The most iconic image of Mohandas Gandhi shows him bare-chested, clad in a loincloth, and reading a newspaper while seated next to a spinning wheel or charkha. That picture, taken by legendary American photographer Margaret Bourke-White, was shot for the now defunct Time Life Magazine. It was taken in 1946, when Bourke-White arrived in Poona (now Pune), where Gandhi had been imprisoned by the British. Gandhi had taken up spinning to inspire fellow Indians to boycott British goods and buy local produce, including homespun cotton. The photograph went on to become an indelible image, the slain civil disobedience crusader with his most potent weapon.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had called Gandhi a “half-naked fakir”. He had disparagingly remarked: “Ít is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir… striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace… to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor.” The statement was made in 1931, a decade after Gandhi discarded stitched clothes for the loincloth (dhoti) and shawls he sometimes spun himself. It was the year he was invited for tea with Queen Mary and King George V at Buckingham Palace during a visit to London. Dressed in his customary dhoti, a loincloth loosely draped over his naked torso and wearing homemade sandals, he must have been the oddest looking visitor to Buckingham Palace. When the meeting was over, he was walking out of the palace gates when a journalist asked if he thought he was wearing enough. Gandhi’s reply: “But the King was wearing enough for the both of us.”

Gandhi’s spinning wheel had a dual purpose. The homespun cotton was a means for him to identify himself with the poor masses, which he turned into a touchstone of the campaign for independence, encouraging his countrymen to make their own cloth instead of buying British goods. Indeed, spinning was so closely connected with Gandhi’s identity that his secretary, Pyarelal Nayyar, told Bourke-White she had to learn the craft before photographing the Mahatma (great soul).

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once called Mahatma Gandhi a “half-naked fakir”. Photo credit: Cecil Beaton/Wikimedia Commons

His weapons: Charkha and khadi

It was classic Gandhi, the master tactician and his use of the weapon of non-violence. For him, both the means and the end had to be equally impactful. He targeted the British where it would hurt the most – their sources of income from India. He had been opposed to the import of textile and clothing that enriched the mill owners of Manchester and filled the coffers of the British government. To counter that, he introduced and advocated khadi, a homespun fabric he promoted vigorously. He would sit and start spinning khadi on his charkha during public meetings. Alongside his public speeches, he made an effort to persuade friends and followers, rich and poor, women and men, to produce and wear handspun khadi. He chose the traditional loincloth, worn by India’s poor, as a rejection of Western culture and a symbolic identification with the disadvantaged of India. It became a powerful political gesture in that he was urging his countrymen to restore pride in their traditional, pre-colonial culture.

His commitment to traditional cloth-making was part of the larger Swadeshi movement, which called for the boycott of all British goods. It was not easy convincing India’s privileged classes, who had taken to British ways and dress, that wearing khadi and homespun clothes was a potent tool of passive resistance to drive out the British from India. Khadi was a coarse fabric and not many people were willing to learn the art of spinning. Gandhi, however, remained adamant, even obsessive. He once told his wife Kasturba, who had complained about doing daily household chores wearing heavy khadi, that he would not eat food cooked by her unless she wore a khadi sari.

It would become a magnificent obsession. In Bombay (now Mumbai) and elsewhere, the sight of Westernised families lining up to consign their Savile Row suits and imported chiffons to the flames of a public bonfire became increasingly common. It became a national pride. He personally lit one of the largest bonfires ever seen, in a mill compound in Bombay on the eve of the visit of the Prince of Wales to the city.

Not all prominent Indians joined in the “bonfire of the vanities”. He was bitterly criticised by many of his close friends and followers, including Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who felt it was a sin to burn clothes in a country where millions could barely afford to cover themselves. Gandhi’s rejoinder to all the criticism was, “In burning my foreign clothes I burn my shame.”

The transformation

Gandhi’s spinning wheel theory had emerged while travelling third class on train journeys to discover the real India. This was shortly after his return from South Africa, where his civil disobedience movement, or Satyagraha, had been effectively launched and attracted the attention of the world. During his rediscovery of India, he noticed that common folk, especially in South India, wore minimal clothing as a way of dealing with poverty and extreme climate. Moved by their “hunger and nakedness”, Gandhi realised that to lead the masses he had to share their suffering and become one with them.

It was to prove the axle around which his entire political life and leadership role in India would evolve. Typically, Gandhi never undertook a major change in course without a period of experimentation and soul-searching. As he once said, “All the alterations I have made in my course of life have been affected by momentous occasions; and they have been made after such a deep deliberation that I have hardly had to regret them.” Shedding his traditional European-style clothes for a loincloth would be a drastic change of image, and he consulted many friends and political colleagues before making the move. Weeks before the September 1921 deadline he had set for himself, Gandhi had become unusually vocal about clothing. In a speech in Madras (now Chennai), he declared: “Let there be no prudery about dress. India has never insisted on full covering of the body for the males as a test of culture.” In his book Seven Months with Mahatma, Krishnadas, Gandhi’s assistant of the time, wrote that on September 22, 1921, Gandhi got up at 3 am and gave this matter the deepest thought. Gandhi was then in Madurai, in South India, staying with a follower. The thoughts crystallised into action, one that would change his image forever and, indirectly, hasten the departure of the British from India.

Early that morning, a barber was summoned to 251-A West Masi Street and taken to the first floor. His instructions: to shave Gandhi’s head. The news spread like wildfire. The town of Madurai was electrified with rumour and speculation. The most prominent of these was that Gandhi had turned ascetic and would retire to the Himalayas. Crowds started to gather around the house where he was staying. As the Mahatma emerged and walked towards the convoy of cars waiting to drive him and his group to the next destination, the sight of his tonsured head silenced the milling throngs. Most people had tears in their eyes, so complete and dramatic was the transformation. In South Africa, Gandhi wore three piece suits. In London, at Lincoln’s Inn, he was an immaculately dressed lawyer. On his return to India, he had adopted his native Gujarati dress complete with oversised headgear. To see him with head shaven in a loincloth above the knees and bare-chested was the boldest personal statement Gandhi could have made. He had announced that his experiment would last till October 31. On that day, Gandhi took a vow to wear only a loincloth for the rest of his life and to support the promotion of khadi. He started by spinning for half an hour every day before lunch. If he forgot or could not spin for some reason, he would forego his meal.

Mahatma Gandhi wore three-piece suits during his time abroad and adopted traditional Gujarati attire on his return to India. But in September 1921, he discarded stitched clothing forever. Photo credit: National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi.

‘Mahatma has gone mad’

His dramatic change of attire and appearance shocked many of his friends and followers. Some even went so far as to label him a lunatic. Abbas Tyabji , his friend, said sarcastically: “Not only has Mahatma gone mad, he will make us mad too.” Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, a prominent leader of the Congress Party, got so emotional at the sight of the new-look Gandhi that he declared, “Why brother should you thus dress yourself? Is it right?” C Rajagopalachari, another Congress leader and close friend, voiced strong objection to the ascetic look and tried to dissuade Gandhi but the Mahatma, as he was being increasingly referred to, had clearly made up his mind. He issued a public statement that was sent out to the national media and to the Associated Press, which would relay the news to a global audience where news about Gandhi regularly appeared on the front pages. His “nakedness had become a badge of honour”, wrote his biographer Robert Payne.

During one of my research visits to Windsor Castle, I chanced upon a shawl Gandhi had personally woven as a gift for Queen Elizabeth (then princess) on her wedding. On further search, I came across an interesting piece of writing by Pamela Hicks, daughter of Lord Mountbatten (the last governor general of India). Hicks wrote in The Telegraph:

“Before we left for the wedding, my parents saw Mahatma Gandhi… and he told my father, ‘I wanted to give princess Elizabeth a present but I have given all my possessions away.’ My father however, knew he still had his spinning wheel and he told Gandhi, ‘If a cloth could be made from the yarn you have spun, that would be like receiving the Crown Jewels.’ And so this was done and we took this present to Britain for the wedding, but Queen Mary [the present queen’s grandmother] wrongly thought it was a loincloth and that it was a most ‘indelicate’ gift.”

Gandhi’s spinning wheel and half-nakedness remained an enigma between him and the empire.

Pramod Kapoor is the founder of Roli Books.