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खादी: Weaving Indian Nationhood

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on December 25, 2008 7 Comments

A couple of evenings ago, with the temperature dipping into the low teens (in °C), and the stale winter air thickly polluted with smog, my mother and I happened upon the National Khadi Fair in a suburb of New Delhi, India. Even though we had pending errands to run, we were inexorably drawn to the Fair, seduced by the texture of patriotism spun deep through its handcrafted threads. Khadi (Hindi: खादी), a kind of coarse homespun cloth woven from cotton, once called “the livery of freedom,” gained ascendancy during the Indian Independence Movement. It’s “core semiotic,” it has been argued, “lay in its being a commodity of resistance against colonial exploitation”; as a symbol of Indian self-reliance due largely to Mahatma Gandhi‘s efforts, खादी continues to be deeply entwined with our ideas of nationhood.

In my family, as in many other families, we patronize खादी clothing not only because we like the texture of the fabric, but primarily because we consider buying खादी a part of our civic duty. During the Indian Independence Movement, my maternal great-grandfather was summarily dismissed from the elite Indian Civil Service in Bengal when his pro-खादी, Swadeshi (Hindi: स्वदेशी) sympathies came to light. Dadu (my maternal grandfather) would wear only खादी dhutis, while Dida (grandma), an active member of the Indian National Congress party, would patriotically wear coarsely spun खादी sarees. My mother’s maternal uncle, jailed sixteen times by the British for his involvement in the freedom struggle, never wore anything but खादी. My mother’s brother, who was in his early teens at the height of the struggle for independence, spent hours spinning cotton in his spare time. My father, once hauled to jail-as a ten-year-old child-for participating in a rally against the British Raj, vividly remembers seeing strong Swadeshi supporters spinning खादी on charkhas in his neighborhood in the Bihari city of Khagaria…

Both my parents recall what Maria Misra labeled the “bonfire of vanities”: where foreign-made clothes were burnt in massive piles by Indians, as a part of a refusal to remain dependent on foreign manufacturing (Gandhi was arrested for doing so in 1929). खादी, in that context, became a symbol of our revolutionary zeal, of our struggle to unshackle ourselves from colonial oppression; of our burning determination to self-govern. Legally, the Indian flag may only be made out of Khadi cloth, and at one point, an image of the charkha was on the Indian flag. It makes sense, then, that for my parents, like millions of others, खादी is no mere cloth. It is a symbol of Indian independence; of the sacrifices, hardships, and struggles that got us here. Its texture is woven into the national langscape, the invincible spirit of an oppressed nation, and the hopeful dreams of a free India.

जय हिंद.

TYVM “U-Χ” for all the encouragement.

For more on signs/symbols on FIT: click here.

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7 Responses to “खादी: Weaving Indian Nationhood”

  1. Youki on: 25 December 2008 at 8:41 am

    you can make this into a book.

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 25 December 2008 at 8:42 am

    This? The pictures?

  3. Youki on: 25 December 2008 at 8:50 am

    no, everything. It would make for a really interesting book.

  4. Usree Bhattacharya on: 25 December 2008 at 8:54 am

    I have been working on a semi-biographical novel for the past 4-5 years, it traces life in Kolkata, during the last years of the British Raj from 1941 to 1947, through my mother’s eyes. My mom’s family-mentioned above-and their involvement in the freedom struggle figures prominently in it.

    I am hoping to finish it…eventually. 🙂


  5. daveski on: 26 December 2008 at 5:10 pm

    I agree–a fantastic post! It reminded me of Usree’s own reflections that Youki wrote into the FIT digital story–about the hyperlinks perhaps pulling the post apart into different directions, but in the end, there it is…

    I also find the idea of a “core symbol” really interesting, that the Khadi contains symbolic power by means of its own materiality. It brought to mind Edward Sapir’s idea of the “condensation symbol” (though different too, and sorry, couldn’t find a good link here)

  6. Usree Bhattacharya on: 26 December 2008 at 6:07 pm

    Thank you…I am glad you liked it. The reason I feel compelled to hyperlink everything is because I have limited space on a post, and there are so many words that might escape the non-Indian-history-knowing person. It’s very time-consuming, but I know that anyone getting through my posts is BOUND to be a LITTLE curious about the links. 🙂

    Also, my father insists I should mention somewhere that Khadi creates employment in rural India, and that’s a huge part of why we buy Khadi as well. I’ll put it in an update soon, but for now, Baba, here it is.

    I am VERY flattered, Dave, but those lines…about our posts being pulled in different directions…were actually in your comment to my post. 🙂 I understand why that happened…in watching Youki’s amazing video for the first time, there were your texts that were so familiar as to feel like my own, and one I’d written that I thought was yours. I don’t believe this is a case of misremembering…I think we remember FIT as a collective; our words are colorful patches that are stitched onto the tapestry of FIT in such a way that your words are no longer just yours and my words are not just mine: when we speak on FIT we speak as a part of a larger voice.

  7. JT on: 28 July 2010 at 10:34 am

    Ineresting story!

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