Monday, July 21, 2008

Backward Into the Future: Spinning Khadi for the 21st Century

Friday, July 17. Yesterday it was politics and manure, today it was spinning and textiles. Our speaker for today, Rta Kapur Chisti, is the founder of Ananda Delhi Textile, an organization devoted to the marriage of organic cotton farming and hand spinning in the production of khadi, the Indian textile championed by Gandhi. Gandhi’s vision of “swaraj” or self-rule was centered in part on the rejuvenation of the village organized around the spinning of cotton, which also had the political goal of freeing India from its artificially created dependence on British textiles produced in Manchester. Chisti is hard at work reinventing Gandhi’s kadhi revolution in the 21st century as part of her commitment to what she characterized as “alternative culture,” a movement aimed at developing a positive response to contemporary material culture fueled by globalization. I think of her work as analogous to the slow food movement. This is slow textile in the classic sense of “slow” as a response to the quick mass production of goods under globalization. Her organic cotton, grown here at Navdanya, the spinning done in villages throughout India she coordinates, and the careful vegetable based dying processes her workers use, are wonderful examples of the world-wide return to local products produced by local artisans that is the hallmark of the slow food or slow culture movement.

Chisti’s overview of the production process her organization facilitates was detailed and fascinating, but I was also quite taken with the comments she made about how she came to the work she’s doing and, especially, her attitude toward Gandhi. Like many of our speakers, Chisti grew up as an activist but became disenchanted with what she came to believe was the level of dishonesty in contemporary politics (on both the left and the right). A political science major, she also studied theater. Later, she began to write a column for the Economic Times that profiled craftsman. Through this work she was asked to do a series of profiles of spinners and weavers, turned that project into a book, and eventually became involved in the production of khadi. Her commitment to helping foster a business culture and artisanal practice that resists the practices of the dominant culture seemed rooted in her desire to spend less time writing and talking and more time taking some kind of action. Her metaphor was “getting off the bus.” If you’re dissatisfied with the status quo, how do you “get off the bus?” For her the key is to find something to do that will both make a contribution to social change and allow you to remain “true to yourself.” There are huge parts of the population of India and in countries throughout the world who have no choice. We’re privileged to have a choice about how to channel our energy and our productivity, and for her that choice was to get involved in rejuvenating a dying practice (much like Ganesh Devy has done with tribal languages at the Adivasi Academy, or Vandana Shiva is doing with her seed bank here at Navdanya). Her challenge to us as educators was to get our students to see that they’re privileged to be able to make a choice as well, to educate and energize them, and then to let them go and see what they will do.

About Gandhi she reflected an ambivalence characteristic of many of our speakers, insisting that you can’t “throw him out the window” but you can’t “live with him in the house” either. Her Gandhi was brilliant and comical, idiosyncratic and imaginative, a man who embraced contradiction and lived it. Chisti is much less interested in devotion to Gandhi as a historical figure or as someone whose principles and ideals must be applied in some kind of absolute way, than as someone whose imagination ought to be an inspiration for action in the present. This is a thread running through what for me are the most inspiring speakers we’ve heard, those like Ganesh Devi and Vandana Shiva who have found ways to construct institutions which draw on Gandhian principles to deal with contemporary problems. They have Gandhian imaginations in the sense they’re able to replace the spinning wheel with another object that has both real and symbolic value (tribal languages, indigenous seeds), or, in Chisti’s case, to re-imagine the function of the spinning wheel and the products it can produce for a new century. This is becoming, for me, the most impressive kind of Gandhism. It isn’t doctrinaire and rigid, it isn’t stuck in the past, it isn’t politically smug or self-righteous. This Gandhism emulates Gandhi by deploying his genius for invention and his ability to respond strategically and morally to contemporary problems in imaginative ways.

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