Spinning for Freedom: On How Viewing Khadi as Theatre Unravels the Narrative of Mahatma Gandhi

by Dr. Susan S. Bean

Painting of Gandhi, c. 1945, by J. L. Bhandari; courtesy dailymail.co.uk

Prologue: The story of khadi (homespun) and its creator Mohandas Gandhi is well known in India and around the world. In his political campaign for Indian self-determination (swaraj), Gandhi famously promoted the practices of making thread through spinning by hand, and wearing simple khadi garments – not only as key symbols of national identity, but also as a central statement of resistance to the colonial regime. As writer, producer and director, Gandhi instigated a national drama centred on the roles of spinner and khadi-wearer. Made from hand-spun yarn, his khadi would emerge from India’s handlooms not just to costume the nation but also to change the essential character of its people, altering colonial subjects into ‘citizens’. Seen as theatre, the narrative of khadi reveals how Gandhi transformed this cloth into much more than a mere textile, and how khadi exerted transformative and long lasting effects in India’s national movement. The drama of khadi illuminates the potency and tenacity inherent in this humble homespun cloth; already having proved itself within the framework of the freedom struggle, the story of khadi still resonates more than sixty years after India gained Independence. (1)

Act 1: Acting Lessons in the Theatre of the Colonial Regime

As opposed to other narrative textiles, whose stories are contained in or depicted on their symbolically intricate, embellished surfaces, khadi is completely blank, unadorned by any kind of pattern. In addition, it represents the very opposite of what has traditionally been most valued about Indian cloth – fine texture, elegant design and exceptional colour. As coarse, white, plain weave cotton, Gandhi’s beloved textile stands in sharp contrast with these opulent fabrics. Also known as khaddar, khadi cloth was modelled after what all Indian textiles had once been: hand-woven of hand-spun yarn.

Gandhi intended the unornamented, non-dyed white khadi cotton to remain modest in style, while aspiring to great symbolic value as a protagonist in the theatre of nation building. In his unique formulation, khadi would be the costume for nationalists, potentially all the people of India. Gandhi was fully convinced of the ideological potential of khadi to actually convert its wearers into nationalists, suppressing other diverse and divisive, historically embedded identities – those rooted in caste, religion and region – and fostering a social as well as spiritual ideal of unity. Wearing khadi and spinning yarn could alter the sense of self of the Indian people through cultivating fellowship and bolstering self-determination. In its association with such transformational properties, khadi is deeply rooted in India’s ancient textile culture, which uses cloth to evoke right conduct, enact community and transmit social and ritual standing. (2)

Despite the great significance that khadi was to have on the image of Gandhi as an icon of national pride as well as on the trajectory of India as a nation, it was not in his home country that Gandhi first discovered the potential of cloth as both symbol and mode of political resistance. Rather it was during his stay in Britain as a young law student that the young Mohandas Gandhi initially experienced first-hand how garments can immediately and insidiously alter and project one’s sense of self. In the harsher, more repressive and openly racist social environment of South Africa, where Gandhi subsequently spent time providing legal assistance to the Indian community, he discovered the extent to which the colonial authorities directed and controlled civil society – and how much power clothing had in the strategies used to reinforce social hierarchy. He soon realised that on the colonial stage of South Africa, wearing Indian headgear with an English suit could not resolve the dilemma created by imperial authority, which made it impossible to be both fully Indian and a full citizen of the British Empire.

Gandhi responded to this dilemma by experimenting with his own attire, developing his knowledge of clothing and its power to delineate both personal identity and the social encounters formally scripted into colonial society and the pageantry of imperial rituals. He had already begun experimenting with his garments on his travels through India in 1901, when he was clad in kurta and dhoti. In South Africa he donned labourer’s clothes adapted from prison garb, and he also tried going barefoot and wearing a dhoti or lungi at political meetings. But when he sailed to England in 1914, he dressed as an Englishman.

His sartorial experiences led him to conclude that within the British Empire, in terms of dress one could not simultaneously be a dignified Indian and an English gentleman. The costumes assigned by the protocols of the regime ensured the debasement of Indians, aggravated the dialectic of the master-servant relationship, and objectified human beings into the category of colonial subjects deprived of fundamental agency. Realising the centrality of cloth to the mechanisms of colonial domination and to the formation of national identity, Gandhi initiated his own explorations into the potential of khadi as a mode of political resistance, and as a means of invigorating the rural economy – and of thus setting India on a path to self-sufficiency that was culturally suitable, avoiding Western materialism and honouring local communities.

With his experiments behind him, Gandhi returned to India in 1915 in the garb of a Kathiawari peasant. He had now fully begun to use the theatre of cloth to advance his concept of a true Indian nationalism. Gandhi discovered that in this context, what he wore could have an impact that would definitely influence, and to some extent actually direct, the course of political events. However, he quickly found the Kathiawari outfit inadequate for his purposes – it was too closely tied to region, class and religion. In order to promote the unity of all Indians throughout the sub-continent, rich and poor, of all religious persuasions and denominations, Gandhi needed to evolve a simple and practical costume that transcended cultural distinctions. Through continued personal and political practice Gandhi successfully initiated a new drama of cloth and clothing – one not scripted and controlled by the colonial regime, but one which would emerge from within the nationalist movement. On this stage Gandhi and khadi would be the central protagonists. (3)

Act 2: Spinning as Theatre

Gandhi promulgated the theatre of khadi not only by advocating its use as attire: he also directed that all supporters of swaraj should spin. Hand spinning was once, of course, the only way to produce yarn for weaving, but in Gandhi’s time it was a rarity in India. By 1908 Gandhi had become aware of the importance of spinning, despite having only a vague grasp of the actual mechanisms of the process. Hand spinning, he reasoned, required the simplest of equipment and could be learned by anyone. He considered it a way to revitalise the rural economy by providing a supplementary source of income to all. True swadeshi (fully indigenous) cloth, he asserted, must be fully handmade.

After instituting the making of khadi at the Satyagraha Ashram in Gujarat in 1917–18 and after urging all Indians to devote half-an-hour each day to spinning yarn, Gandhi became convinced that spinning was in fact much more than an essential ingredient of true swadeshi cloth.

He recognised the theatrical power of spinning to simultaneously enact and convey the narrative of the freedom struggle. (4) Although traditionally a task performed by women, anyone and everyone could spin. The act of spinning could be staged in every home in India, and in public before assembled multitudes. The manipulation of the wheel or spindle was a dramatic, almost magical act, radiating its own aura as the spinner directed his or her complete awareness to the action, concentrating on the movement of the wheel, feeding the fibre, twisting, pulling and winding the yarn. The audience, whether family members or a mass assembly, watched as the spinner sat with total focus on a task apparently meditative in character, transforming bits of fluff into purposive strands. Observers saw that spinning, like the movement for political freedom, required discipline and sacrifice – and it had to be deeply internalised as personal practice if it was to be accomplished with skill.

Spinning had the power to transform both the nation and its citizenry. The spinner appeared as the simultaneous embodiment of swadeshi and swaraj. By staging spinning in homes, villages and public arenas, members of the audience would have a participatory role on the national stage, rather than being mere spectators to the drama of the freedom struggle. Dramatic scenes of Gandhi and other nationalist leaders sitting at their charkhas were witnessed by multitudes at public meetings, and enthusiastic followers recreated such scenes at home. Committed spinners not only made thread, they made a place for themselves on the national stage – acting out self-sufficiency, and in the process actually developing self-reliance. Singly and as communities, they introduced the script of nation building to towns, villages and homes across the country.

Act 3: The Triumph of Khadi, Scripting the Role of Citizen

Gandhi’s experiments with clothing and its potential for staging, dramatising and effecting the freedom movement culminated around the same time as his efforts to transform India into a nation of spinners enacting and creating swaraj. In 1919, Gandhi hit upon a solution. From the very beginning of his politicisation in South Africa, he had become acutely sensitive to the power of headgear, as it projected and simultaneously shaped the character of the wearer. The act of bestowing or removing headgear had the power to elevate or degrade; to alter the wearer’s social position and even influence the wearer’s moral substance. After many years of experimenting, Gandhi came up with a new type of headgear for men. The simple cap, soon popularly named for him, would foreground and augment the theatrical potential of khadi.

Gandhi’s simple, small, folded cap made of white khadi was inexpensive, easy to keep and wear, and without strong communal or sectarian associations. At Gandhi’s urging the cap was swiftly adopted by the Indian National Congress, and over the next two decades it became an active signifier of nationalism. Merely by donning the cap the wearer already assumed the role of freedom fighter. Worn en masse at public meetings, demonstrations and marches, Gandhi-capped proto-citizens of a free India united to oppose the colonial administration. These mass ‘performances’ were filmed for newsreels and photographed for newspapers, and people across the sub-continent and across the world recognised them as critical participatory scenes in a drama of resistance.

In 1921, however, Gandhi gave up the simple cap and reduced his apparel to khadi loincloth and chaddar (cotton shawl). This final costume change was a multifaceted action, demonstrating his empathy with and commitment to the impoverished masses. In making this decision he also emphasised the scarcity and consequent expense of khadi. (5) Through his reduced attire, he exhorted the nation to spin more yarn and produce more khadi for all to wear. The image of a khadi-clad Gandhi, the spiritually evolved ‘great soul’ (mahatma) at his spinning wheel was a stunning and absolute repudiation of the persona of the proper English gentleman to which he had once aspired. Through this unequivocal saintly persona, he proclaimed pride in Indian civilisation, the equality of all Indians, and the dignity of all – even the poorest.

Epilogue: After Gandhi

India’s independence in 1947 and Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 robbed the theatre of khadi of its creator, producer and director, as well as its fundamental reason for being. After Independence, khadi was institutionalised. It was embedded in the fabric of the nation through the Khadi and Village Industries Commission and successive five-year plans, which maintained spinning as a source of income in rural areas. The powerful association with Gandhi, patriotism, morality and the freedom movement has helped keep khadi alive ever since. Nevertheless, despite innovations and other efforts to achieve economic viability, khadi has continuously required government subsidy to survive. The khadi produced today would be unrecognisable to its spiritual father – the mixtures of natural and synthetic fibres, production of yarn on semi-mechanised charkhas, sometimes with twelve or more spindles, and designs in a plethora of colours and patterns make Gandhi’s khadi seem like a distant memory.

In the decades since Independence, motivations for wearing khadi have shifted as well. Some wear khadi to mark themselves as keepers of Gandhian ideology and supporters of India’s hand-manufacturers. After Independence, the white khadi kurta and cap gradually became a uniform for politicians wishing to signal their patriotic service – sometimes sincerely, sometimes not. In the twenty-first century, khadi has also converged with the ecological movement to be featured among products that are organic, ‘green’ and sustainable. Recently too, textile and fashion designers who appreciate the sturdiness of the coarser counts and the fine, diaphanous qualities of higher counts have adopted khadi for high fashion collections. This elevation of khadi into the domain of elite consumption seems ironic given its original role – that of promoting the democratic values and virtues of equality and material simplicity.

Yet the appreciation of khadi in its specific contemporary manifestations, perennially empowered by its enshrinement in the Gandhi-led freedom movement, does indeed help to maintain its production and its presence as a meaningful industry. Khadi is sustained by intersecting, if not always complementary, forces – ongoing government programmes to support its production as supplemental employment in rural areas; a source of low-cost clothing; khadi’s appeal as a handmade textile in an age of mechanised production; and khadi’s potential as an ecologically viable product. In all these contexts the indelible connection to Gandhi and the freedom movement surrounds khadi like an aura, effortlessly maintaining the historical and psychological significance of this homespun cloth for millions of Indians. The theatre of khadi that Gandhi single-handedly conceived and initiated from the deepest roots of personal conviction has been powerful enough to resonate and remain relevant for more than sixty years after Independence, and there is all likelihood that it will continue to do so for decades into the future.

Endnotes: (Susan S. Bean)

(1) For recent insights into the historical development and impact of khadi, see C. A. Bayly, ‘The Origins of Swadeshi (Home Industry): Cloth and Indian Society, 1700-1930’, in A. Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things, Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 1986; S. S. Bean, ‘Spinning Independence’, in M. Meister (ed.), Making Things in South Asia: The Role of Artist and Craftsman, Proceedings of the South Asia Seminar, Vol. 4, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988; S. S. Bean, ‘Gandhi and Khadi: The Fabric of Indian Nationalism’, in A. Weiner and J. Schneider (eds.), Cloth in Human Experience, Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989; S. S. Bean, ‘Freedom Homespun’, in Asian Art and Culture, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1996, pp. 53-67; R. M. Brown, Gandhi’s Spinning Wheel and the Making of India, New York: Routledge, 2010; B. Cohn, ‘Cloth, Clothes, and Nationalism: India in the Nineteenth Century’, in A. Weiner and J. Schneider (eds.), Cloth in Human Experience, Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989; R. Jain, Khadi: The Fabric of Freedom, New Delhi: Amr Vastra Kosh Trust, 2002; M. Naik and N. Chaturvadi, Khadi: A Historical Journey, Gurgaon: Shubhi Publications, 2007; R. Ramagundam, Gandhi’s Khadi: A History of Contention and Conciliation, New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2008; E. Tarlo, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996; L. Trivedi, Clothing Gandhi’s Nation: Homespun and Modern India, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

(2) C. A. Bayly, ‘The Origins of Swadeshi (Home Industry): Cloth and Indian Society, 1700-1930’, in A. Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things, Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 285; see also B. Cohn, ‘Cloth, Clothes, and Nationalism: India in the Nineteenth Century’, in A. Weiner and J. Schneider (eds.), Cloth in Human Experience, Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

(3) To find out more about Gandhi’s views on Khadi see M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Boston: Beacon Press, 1957; M. K. Gandhi, Indian Home Rule, Madras: Ganesh and Co., 1922 [1st edition 1908]; M. K. Gandhi, The Ideology of the Charkha: A Collection of Gandhiji’s Speeches and Writings about Khadi, ed. S. Jaju, Sevagram: All India Spinners Association, 1951; E. Erickson, Gandhi’s Truth, New York: W. W. Norton, 1969.

(4) For an analysis of the visual culture of spinning in relation to Gandhi’s khadi, see R. M. Brown, ‘Spinning without Touching the Wheel: Anti-Colonialism, Indian Nationalism and the Deployment of Symbol’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2009, pp. 230-245.

(5) M. K. Gandhi, The Ideology of the Charkha, p. 99.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following biographical information is taken from Susan Bean’s website, which also has an extensive bibliography. “Susan Bean curates, writes, and consults on the visual arts and culture of modern South Asia. She is Chair of the Art & Archaeology Center of the American Institute of Indian Studies. She serves on the board of the Textile Society of America and is an Associate of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. She was senior curator for South Asian and Korean art at the Peabody Essex Museum until her retirement in 2012. Previously she taught anthropology at Yale University.” Article courtesy Vestoj: the Journal of Sartorial Matters, issue #5, Autumn 2014, with kind permission of the author.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi