Where the charka still spins

Janapada Khadi

A college student is trying to spin a yarn. An elderly person helps her as he explains the significance of homespun cotton cloth and what it meant for the Mahatma. Enthusiasts from diverse backgrounds and age-groups listen attentively, even as the sound of the handloom machines echoes in the calm surroundings. This is a common scene at the khadi centre, located in a community farm, called the Hosa Jeevana Daari (Path of New Life), in Melkote. 

While people from across the world gather at this ancient temple town at regular intervals to understand the nuances of a simple and self-sustaining life, memories of the torchbearers of the concept fill the corners of one’s mind. When young Surendra Koulagi, a close associate of Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan, and his wife, Girija Koulagi, founded The Janapada Seva Trust in Melkote in the early 1960s, they wouldn’t have imagined that their activities would make this spiritual centre a preferred place of learning for people who believe in Gandhian principles. The trust is based and run on the inward-looking Gandhian ideology and the activities they initiated have their roots in self-sustenance, the pillar of Gandhian philosophy. 

Gandhi advocated that everybody needs to do their work on their own and, likewise, make their own clothes. Melkote town was once known for its dhoti weavers who made the famed Melkote dhoti, a red-bordered cotton or silk sarong. Therefore, one of the activities initiated by the trust aimed at the revival of the local handloom industry.

Traditional weavers and local women are employed by the trust to make naturally dyed khadi clothes, known as ‘Janapada Khadi’. The organisation calls khadi a ‘non-violent fabric’ and makes authentic products. Khadi has its own texture which gets lost if it is bleached or polished too much to make it look like mill cloth. The yarn is generally procured from Badanavalu, a village near Mysuru, which has one of the oldest khadi centres in the state.

Janapada is experimenting with different designs and patterns, getting sales online and is catering to the youth market. They use natural dyes, such as indigo, to colour khadi. The woven shoulder bags made in Janapada are popular and are known as Melkote bags. Janapada has a loyal client base from among the urban community. Like-minded fashion designers have collaborated with them to adapt khadi to modern times. 

Every month, Janapada makes around 1,500 metres of khadi cloth. They have nearly 30 people in their unit. Among them, 14 are weavers and the rest engage in activities such as washing, dyeing, preprocessing and bobbin winding.

The organisation ensures that the profits made go directly to the makers. The effort is recognised by the Government of India’s Khadi and Village Industries Commission. After Surendra Koulagi and Girija Koulagi, the new generation enthusiasts are taking the initiative forward now.

People’s fabric

Khadi, also called khaddar, is the hand-woven fabric made from natural hand-spun yarn. Khadi is usually made from cotton but can be prepared from other natural fibres such as silk and wool as well. Apart from the production of khadi cloth, Janapada also works towards creating awareness about the concept of khadi as envisaged by the Mahatma. It regularly conducts spinning workshops under the concept of ‘Svavalambi khadi’ in its khadi production unit. Enthusiasts from across the country and even abroad participate in these workshops.

Santosh Koulagi, who is associated with the organisation, says, “Khadi can be spun even by urban people living in apartments. They need to spin on a box charka for an hour every day. This spinning activity can bring about a change in thinking and lifestyle, and lead the youth towards simple living.” 

The two popular forms of charka are Bardoli Charka (the portable peti charka or box charka) and the Yerwada Charka (the one used by the weavers). Both charkas are named after the jails in which Gandhi was housed at different times. A charka costs between Rs 350 and Rs 2,100 and can be purchased online. 

The organisation, however, is not looking at expanding its unit. Khadi production and sale are usually small-scale businesses and those involved don’t want to grow big as small-scale production is at the core of Gandhian philosophy. They stress on replication so that many more people are employed and self-sustained.

According to Ravi Kiran, who markets Janapada Khadi in Bengaluru, there is a general disconnect between the rural and urban areas which needs to be bridged. The villagers are unable to understand the demands of the modern urban consumer, and the seller often needs to connect the gap. “The aesthetic and ethical value of khadi has always been there. Now youngsters have started questioning unsustainable development and are showing more concern towards the environment. Hence, khadi is being brought back into relevance now.” 

There has always been a market for khadi, but it is important to connect the right consumers with the right workers in the right manner. Khadi is not just about the cloth but is also about the way it is prepared and marketed. Sustainability and fair trade are at the core of khadi.

Ravi Kiran says, “Khadi can be used for many purposes other than clothing, like curtains, cushions, bedspreads, floor mats, dishwashing cloths, towels, tablecloths, handkerchiefs, mosquito nets, etc.” He further adds that there are around 150 to 180 khadi units listed in Karnataka, some in existence and some defunct. He believes that there is a lethargy in several khadi units as efforts are not made to tap the ground potential.

Sustainable living

Janapada also advocates sustainable living alternatives. The weavers are not just given employment at Hosa Jeevana Daari, but they are taught to act, sing and dance as well, in order that they find happiness in life. Janapada stresses human values, sustainable production, rural employment and natural farming. Activities are organised on a regular basis in this regard. And locals are involved in all these activities. That apart, Janapada organises annual trips, film-screening sessions, theatre workshops and vocational training for the villagers. The organisation is based on cooperative principles and seeks to be accountable to the society. This way the organisation is able to stay self-sufficient and keep out any interference into its affairs.

Ragini Suresh is a first generation weaver who works at the trust since the past four years. Ragini says, “I make cloth from the Khadi yarn from 9 in the morning until 5 in the evening. Khadi is a nice cloth which doesn’t spoil the environment and can be made by hand. It can be made single-handedly and many can find employment in this manner. My husband is also employed here and he works at the dyeing unit.”

Talking about the efforts to popularise khadi, the current craze for handspun clothing and its stride in the textile industry, Santosh Koulagi says, “Since khadi is handmade it is costly compared to mill-made cloth. To make it more accessible and appealing to people, the government introduced subsidies. This ensured that khadi is sold at a cheap rate and at the same time, the weavers got rightful compensation. But the subsidised khadi came to be sold only on government holidays, such as Independence Day and Gandhi Jayanthi. In recent years, spurious khadi has entered the market and it has become difficult to identify original khadi products. This affects both the consumers and the weavers. And corruption has made inroads into this sector also. As a result of all these, the quality and credibility have gone down.”

Janapada also aims to restore traditional weaving practices. Padmashali weavers, who were once patronised by the Mysore Wadiyars, live in Kodiyala village of Mandya district. The village that was once famous for handloom weaving, is slowly losing the tradition after the introduction of power looms. Janapada is planning to revive the handloom units in this village. People and human values are more important than commercial success, says Santosh, “This is something that the corporate world doesn’t seem to understand and hence they look at khadi as a commodity.” You can find more information about the initiative on www.janapada.org.

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