In Manoharpur, Cumilla city, you ask anyone where Khadi Ghor is and they will give you the direction. After all, the shop has been in establishment since 1948 and is one of the few places where you may find pure khadi.
The current owner, Kanti Raha's father Taroni Mohon Raha, was a citizen of undivided India. He chose to settle in Pakistan because "Where would I go, leaving my own country?" as his son recalled.
With 70 silver coins given to him by his wife, Kanti Raha's mother, Taroni Raha started Khadi Ghor. "Back then, khadi was labelled a 'Congressi' dress, it was mostly worn by Congress party men in the form of 'tupees.' Gandhi himself wore khadi dhotis," Kanti shared with us.
He added, "After the Liberation War, we also had a sort of awakening in our country and inclined towards khadi outfits. A new demand for khadi began to grow."
When Kanti took over the business as a fresh graduate of Chittagong University, he diversified the product range and went on to make bed sheets, curtains, shirts, sharees, panjabis, etc with khadi. His top-selling items included a 'Rajesh Khanna' panjabi and a 'Bichchoo' silk sharee.
"Rajesh Khanna was a hit celebrity and his panjabi style was admired by a lot. I thought why not make something after his name, targeting his fans?" he said.
The Bichchoo khadi silk sharee was also named after our freedom fighters of 1971 who were lovingly called 'bichchoo' (deadly scorpion). "I 'threw' a new kind of sharee at the customers like a bichchoo so they became intrigued, and they did!" he said jokingly.
At present, Kanti Raha is one of the top suppliers of pure khadi; most fashion houses source the fabric from him. His factory in Cumilla's Chandina has 180 spinners. Cotton is brought all the way from Kushtia, processed in Cumilla and then distributed to the spinners. Then it is handed over to weavers who work on it based on designs.
A handful of people like Kanti Raha are trying to keep pure khadi production alive, simply out of love for this traditional fabric. "Why should we import something which is our very own? I always wanted to clear the general misconception that local fabrics are bad," he said.
The Business Standard also reached out to researchers, fashion designers along with weavers and spinners of khadi to get a better understanding of the current state of khadi in Bangladesh.
Many of them agreed that proper initiative and necessary financial facilities should be given for the revival of the khadi sector, the same way as it is being done for muslin.
The historical background
A thick fabric with an uneven texture, slightly coarse to the touch – that is how khadi or khoddor is known to us. But this plain-looking fabric, synonymous with our culture, has a rich political history.
The British government was on the verge of destroying khadi – as they did with muslin. They tried to lure consumers by saying machine-made clothes were finer and better looking. Mill-made threads and clothes flooded the local markets.
But Mahatma Gandhi's swadeshi movement breathed life into Khadi. Through khadi, he ignited nationalism in people's hearts by asking them to embrace homegrown products and boycott foreign ones.
However, this does not mean before the movement, khadi did not exist in our lives. Hand-spun and hand-woven in a khad or gorto (hole dug in the ground) taant, wraps or shawls made from this material were always popular during winter months.
Over time, the demand for khadi declined as the powerloom and imported products became more popular. Weavers and spinners also began to lose income and many changed their professions.
Interestingly, because a niche group of people liked khadi's uneven texture, some sellers began to imitate it on machines and call these fabrics 'khadi'.
What we see these days in shops in Islampur or New Market as khadi are mostly these machine-made clothes and a far cry from the original hand-woven version. Pure khadi is rare in our country and only available in Cumilla and the Gandhi Ashram
Trust in Noakhali. Unknown to many of us, khadi can be cotton, silk or even a mixed version.
Writer and researcher Shaon Akhond said, "Following Gandhi's swadeshi movement, many cloth mills such as Dhakeshwari Cotton Mill, Chittaranjan Cotton mill, Mohini Mill in Kushtia, etc were established," adding, "the irony was, these mills had adapted the machine technology from Europe; they were not making the clothes by hand."
He mentioned Dr Akhter Hameed Khan (who established BARD, Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development), Shoilen Guha and his son Arun Guha (who owned a khadi business) as some of the key people who played significant roles in reviving and sustaining khadi production in Bangladesh.
"The swadeshi movement was powerful indeed, but ultimately the capitalists reaped its benefits. The current market for handicrafts is a niche one where khadi has become a luxury product, thanks to the elites, who always run after something new and exciting," Shaon Akhond opined.
Khadi versus muslin and why it is only found in Cumilla
We asked Kanti Raha, if handspun and handwoven are criteria for a fabric to be called khadi, would that make muslin a type of khadi as well?
"Not quite. Khadi and muslin are made in different ways, using different techniques. As you know, muslin was made in the early morning, before sunrise. Also, the thread counts for the two materials are different with khadi having a much lower count (usually no more than 10) than muslin," he replied.
Technically, thread count is the number of threads woven together in a square inch. It consists of the vertical threads (the warp) and the horizontal threads (the weft) woven together. For years, it has been an incredibly popular way to determine the quality of fabrics.
Although khadi was produced in other parts of the country, Cumilla became a selected spot for khadi production because it was home to a large community of Jugi or Debnath community who were khadi weavers.
Spinners and weavers
Beauty Begum in Sonapur, Cumilla has worked as a spinner or katuni for almost 18 years. She works at home during the day, spinning the yarns for khadi.
She learned spinning from her mother-in-law and now works along with other family members. In her village, there are around 60 female spinners.
She said, "We get paid by kilos. If I work for an entire day, I can spin one kilo of yarn but it is usually really tough to do."
Khitish Debnath from Chandina has been a weaver for over 35 years. His grandfather and father were khadi weavers and now, his daughter and grandchildren are also working in the same trade.
He works from 6am to 9pm every day and earns around Tk400. He told us, "A yard of thick khadi sells for about Tk150 whereas the thinner khadi sells for Tk200."
When we asked him about work, he curtly replied, "Powerloom has ruined everything for us. What I earn is not enough for my family, but what can we do?"
Popularising khadi from household items to fashionwear
In 1972, authorities from the newly formed Bangladesh Military Academy (BMA) requested Kanti Raha to make khadi bed covers for their cadets.
The covers had red and green borders with the letters 'BMA' embroidered on them. BMA also asked him to make curtains for them.
"When it comes to fashion, people look at the design and not the material. After making curtains, I began to make dining table covers, napkins, tea cosy, etc. I did not want to make only khoddor lungi or shirts so I made sharees, salwar-kamiz and fatua," he said.
Renowned fashion houses in Bangladesh such as Aarong, Aranya, Nipun, Prabartana and Kay Kraft have been working with khadi for years. Our designers, especially those who promote local fabrics and sustainable fashion, always mention khadi cotton and khadi silk as some of the finest materials to work on.
Fashion designer Emdad Haque said, "Khadi became a popular choice in our country's fashion world from the early 1980s. Eid magazines and fashion shows began to display outfits made from khadi. But now, the situation is rather disappointing as fake khadi has flooded our markets."
He believes that unless spinners are brought under a common platform, it will be difficult to keep kadi production alive. "The quality of khadi depends on the spinners, so it is important to ensure they are well-trained and motivated to keep on working," he added.
The Fashion Design Council of Bangladesh (FDCB) has been organising khadi fashion shows for the last four years to create more awareness about this beautiful fabric.
FDCB General Secretary Shaibal Saha said, "The market for pure khadi has a low demand, the supply of cotton yarn is also low. We need to have strong R&D in our khadi sector to increase its production, the private sector alone cannot do much."
Praising khadi, he said, "Khadi is a versatile fabric, it can be turned into anything really. At the latest khadi show arranged by FDCB, I showcased suits made from khadi."
He added that FDCB has been requesting for a 'Khadi Day,' which they think would help people know more about this almost forgotten fabric.
The future of khadi
Now in his 70s, Kanti Raha is as active as he was during the early days of Khadi Ghor.
He is aware of the ongoing global trend for everything organic. "Organic cloth without chemicals is the new big thing, and I know how to create a demand in the market. This is why I never lose hope. Khadi existed, it exists and it will continue to exist," he said.
On this, he shared with us that he has been having discussions with BSTI in Cumilla to get a quality certification for khadi so consumers know the difference between real and fake khadi.
On increasing khadi production, he believes, if graduates of textile engineering, chemical engineering and so on join the khadi sector, the situation would definitely improve.
"It is no longer feasible to use the traditional taants, the ones that made a 'thoka-thoki' noise while using. For higher production, we need technological improvement and more involvement of experts," he stated.