KHADI SARIS: from Self-Employment to Skills

Photos by Mihir Bhatt
Illustrated by Somnath Bhatt
Saris of Ela Bhatt

Saris, especially Khadi meaning hand-made and hand-woven cotton cloth saris are often looked at as burdensome and mundane garment nowadays. Yet, Khadi is no ordinary cloth it was a symbol of India’s journey to independence. Khadi, once the face of Indian self-reliance and self-employment movement, is almost wiped out today by the machine made and synthetic cloth. Considered ‘not just a cloth but, a socio-economic movement’ Khadi, currently is mostly worn by pseudo-politicians and members of Gandhian institutions,certain school children as a uniform,members of civil society organizations and folks their 70s like my grandmother or even older.

Like the Gandhian values Khadi is too valuable to be discarded yet, too idyllic to swallow down and digest. The aim of this exhibition is to rebuke the whole idea of Khadi being a dull, crude and dated fabric worn by the elderly. In fact the saris in my grandmother’s stack are none of the above, they are as ebullient as nine enchanting colors-navrang, as vibrant as the 29 states and 6 union territories of India and throbbing-visibly or invisibly-with panache and ingenuity much like the Indian mind.


It is bad enough that much of white America sees fit to lecture black people about the proper response to police brutality, economic devastation and perpetual marginality, having ourselves rarely been the targets of any of these. It is bad enough that we deign to instruct black people whose lives we have not lived, whose terrors we have not faced, and whose gauntlets we have not run, about violence; this, even as we enjoy the national bounty over which we currently claim possession solely as a result of violence. I beg to remind you, George Washington was not a practitioner of passive resistance. Neither the early colonists nor the nation’s founders fit within the Gandhian tradition. There were no sit-ins at King George’s palace, no horseback freedom rides to affect change. There were just guns, lots and lots of guns.

Pundits and politicians are all too eager to condemn violent protest. How quickly they forget our nation’s history

India too has had its Tahrir Square moment: A battle for a different kind of freedom–from a culture of acute corruption–was waged in India recently. A 77 year old Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare fasted till the government of Manmohan Singh was forced to agree to form a joint panel “working against corruption”. The movement had galvanized the nation’s youth. 

Recently a million man techie march against corruption in India was undertaken by Tech entrepreneurs of Indian origin in Silicon Valley, California. That March was said to be in emulation of Gandhi’s Dandi March undertaken against the British rulers in India. The Dandi March was more akin to the Tahrir Square movement in spirit, as the fight was against power disequilibrium between people (civil society) and state.

Corruption has reached a phenomenal level in India, if news reports are to be believed. But this isn’t something new. I recall how in the 70s and 80s (the 60s was something of an era of idealism) bribery used to be a byword for earnings in India, more of a normal practice than an aberration. 

But back to the present: What is the purpose of forming yet another “panel” to get rid of corruption? The difference this time is that the panel is comprised of government representatives and members of civil society; are members of the civil society supposed to be a deterrent against official corruption?

Why march against corruption and not simply enforce anti-bribery laws and deal with bribe takers and givers punitively?

By [the] late 1980s dalit and other low-caste women, and feminists from south India were also making themselves heard. They tried to recover non-Aryan and anti-Brahman traditions, took Sita as a symbol of oppression rather than an ideal, and argued that the Ramayana represented the triumph of patriarchy over matriarchy. Ruth Manorama, a dalit Christian from Bangalore involved in organising slum-dwellers, began to speak of the “triply oppressed” focusing on Brahamanism as a major factor in women’s oppression but not sparing dalit men either. She and others eventually organised the National Federation of Dalit Women. At the 1991 National Women’s Studies Conference in Calcutta, two minority feminists, Flavia Agnes and Razia Patel, were openly attacking ‘Hindu hegemony’ in the women’s movement.

The environmental movement also saw a similar development, the emergence of culturally radical themes contesting a dominant trend that identified, though more ambiguously than in the colonial period, with a reformist Hinduism. Middle-class environmentalism had been Gandhian in inspiration, mounting on strong ideological attack on industrial civilisation and 'western science and technology’ that tended to idealise Indian traditional culture. This even involved some indifference to or even idealisation of caste, with the most important academic study of the 'ecological history of India’ giving what was in effect a functionalist justification of caste as a system of ecological adaption (Gadgil and Guha 1992). Ecofeminists like Vandana Shiva emphasised the mother-goddess them in women’s writing as the protector of nature and identified it with 'Prakriti’ (Shiva 1989). However environmental mass movements based on peasants and other low-castes very often used more anti-Brahman traditions. Thus a movement for water rights on the river Ganga used the symbol of Ekalavya, with the fishing communities they organised identifying themselves with the tribal hero of the epic.
—  Gail Omvedt, Understanding Caste