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Khadi and its Discontents

V. Geetha

By Rahul Ramagundam
Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2008, pp. 298, price not stated.


Rahul Ramagundam’s Gandhi’s Khadi: A History of Contention and Conciliation offers a political and at times literary gloss on the semantics of khadi or khaddar, drawing on the myriad meanings that Gandhiji and those who took to its cause invested in it. Its tone is urgent, for it takes a critical mirror to our own consumption-driven present and Gandhi’s khadi, as cloth, poetry, ethical measure and political symbol is drawn into this enterprise. In this sense, the book looks to intervene rather decisively in contemporary debates about human need, waste, production and consumption.   Comprising nine chapters, each of which frames the khadi question in particular ways, the book takes the reader through the early days of experimenting with cotton and yarn, spinning and weaving, records its constitutively unstable political fortunes and marks the ways in which Gandhi sustained his faith in spinning.   Through this effort, Ramagundam succeeds in reading Gandhi’s politics in its entirety as constructive work, and suggests that the Mahatma’s responses to political nationalism were at best equivocal. Constructive work, on the other hand, he argues, exacted from Gandhi rich and provocative ideas, which were articulated and addressed to all those he desired to convert to his cause. Seeking as he did to affect a change of heart as well as demonstrate in public what that change required and entailed, Gandhi sought to embody and enact a life bound to constructive work. In his performance of such a life, Gandhi resorted to deploying the charkha and khadi, as freedom’s own weapons, endowing both with every kind of political, spiritual and moral worth.   Besides, there was great symbolism in cloth, intimately bound as the latter was to colonial entry, trade and rule. That symbolism was perfected by Gandhi, not merely through words, but, as Ramagundam shows, through a complex practice that was at once ritual, labour and sacrifice. The spinner as labourer, more often than not a woman, was the quintessential poor Indian, who stood to earn a honest living by the charkha; the ashram spinner who worked at the charkha represented another sort of Indian, given to sacrifice and service, while the political worker who took to spinning or did not mind wearing khadi, the ‘livery of freedom’, embodied in his person and attire that spirit of self-sufficiency, both of which disregarded the logic of colonial trade and profit as well as ...

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