Turning the wheel Gandhi loved

Though the charkha was a symbol of India’s freedom struggle, its origins are disputed.
Last Updated : 29 September 2023, 17:13 IST

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It was in 2013 that I fully understood the definition of khadi. Textile revivalism was emerging as a strong trend in Indian fashion and along with it emerged a host of textile revivalists, individuals who had taken on the seemingly insurmountable task of bringing the traditional handwoven fabrics of India back into people’s wardrobes. 

They were distinct from fashion designers in that their work was driven more by textile and fabric than by silhouettes and embellishments. For a fashion industry that thus far hinged on occasion and bridal wear, this was revolutionary. 

And so, in late 2013, I was asked to write a 1,500-word piece on the subject. I contacted textile revivalists across India. One designer in Delhi was attempting to revive gamcha (used for towels) and lungi fabrics by turning them into dresses, trousers, tops and kurtas. Another in Kolkata was trying to make jamdani more suited to modern palates. Traditionally used for saris, it was now being fashioned into jackets, stoles and dresses. 

My research also led me to Metaphor Racha, a design studio in Bengaluru. It was run by Ravi Kiran and Chandrashekhar at the time. They were committed to breathing new life into khadi, whose future at that point looked somewhat bleak. It was from them that I learnt what sets khadi apart from other fabrics — it is not only handwoven but also made from handspun yarn. Non-khadi fabric is typically woven from thread spun in a mill. 

Up until then, I had heard the word ‘khadi’ bandied about. All I knew was that it was a symbol of the Indian freedom movement, synonymous with Mahatma Gandhi. The fabric of Indian independence, I had heard many say. Growing up, I had even accompanied my mother on numerous trips to a khadi store off Commercial Street in Bengaluru where she would buy fabric for her office wear. But I had never asked her what sets it apart. 

My discovery 10 years ago had sparked in me an interest in not just khadi, but also handloom. Over the years, I have had the chance to visit handloom weaving centres in Karaikudi and Varanasi. However, I had never been to a spinning centre, neither had I known how exactly a charkha worked. 

Hang by a thread

I had been harbouring hopes of visiting one. I had this romantic image in my head that I would try my hand at the charkha seated in the verandah of a charming village-style cottage fronted by paddy fields.

Little did I know that my dream was to become a reality. Only, the setting was a bit different, off the traffic-choked Old Madras Road in my own city of Bengaluru. Despite this less-than-ideal setting, I was looking forward to my first session.

Tvami, one of the few artisanal handicraft stores surviving at Bangalore Santhe, literally sits in the shadow of the Namma Metro line. It has been conducting spinning workshops on weekends since April this year. Minakshi Prabhu, who runs the store, agreed to train me over a month. 

The Santhe was opened by the BMRCL in 2013 and was modelled on the lines of Delhi’s Dilli Haat with the aim of promoting the crafts of Karnataka. However, the once lively space, resembling a traditional rural marketplace, was deserted. Minakshi said Covid had hastened Santhe’s march towards oblivion. It had already been on that path for many reasons, she told me.

Inside her small shop, she handed me a box charkha and asked me to sit on the floor. The commonly held mental image of the apparatus is that of the upright two-wheel device with spokes. Often this image is accompanied with a frail Gandhi, wrapped in a stark white cloth. The box charkha however is contained in a wooden box that resembles a briefcase. It was invented in 1936, when Gandhi wanted a portable device that he could carry with him wherever he travelled. 

The box opens to two compartments — on one side are two wooden disks connected by a thick rubber band. They work like a gear system. The smaller wheel is attached to a cotton string connected to the spindle in the second compartment. The spindle is held in place by a piece of wood fixed to the box. 

Strings attached

I took my position on the floor and Minakshi gave me a wad of cotton. The cotton she uses is organic, sourced from a processing unit in Gadag, Karnataka. The unbleached cotton is held against the spindle with one hand and the bigger wheel is rotated with the other. The cotton fibres stick together and form a thin string as you pull away from the spindle and rotate the wheel. “The beauty is that the fibres automatically form a thread. You don’t have to do anything other than turn the wheel and pull the cotton,” she said. This process is called drafting. 

The speed of pulling the cotton and turning the wheel must match. When the speeds are not in sync, the string snaps or ends up being too thick, which makes it unusable. When the string you have formed is long enough, you must strengthen it. This is done by pinching the end of the string and rotating the charkha. This twists the thread and makes it stronger. About three spins of the wheel are enough. If it is turned too much, the string breaks. Once strengthened, the thread is loaded onto the spindle and the process is repeated until all the cotton in your hand is used up. Then you take another handful of cotton and start again. Alternatively, one could also use a cotton sliver, which is raw cotton rolled into a specific shape. Slivers made in sliver plants are used in ambar charkhas at large spinning centres. 

Trial and error

It was magical to see the threads taking shape but it was anything but easy. I would pull too fast or too slow, the thread would snap, and I would have to start all over again. Sometimes I would hold the cotton incorrectly in my palm and it would end up forming a tight knot, making it impossible to pull into a string. Other times, the yarn would end up being too thick. The first day, I spent about two hours spinning before calling it a day. 

On my second visit, I was slightly better but I still generated a lot of waste. The consistency of the thread I was spinning was not as thin as it should have been, but Minakshi assured me it would take some time for me to fully get the hang of it. 

On one of my subsequent sessions at Tvami, I met Sachidanand, an artist from Mysuru. He had taken up spinning over four years ago and now only wears clothes made from the yarn he spins himself. He was instrumental in making the charkha workshops a reality. That day, he wore a pale pink shirt. Tellingly, the texture was coarse and uneven — the true mark of a handmade product, which is much sought after. Some fabrics are given the handmade finish by machines.

The box charkha they use for the workshops are manufactured by him. He fell in love with spinning after he saw a close friend practising it at home. The friend is a member of the Gandhian family that runs Janapada Seva Trust in Melkote, Mandya. 

The box charkhas available in the market needed some refinement. He took the help of a carpenter and tweaked the design a bit. He now gets charkhas manufactured at a factory in Mysuru.

Sachidanand conducts sessions in Mysuru for school children and adults. He spins two hours a day. “Sometimes it can even go up to three hours,” he said. If a person spins for an hour a day, at the end of the year he or she will have enough yarn to make clothes for a family of four. 

Sachidanand, an artist from Mysuru, only wears clothes made from the yarn he spins himself.

Sachidanand, an artist from Mysuru, only wears clothes made from the yarn he spins himself. 

Credit: DH Photo

Self-reliance is key

While designers had been trying to revive the fabric for decades, it struck me that nothing would be as effective as placing the responsibility in the hands of the people. By hosting workshops in places like Bengaluru and Mysuru, Minakshi and Sachidanand were pushing people to be self-reliant and at the same time helping them save a craft from going extinct. “This also gives handloom weavers employment. They get paid about Rs 35 for weaving one metre of cloth. That’s not enough and a lot of them have quit weaving to work other small jobs that pay them more. I pay them Rs 120 per metre which I think is a fair price. If more people get involved in this exercise, it will stop them from giving up on their craft,” said Sachidanand.

My next visit to Minakshi’s store was after a week. I had forgotten some of the basic rules of spinning and found myself struggling. One of her assistants told me to go a bit slower. It worked. I was drafting a thin and strong string. My technique had improved. 

Spinning family

The final session was an event where I met multiple spinners. One of them, Vinu, was a Montessori school teacher. She had been to a workshop before and had even bought herself a box charkha. However, she hadn’t been able to spin as much as she would have liked because of work and other commitments. Another member of the community, Basavaraj, had brought 10 metres of khadi fabric. He works as an HR executive in a software company, but spends his spare time spinning at home. The fabric was made from yarn he had spun himself. 

At the event, I ran into Sachidanand again. I asked him why the government’s efforts to promote khadi, with a body like Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), hadn’t helped much. He said it wouldn’t be right to blame the government for everything. He explained that we should hold ourselves responsible too. He also spoke about the difficulties of working with khadi. “It’s not uncommon for what is considered pure khadi to be a blend of khadi and polyester,” he said. Cotton is delicate. Polyester makes it stronger and easier to work with. As a result, weavers inadvertently using adulterated khadi have lost the expertise of working with its pure version, which requires a delicate yet skilled hand.  

The author spun a hank of about 128 metres.

The author spun a hank of about 128 metres.

Credit: DH Photo

The current crisis facing the khadi industry in Karnataka is a severe shortage of slivers, he said. The sliver plant in Chitradurga has not been functional for over a year. As a result, many spinning centres in the state have stopped operations. It is expected to reopen in two months. In the meantime, some centres have been getting slivers from KVIC. 

Making a hank

After you have drafted enough yarn you make a hank. Each charkha comes with three spindles so that you can draft 500 metres and then make a hank. A hank is made by unspooling the yarn and wrapping it around a skeiner, which also tells you how many metres you have spun. Minakshi explained that with 50 hanks of 500 metres each, one will get approximately 15 metres of fabric with a width of 44 inches.

With the help of Sachidanand, Minakshi and other spinners who come to Tvami get their cloth woven in Melkote, which is home to five weavers. The weft is the yarn spun by a hobbyist while the warp is the yarn spun by a professional on the ambar charkha. This makes the cloth strong, as unlike a box charkha, an ambar charkha generates a consistent thickness of yarn.

I took the help of Devappa B Kamatad, one of Tvami’s main trainers, to make my hank. He had moved to Bengaluru from Dharwad, where he was trained by Sachidanand. He fixed the skein to the box and carefully began wrapping the thread around it. After a few minutes we had my first hank — about 128 metres. He told me it is best kept as a souvenir. Most spinners’ first hanks are not good enough to be woven. 

The origins of charkha

Though the charkha was a symbol of India’s freedom struggle, its origins are disputed. Some believe it originated in China’s Zhou dynasty in the first millennia BCE, while others say it can be traced back to 1237 Baghdad. There is also evidence of it being mentioned in the work of 12th century Kannada poet Remmavve.

The floor charkha, the box or peti charkha, and the ambar charkha are the most common varieties in India. The floor charkha was the initial model used by Gandhi. It is a simple wooden instrument with a distaff (which holds unspun yarn), driving wheel and spindle. The ambar charkha has multiple spindles, and is used in cottage industries.

Like this story? Email: dhonsat@deccanherald.co.in

Published 29 September 2023, 17:13 IST

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