself and come out with contemporary styles to appeal to a larger consumer base. This was evidenced by block prints in quirky designs such as the chappals, dogs and cute lion prints. There were also innovations in design such as cowl necks, shawl necks and many contemporary cuts in order to build a younger customer base.

Stacks of unstitched Malkha fabric with contemporary prints

However, is all this enough? What about the communication itself? There were fantastic organizations such as Nature Alley, Malkha Marketing Trust, Asal and Avani which had displayed its products at the exhibition. All of them spoke about the sustainable and eco-friendly nature of their products and processes in its pamphlets and brochures. Yet, a disproportionately lesser amount of communication was focused on the aesthetic and functional aspects of the products. Maybe that’s treated as a given. But compare it to the communication with other fabrics and it would not take a Kotler’s mind to categorize Khadi’s marketing as mainly Cause Related Marketing. And while appealing to people’s emotions by making them think of peace, sustainability and the environment is no doubt effective, what will be more effective is to primarily make them think of comfort, beauty and the other subtle yet powerful features of the fabric. Making the product contemporary is great. Contemporarizing the marketing and the communication will be even better.

Khadi cotton saris – beautiful and elegant!

For years the fabric has been used to ignite the Gandhian in each one of us. Maybe it is time the fabric is used to ignite the individual “I” in each one of us.