What a contrast in the weather from yesterday, its cold and damp but I’m being cheered up by being taken back to my days in India. The next article in The textile Reader edited by Jessica Hemmings is written by art historian and anthropologist Susan S Bean who worked as the curator of South Asian and Korean art at the Peabody Essex Museum.
Gandhi and Khadi, the Fabric of Indian Independence.
“English cloth had become the most potent symbol of English political domination and economic exploitation.”
“Gandhi’s choice of of dress to communicate his political values was of crucial to a nation with multiple languages and high illiteracy rates, which made visual (rather than written or spoken) communication all the more vital.”
The Indian flag symbolises Gandhi’s philosophy by incorporating a spinning wheel (Ashoka Chakra) in the centre.The Ashoka Chakra has twenty-four spokes and represents the eternal wheel of the progress and righteousness. By law the flag has to be made from kadhi, a coarse hand-spun fabric which became politicized in the long fight for independence of Indian from the British which was eventually achieved in 1947.
Let’s go back a bit.
“As he (Gandhi) came to appreciate the semiotic properties of cloth, he leaned to use it to communicate his most important messages to followers and opponents and to manipulate social events.”
“Once he had appreciated the economic importance of cloth in India, he made it the centrepiece of his programme for independence and self government.”
Gandhi in London with the Vegetarian Society.
He came to London in 1888 to train as a barrister and “was sensitive to the connection between costume and social position required changes in costume.” He exchanged his Bombay- style clothing with “clothes regarded as the very acme of fashion.”
Gandhi with the leaders of the non-violent resistance movement in South Africa.
In 1893 Gandhi went to work in South Africa where his style of dress caused problems – to wear a turban or English style hat (and end up looking like a waiter). Due to his Indianness he was throw out of the first class train coach but later persuaded the railway authorities to allow Indians to travel 1st class if they were ‘properly dressed’ i.e. in western style. “In order to look civilized our dress and manners had as far as possible to approximate to the European standard. Because, I thought, only thus could we have some influences, and without influence it would not be possible to serve the community.”
When to dress as Europeans wasn’t possible they adopted the Parsi style of dress, his wife wore a sari and his children a coat and trousers. “Of course no one could be without shoes or stockings. It was long before my wife and boys could get used to them. the shoes cramped their feet and the stocking stank with perspiration.”
Gandhi returned to India in 1901 and met some Indian rulers at the India Club in Calcutta wearing dhotis.
Dhoti Study Anthony Christian Silkscreen Print
But on days the English officials arrived the Indians changed into trousers and boots so looking like the waiters (khansamas). Gandhi asked why.
“We alone know the insults we have to put up with, in order that we may possess our wealth and titles….. we are Lord Curzon’s khansamas. If I were to attend in my usual dress, it would be an offence.”
Gandhi became even more aware of the meaning of cloth – “their importance as indicators of status, group identity, social stratification and political believes.” Whilst in Indian he travelled 3rd class wearing a dhoti.
He rejected his previous ideas about the need to adopt western dress in order to be deemed ‘civilised’.
The British had decimated the Indian economy – overtaxed the cotton farmers, cloth manufacturing taken back to the industrial north of England. R.C. Dutt Economic History of India 1901. Indian had previously exported to Asia, Japan, China, Egypt and Europe – the trade was ruined so leaving farmers, spinners, dyers, weavers in poverty.
“The quality of Indian dyeing was proverbial in the Roman world, as we know from a reference in St. Jerome’s fourth century Latin translation of the Bible, Job being made to say that wisdom is even more enduring than the ‘Dyed colours of Indian’.”
Trading continued throughout the centuries but in the early 1700s both England and France had banned Indian fabric as both needed to protect their own industries.
By the end of the nineteenth century the mechanisation of spinning, weaving and dyeing in England had killed the textile trade in India.
Bean asks the question “Did India fail to industrialise because Britsh policy prevented it or because Indian society was infertile soil for industrialisation?”
Swadeeshi – the promotion of indigenous products even if they may prove to be dearer or less satisfactory than finer foreign goods.
Political leaders vowed to wear and use only swadeshi articles – boycots of British cloth took place in 1896 (Gandhi was still wearing western clothes. “English cloth had become the most potent symbol of English political domination and economic exploitation.”
But a paradox. arose – the nationalists wanted to show the British they were gentlemen (i.e. someone who know how to dress well) in order to demonstrate they followed the fair play rules of the British so the hybrid costume arose of suit and boots but with an Indian headdress. “They expressed their belief in English values and their right to English justice by comparing themselves as English gentleman in English dress (albeit with a special hat or turban to signify a slight cultural distinctiveness).”
By 1913 Gandhi had adopted his recognisable dress – a lungi (prounced loo ngi and is like a sarong), kurta (a collarless shirt), shaven head, bear feet and carrying a staff. However he still dressed in English clothes when he visited England in 1914.
He returned to India in 1915 and wore the Kathiawadi style of dress. “He deliberately used costume not only top express his socio-political identity, but to manipulate social occasions to elicit acceptance of, if not agreement with, his position.”
But this costume was full of indications of region, class and religion – he knew he needed one than transcended all – one that the whole of India could identify with regardless of cultural area be it physical, religious or based on wealth.
Gandhi took to wearing a white homespun cap instead of a turban in 1919 but he discarded it by 1921.
In this year he began the national programme to revive homespun cloth, Khadi. As it was expensive he encouraged people to wear as little as possible.
“I know that many will find it difficult to replace their foreign cloth all at once …. Let them be satisfied with a mere loin cloth… India has never insisted on full covering of the body for the males as a test fopr culture…. In order, therefore, to set the example, I propose to discard….. my topi (cap) and vest and to content myself with only a loin cloth and a chaddar (shawl)…… I have always hesitated to advise anything I may not be prepared to follow.”
“In so far as the loin cloth spells simplicity let it represent Indian civilization”
He never compromised on this. He attended the Round Table Conference in London – 1931 – wearing his dhoti.
“By dealing openly with a man in mahatma garb, the British accepted his political position and revealed their loss of power.”
“The communicative power of costume transcended the limitations of language in multilingual and illiterate Indian.”
Darshan – the sight of an eminent or holy person blesses and purifies the viewer. people came simply to see Gandhi.
He realised the cloth industry (but not the industrialization of it) could lift India out of poverty. “he was soon to elevate the spinning wheel to significance as an economic necessity, a religious ritual and a national symbol.”