July 27, 2020
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A Handspun Headiness

Fathered by Gandhi, a potent symbol of the freedom struggle gets renewed life

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A Handspun Headiness
Courtesy: Roli Books (From Outlook, September 12, 2011)
A Handspun Headiness

Hats off to the old man. Nearly a century after Gandhi came up with his unique white topi, it has been snatched up from the dustbin of history by a new generation of Indians, clueless about its origins but eager to restore this humble weapon of sedition to its former crowning glory.

In 1919, when Gandhi sat down to design a national headpiece, he had several factors to consider: how to fashion a cap that was not only light, elegant, portable and affordable but could also replace the colourful medley of turbans and caps as India’s first national headgear. Getting people to wear an accessory for their heads was not the problem—“It’s a hot country, and therefore, our heads need to be kept covered,” as he explained later to his friend, Kakasahib. The problem was finding a cap that fits all, in a country where men’s turbans and caps were walking advertisements of their social standing—a proud, colourful symbol of their religious, class and even regional identity.

For starters, Gandhi knew what he did not want. The turban, he told Kakasahib, was ruled out: “It takes up too much cloth.” So was the pagdi. “A dirty thing,” the finicky leader called it, “goes on absorbing perspiration, but does not show it; and so seldom gets washed.” The more common caps were no better—the Gujarati conical cap was “hideous”; the Maharashtrian Hungarian-style ones were made of felt; and the UP and Bihari caps were too “thin and useless” and “not even becoming”.

The nation baulked at the uniformity Gandhi imposed, but adopted the khadi topi once the British clamped down.

In fact, of all the headgear that crowned Indian heads at the time, it was the sola topi that he found to be the most practical. Made of pith, he thought it “delightfully light and cool and airy”. Besides, it offered “perfect protection for the head, eyes and back of the neck from the burning sun”. But there was a problem: the sola topi, in people’s minds, was associated with the British and “people these days dislike anything that has a European flavour”. He had learnt this from past experience. Two years before he sat down to invent a national headdress, Gandhi had flaunted a sola topi while recruiting Indians for the British war effort. But seeing that symbol of British imperialism on Gandhi’s head proved too much for his followers. They protested.

With some reluctance, Gandhi settled on his second choice: the Kashmiri cap. It certainly measured up to his exacting standards: “It is light as well as elegant; it is easy to make; it can be folded, which makes it easily portable. One can put it in one’s pocket, or pack it comfortably in one’s trunk.” But this too was not perfect—it was made of wool. Why not, Gandhi began to muse, switch to cotton cloth instead?

A sea of Anna topis at India Gate (2011). (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

Having chosen the form, Gandhi then put his mind to work on the colour. Always exacting when it came to matters of taste, Gandhi decided it had to be white. “White shows up dirt and grease, so white caps would have to be frequently washed (a great recommendation!). Also, white cloth is easily washable. The cap, being of the folding sort, would be quite easy to press after washing and iron out into a fresh, clean, smooth white cap! What could be better or more becoming?” he exulted.

Once he was done designing it, Gandhi wasted no time in promoting his cap. Besides wearing it himself, he began campaigning for others to adopt it too: “The khadi cap can be used by all, the rich and poor...the idea that all should have the same kind of cap on their heads is well worth considering.”

At first, the nation baulked at the visual uniformity he was demanding of them. People looked for ways out. In Bombay, for instance, vendors began selling coloured imitations of Gandhi’s cap. But Gandhi would have none of that. “A swadeshi cap should be one that can be identified even by children,” he insisted.

His bemused followers, torn between acute fear of his moral disapproval and an equally acute chagrin at the spectacle that they made of themselves, finally succumbed. Within a year, the Gandhi cap was not only an obligatory vestment of the Congress uniform, but was being sold at street corners during all major political meetings. Those who refused to comply were faced with the Mahatma’s censure, more terrifying than any leader’s wrath. An incident in April 1925 evidences this. En route to Calcutta, Gandhi was met, as usual, by huge crowds wherever his train stopped. At Nagpur station, when he saw the crowd wearing “provoking black foreign caps on almost every head”, he demanded they remove their caps. A hundred people threw them off, but four refused to do so, resulting in violence from his supporters.

But it was not until the British stepped in that sales of khadi caps started to really take off. Always suspicious of Gandhi’s experiments, the British regime clamped down on the Gandhi topiwallahs, dismissing them from government jobs, banning them in courts and public places, imposing fines and occasionally beating them up. Gandhi at once seized upon this opportunity to turn his cap into a political symbol. He began urging his countrymen to “be prepared to die for the khadi cap, which is fast becoming a visible mark of swadeshi and swaraj”.

In newly independent India, the Gandhi cap took on a new avatar: only politicians considered it part of their uniform. Others were only too glad to throw off a cap that they had always considered hideous, though few dared to say so. The writer Nirad Chaudhury, never one to shroud his feelings, was scathing: “It seems monstrous that the hideous cap should have been allowed to supplant one of the most beautiful articles of Hindu clothing—the turban.”

The maharajah of Jaipur seems to have felt the same. At the reception he held for Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1961, he forbade guests from wearing the Gandhi cap; they were made to wear the Rajput turban instead.

Krishna Kumari and Kamala Nehru wear the Gandhi topi—considered male attire. Courtesy: Rroli Books (From Outlook, September 12, 2011)

Nehru made a valiant attempt to keep the Gandhi cap in fashion, sporting it everywhere, even at receptions aboard, adding a certain rakish charm to the humble cap. But it was to no avail: the cap died unsung soon after Nehru and his generation of freedom fighters passed away. By the time his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, had ascended to power, it had become little more than a token gesture, at best a passing salute to a political tradition that no longer existed.

Interestingly, even after the extinction of its political tradition, the cap continued to live on—on the pates of poor peasants and, more famously, on the heads of Bombay’s dabbawallahs. The younger generation preferred the American-style baseball caps for protection from the sun, but for their fathers, the caps were not simply a reminder of Gandhi. They were also cheap, easily available and convenient. It is these villagers who seem to have inspired Anna’s change of attire when he cast off his soldier’s uniform and became aam aadmi. Just as he is now the inspiration for a new millennial makeover of the Gandhi cap.

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