By the time the wholly handmade Khadi cloth travels from the dusty villages of Etah to Delhi's Ekmatra, it has turned into an elegant brand statement.

In Delhi's swish Lodhi Colony market, near designers Rajesh Pratap Singh's and Manish Arora's boutiques, is Ekmatra, a store promoting designer khadi apparel and furnishings. The elegantly cut kurtas in ivory and cream and soft as a baby's cheeks, the trendy bags, and the stylish table cloths and bed linens on display here are far removed from the coarse and rough cloth one associates the freedom fabric with.

“Unlike the khadi that you get at the Khadi Bhandars, my products are not apologetic-looking and neither are my prices,” declares Manoj Chaturvedi, Chairman, Sarvoday Ashram and the promoter of Ekmatra and Khadi Line, two branded khadi stores that have already caught the imagination of Delhi's discerning dressers.

While Ekmatra's products priced between Rs 999 and Rs 6,000 is targeted at a premium clientele, Khadi Line, priced between Rs 495 and Rs 1,595, stocks a more mass range. Chaturvedi is now planning to take the stores to more cities and declares that his mission is to reposition Khadi as a fabric to make a statement with. “Understated elegance” is what we are striving for, he says.

Of course, others have trodden this path earlier – of repositioning the fabric. If designer Devika Bhojwani pioneered the attempts to give khadi a contemporary new look in the 1990s, then the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) under then Micro Small and Medium Industries Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia had in the early 2000s famously got designers such as Rohit Bal to give the fabric a high profile. Even today the KVIC's stores do stock the designer khadi creations. So why would Chaturvedi succeed where the efforts of others have sputtered? Well, perhaps, the service edge that he brings in his private retail outlets (unlike the KVIC stores which down shutters at government timings and have indifferent staff). And then as he explains, “We are the first brand-centric corporate in the Indian khadi sector.”

Also, he says, his Ekmatra, despite its trendy cuts and colours, is still fairly affordable chic.

The Rhodes scholar has also got young blood in, having persuaded both his son and daughter to leave their lucrative management jobs to join in the khadi movement. He also points to the unique brand ambassadors the store has chosen – rather than go the celebrity route, the store has startling black and white pictures of the village women artisans who have spun out these dream creations from their humble charkhas.

He invites you on a journey to Etah, to see firsthand where and how these weaves are coming from, and how he is bridging the khadi heritage inherited from his grandfather with modernity.

Village Warps and Wefts

For a district that's barely 70 km away from industrialised Agra, it's quite a different India that meets you in dusty Etah. The ubiquitous mobile phone shops and white goods showrooms notwithstanding, life seems to have stopped some fifty years ago in this UP district, where power is available only a few hours of the day. “Infrastructure lags behind, there are hardly any industries here,” says young Parth Chaturvedi, who's now into the family venture too, pointing to a lone HUL factory in the distance. The villages around Etah depend mostly on farming to earn their daily living.

It was the lack of employment opportunities here that led his great-grandfather Rohan Lal to found Sarvoday Ashram in 1951, at the instigation of Acharya Vinoba Bhave, to create jobs for the rural people.

For a good four decades the non-profit organisation, which had trustees such as Lal Bahadur Shastri and Acharya Kripalani, ran like a typical NGO, content with the institutional and rural sales that khadi enjoyed, and not doing much marketing. “Institutions like the Railways, the Army had to typically give first preference to khadi to source orders for their dusters, towels and so on,” says Manoj Chaturvedi.

But around ten years ago, Chaturvedi decided to change all that, when he set up Khadi Line in Lajpat Nagar. It was successful and gradually they scaled up to two stores. But it's now, with his children guiding him, that he has really set in motion the ambitious scaling up and retail expansion plan, talking of 25 stores soon (we have signed up two as we speak – in Chandigarh and Pune, he says). From Rs 12.5 crore clocked in 2010-11, he is looking to double the turnover by next year.

And, while at the front end, more retail stores get added, at the back end in Etah, more women are being encouraged to join the fold. Innovations such as solar charkhas are being tested at the ashram.

Today there are 3,250 spinners, all women, who are affiliated to Sarvoday, which claims to be the largest single khadi manufacturer in the country, ahead of Gujarat's Saurashtra Rachnatmak Samiti at Rajkot.

But only a few hundred are spinning at the sprawling 140-acre Ashram premise. As Chaturvedi points out, in backward Uttar Pradesh, getting women to step out of their hearth and home to go out to work is a difficult proposition. Around 13 years ago, he describes how he ambitiously set up a 1.2 lakh sq. ft. of working sheds for the local village women to come in and weave in peace. But very few came in.

That's when he decided to give the women charkhas at their home, and set up collection centres in their villages where they could hand in the finished fabric and collect the raw cotton.

At the Ekmatra showrooms he also tries to communicate the story of how these pieces of cloth get created. “The living psyche in these villages is that the mother-in-law sits on the charkha for a bit, then the daughter- in-law takes over and when she gets up to do her chores, her teenage daughter starts spinning. The velocity of spinning is different in each case, and that shows in the fabric,” he describes, showing you the stubs and knots in a fabric. “These are not defects, but an inherent beauty of the creation process,” he says.

For those women who have completed 10 years of weaving with the Ashram, Chaturvedi has built a working shed in their own homes. Gradually, everybody will get one, he promises. It seems to be quite a looked-forward-to incentive, though the women don't seem to understand the “dynamics behind the rewards”. At Rarpatti village, where we visit, the women folk set up a clamour – “I didn't have a BPL card, is this why I didn't get a shed?”

Here, also as you hear first-hand how much some of the women depend on the charkha for their existence – there's widow Satyavati for instance, who says she supports her two children - you realise that Gandhiji's freedom fabric is still spinning incomes for the rural poor.

(This article was published on February 29, 2012)
XThese are links to The Hindu Business Line suggested by Outbrain, which may or may not be relevant to the other content on this page. You can read Outbrain's privacy and cookie policy here.