“It was extremely dangerous and abhorrent for a traitorous, Middle Temple lawyer like Mr. Gandhi to climb the steps of the Viceroy’s palace half-naked and speak eye-to-eye with the King’s representative.”
This statement of Churchill is etched in history. This was when Gandhi went to Buckingham Palace in 1931 at the invitation of King George V of Britain.
Gandhi then wore his short dhoti which the British called langot.
Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Gandhiji and who has written several books on him, believes that he used this short dhoti as a strategy against the British.
Tushar Gandhi says, “The British got into the habit that when an Indian leader came to meet them, he would come dressed in suit boots or in English style. Because of that, the British felt comfortable.“
“When Gandhi didn’t do that, he got upset that this man didn’t even try to look like us. The British were shocked to think that Gandhiji would go half-naked in front of our king in the Round Table Conference. Gandhi was playing a psychological game.“
Deciding to wear only a short dhoti
However, in the early pictures of Gandhiji you can see him in a suit and boots and later he is also seen in Kathiawadi attire from Gujarat.
The question is when and how did Gandhiji’s short dhoti and chadar, which later became his identity, come into existence. Because she became a symbol in the country and abroad.
This is from 1921 when Gandhiji was in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. By then Gandhiji had decided that he would wear only indigenous clothes. His call to burn foreign clothes became a movement.
During a train journey in Tamil Nadu, he was talking to ordinary railway passengers. It then occurred to him that many poor people could not burn their old clothes and buy new khadi clothes as they did not have money.
Gandhi writes about his train journey, “I saw in the crowded train that these people had nothing to do with the Swadeshi movement. They were wearing foreign clothes. When I spoke to them, many people said that it was not possible for them to buy expensive khadi. “
“I was wearing a cap, a full dhoti and a shirt. Then I thought how can I respond to this in such a way that, within the bounds of decency, I would leave my body clothes and make myself equal to these people. The very next day after the meeting in Madurai I Decided to implement it.”
Earlier Gandhi used to wear suit-boots
On September 22, 1921, Gandhi abandoned his old attire and adopted only a dhoti and a chadar.
Tushar Gandhi says that this change did not come suddenly.
He says, “When Gandhiji went to practice as a lawyer, he made suit-boots for himself. In his autobiography, he writes that at first he was very conscious about his clothes.”
“In England he started wearing fancy hats, bought a cob watch. When he came to South Africa he started to dress differently like lawyers there.”
“But from the time he started satyagraha on various issues in South Africa, Gandhi gradually changed and felt that the material needs of life should be reduced.”
Gandhi understood the importance of conveying a message through clothes.
“You can see a big change in him during the South African satyagraha,” says Tushar Gandhi.
“You will find that Gandhi was wearing a long kurta and a lungi. It was his way of supporting and paying tribute to the Indian Tamils who were killed in the satyagraha there.”
From Kathiawadi attire to Dhoti
Even after returning to India, Gandhi went through many phases of transformation, says Tushar Gandhi.
“When Gandhiji came to India, he wanted to project his image as an Indian, so in 1915 he started wearing the Kathiawadi dress – dhoti, kurta, gamcha and a special type of turban,” he says.
“When he traveled across India at the behest of Gokhale, he realized the state of India.”
“In Champaran he saw that the whole family had only half a cloth which they wore one after the other. When Gandhiji saw the variety of clothes on his body, he reduced his clothes.”
“They started wearing only kurtas and dhoti. From here we slowly start to see the difference in their dress. Which eventually turns into only half dhoti in Tamil Nadu.”
Urvish Kothari, a senior writer from Gujarat and a scholar of Gandhiji, says that Gandhiji’s decision to change his clothes was not out of any ‘sense of drama’.
According to Urvish Kothari, “Gandhi always thought calmly and implemented anything himself first. When the Swadeshi movement was going on, he announced on 22 September 1921 that he would wear only a small dhoti or lioncloth at least until 31 October. . He did so and the deadline after 31 October 1921 became indefinite.”
Urvish Kothari says, “The decision was a practical one. Gandhiji realized that in the Swadeshi movement he asked everyone to do Holi in foreign clothes but not all people had enough money to buy new khadi clothes.”
“That’s why Gandhiji wanted to convey the message that even a short dhoti is enough.”
The place in Madurai where he addressed the people in new clothes for the first time is called Gandhi Pottal. A statue of Gandhi is installed there.
Meeting the King of Britain in Dhoti
When Gandhiji went to London for the Round Table Conference in 1931 wearing a short dhoti, some newspapers there made fun of Gandhiji.
What did this change mean for Gandhiji? In his own words – “It was necessary for me to give up those clothes. This is a symbol of mourning. We are really mourning because the year is about to end and we still haven’t got Swaraj.”
Urvish Kothari thus explains the importance of this step taken by Gandhi in the midst of the ongoing battle against the British.
He says, “When Gandhiji changed his attire, it became his identity. Gandhiji’s message was that you should wear less clothes to cover your body, but whatever clothes you wear should be indigenous.”
“Gandhiji’s way of exposing the Swadeshi was effective. But with the passage of time, the symbolism also grew among the people that our leader is like us, he wears what we wear and there is no artificiality in him. This was just Gandhiji’s talent.”
Tushar Gandhi calls this decision Gandhiji’s masterstroke. According to Tushar Gandhi, “If you look, Gandhiji’s speech or manner of speaking was not that impressive. But Gandhiji’s attempt was to make common people feel visually connected with him.”
“By doing this it bridged the gap between the leaders and the people which no one else could do. Because earlier many leaders used to come to Congress sessions in grand style.”
“His turban-like clothes showed his caste, color and wealth. Gandhi created a new environment by discarding all these clothes.”
However, many in countries such as South Africa and Ghana have alleged that Gandhi himself was discriminatory and racist when he was in South Africa. South African scholars Ashwin Desai and Ghulam Wahid have researched and written a book on Gandhi who was in their country for nearly twenty years from 1893 to 1913.
Desai and Ghulam write in their book ‘The South African Gandhi: Stretcher Bearer of Empire’ that during his stay in South Africa, Gandhi ‘separated the Indian struggle from that of Africans and other black people.’
Gandhi’s biographer and grandson Rajmohan Gandhi has often said that Mahatma Gandhi was 24 years old when he arrived in Africa and was ‘sometimes full of arrogance and prejudice’ towards black South Africans. But it is also true that Gandhi constantly changed himself over time throughout his life.
Identity created by dress
Returning to the same point again, Tushar Gandhi interprets Gandhiji’s decision to change his attire in reference to the British, “The British felt that we had no answer for what this man was doing and the way he was behaving. You can’t even say that he is ill-tempered.”
“When Gandhi arrives at the royal residence wearing half a dhoti, he cannot be sent back.”
“Even if you do that, you will lose and if called in, you will have to bear it. What to do, that was their situation.”
The debate started at the British monarch’s palace where she went wearing a half dhoti or loincloth while King George V was present in his full royal regalia.
When Gandhiji came out after meeting the King and the British reporters asked him the question, ‘Mr Gandhi, I don’t think you were properly dressed to meet the King?’
Gandhi was always known for his presence.
Then Gandhiji said, ‘Don’t worry about my clothes. Your king had enough clothes for both.’ This answer of Gandhiji is forever recorded in history.
In the words of renowned biographer Robert Paine, ‘His nudity became a symbol of honor.’