A little bit of Gandhiji in Mexico
In one of his monthly radio addresses to the nation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi applauded the work of the indigenous Zapotec community of Mexico, which is propagating khadi, an indigenous textile of India and the symbol of Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom struggle. Mark Brown, the man behind the revival of the fabric in this North American country, recounts his journey and what inspired him to carry forward the Mahatma’s philosophies of self-reliance
Ever since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, he has been at the forefront of promoting khadi. This handspun fabric is synonymous with Mahatma Gandhi, who resuscitated it as a symbol of nationalism, self-reliance and equality. Almost a century after Gandhiji’s original Khadi Movement helped make Indians self-reliant during the independence struggle, the movement is having a revival among the indigenous Zapotec communities of Mexico. This little-known fact would have remained a secret had not PM Modi highlighted it in his monthly radio address to the nation Mann ki Baat in November 2020. He spoke highly of the wonderful work the Khadi Oaxaca project is doing in Mexico and the man behind it all – Mark Brown. In an exclusive article, Mark Brown pens his thoughts about how this hand-spun fabric has re-established a farm-to-garment ethic that restores dignity to its producers.
The story begins with me, a young, professional magician from Mexico City who originally travelled to the traditional indigenous Zapotec village of San Sebastian Rio Hondo in the state of Oaxaca, southern Mexico. It was 1974 and I was 14 years old at the time. In San Sebastian Rio Hondo, there were no roads, electricity, schools or modern conveniences. I saw how a self-reliant village outside of the modern industrial complex thrived. This experience changed my world view; I realised that a life in harmony and sustainable with nature was possible. It was a whole new form of education. Several years later, I travelled to India in search of perennial philosophy and spirituality. There I studied traditional yoga and Vedanta (a Hindu philosophy based on the doctrine of the Upanishads, especially in its monistic form). My life changed in 1984, when I saw the movie Gandhi (1982). I was so touched by Mahatma Gandhi’s life and philosophies that I travelled to Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat, where I met Dilkhush Divanji, a humble, wise and impactful Gandhian activist. Living, studying and travelling with Dilkhush bhai (a colloquial term for brother) throughout the state, I discovered how Gandhian economics worked in supporting a healthy village life. I learned to spin and weave my own clothes and at the same time came to understand the philosophy behind it. I became a spokesman for truth and non violence, a view that if truly applied today would change the world as we know it.
Sometime in the 1990s, I returned to Oaxaca and brought a charkha (spinning wheel) designed by Gandhiji. I began teaching local residents how to spin cotton with this wooden spinning wheel. There was an ancient tradition in the village of spinning and weaving wool, so learning to operate the charkha was easy for the villagers. With a passion and love for the khadi philosophy and way of life, I teamed up with local families along with my wife, Kalindi Attar. Together we began the journey with the sustainable cultivation of a native and nearly-abandoned pre-hispanic Mexican cotton seed, coyuchi cotton. We restored ancient practices for every step of the process: from spinning, weaving, dying with local natural dyes to designing, making the garments by hand and finding markets that understand the true cost of handmade clothing.
Today, there are over 400 artisans in and around San Sebastian Rio Hondo working with Khadi Oaxaca, our project, and a staff of nine people managing the programme locally. Under this project, weavers create beautiful garments, home décor objects like covers for pillows and cushions, and fabric bundles. The Khadi Oaxaca project addresses some of the most relevant demands of the current generation, including “fast fashion” and the devastating impacts it has on its workers and the planet; migration; indigenous self-determination; and the scars of colonialism and neoliberalism on the social fabric of Latin America. Mahatma Gandhi was an enlightened visionary for all times. It is clear we must return to one of the main sources and roots of our painful problems today, the disregard of Mother Earth. We cannot be violent towards her without being violent to our future generations. We must return to care for our planet as we do for our children. Khadi shows us a way forward to a way of life that has a future for our villages and generations to come. It speaks of living within our means. Let us honor our ancestors by using what is true and good, that which supports beauty and a wholesome, sustainable way of life. We can make the change together.