Khadi is a gift to us from our ancestors, with roots in the independence movement against British rule. Time has squeezed out the essence of handwoven cloth to the point that it is now but a souvenir for today's generations, in Bangladesh – once part of undivided India.
A handful of weavers and businessmen in Cumilla still hold on to that legacy. All in their late sixties, khadi reminds them of their youth when their ancestors passed their knowledge onto them.
There is still hope in their eyes, and their tales, that khadi will make a comeback if the government supports them.
Walking through the Chandina and Debidwar villages – well-known for their khadi – one notices the silence that has replaced the lulling sound of handlooms. The community of khadi artisans were once clustered here.
In one of the houses, Chintaharan Debnath was seen weaving khadi cloth in a dimming light, one mid-January afternoon. He said he spent his free time weaving because he was unable to do any other work that demands hard labour at the age of 63.
There was a time when Chintaharan was recognized for making khadi, but now he – and some 25-30 other elderly artisans – weave solely as a hobby.
The younger generations are reluctant to learn the trade from them – primarily because of the low income the profession yields – thus, the industry is gradually disappearing.
The oldest form of khadi is made using solely manual processes. Local artisans make thread from cotton with the help of a simple, wooden spinning wheel. That yarn is rolled on a handloom to make cloth.
Struck by the competitive edge of finer products that technology offered at the time, weavers in Cumilla strove to bring about changes to khadi's appearance. They wove handspun thread – with yarn produced at mills – into a lighter product and introduced block prints, handiwork and other designs.
The efforts revived khadi's popularity.
Then, a massive expansion of the garment industry, and imports of foreign goods, impeded the sustainability of khadi – which could exist as more than a cottage industry.
"Government officials have met several times to discuss how to restore khadi production, but the discussions have never transformed into action, said Pradip Kumar Raha, proprietor of Khadi Ghar in Cumilla town.
"If the situation is to change to preserve khadi, local artisans should be engaged in initiatives, if there are any," he added.
Mahatma Gandhi's khadi movement, early in the last century – rejecting foreign, especially British, cloth and clothing – spurred weavers across India to produce handwoven cloth.
Raw materials, at that time, were exported to England; while finished clothes made from them were imported back to India. The movement was formed to end the local dependency on foreign materials – to significantly impact British clothing businesses.
Thus, khadi became a tool used against colonial rule.
In Bengal, Cumilla, Feni and Noakhali had a large community of weavers who joined the protest in solidarity. Cumilla itself had 6,000-7,000 weavers, several artisans told The Business Standard recently, recounting what their forefathers had shared with them about khadi.
"The 1947 partition – that birthed Pakistan from India, based on religion – decreased the popularity of khadi in Pakistan because it was seen as emblematic of the ideology of Congress that had led the non-cooperation movement," said Pradip who took over his father's khadi business in 1972.
Moreover, many weavers crossed the border into India after the partition.
Khadi in Cumilla
Pradip's father, Tarani Mohon Raha, however, returned to Cumilla where he had spent most of his childhood. He started a khadi business there, in 1948, when the cloth's popularity was already in decline.
Winter shawls were the only item in demand then, as other items were labelled outmoded. Tarani and a few others saw this as a business opportunity.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's historic 7th March speech refueled the momentum to produce khadi, Tarani said, when Bangalees from East Pakistan shunned the use of goods from West Pakistan.
The sudden wave of demand persisted in Bangladesh for many years after the country's independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Pradip recalled two army officers from the newly-established Bangladesh Military Academy in Cumilla, who approached him to get bed covers, curtains and other products to be used at the academy.
A fresh graduate in mathematics from Chittagong University, Pradip saw it as a challenge to turn the business around.
"My father's business was nothing but an empty shop at the time. All else had been looted…The encouragement from the army personnel was a turning point," said Pradip.
Khadi production soon rose in Cumilla in the war-ravaged country; government officials wore khadi jubba and distributed winter clothes made of the fabric among the destitute.
However, demand for the local textile fell sharply in the 80s with the inception of the garment industry and was relegated to the bottom as clothing markets flooded with imported fabrics.
Additionally, local cotton ended up in yarn manufacturing mills.
The fight of a few weavers with the industrial giant was due to fail. To absorb the economic shock, many of them changed profession.
About 30 weavers now make khadi – primarily because they are in their twilight years and khadi reminds them of their achievements.
One of them, Chintaharan, beamed with pride in the orange rays of the setting sun, on January 12, when he described how he had won a design competition at a fair.
Pradip, known as one of the oldest khadi businessmen in Cumilla, said khadi could still be a product of interest.
Buyers from foreign markets – like Italy, Spain, Portugal, Australia, and the US – have expressed their interest in khadi as an organic cloth. Small shipments have already been sent to them.
Recently, clients from Japan and Germany requested sample items from Pradip.
"They want pure khadi," he said.
If new demand arises, it seems unlikely that existing weavers will be able to cater to them.
Pradip is optimistic. He said he would try to mobilize resources and manpower to the best of his ability to initiate change.
"If I can get handlooms rolling and become successful in terms of business, others will definitely follow suit."