Charkha, once again?

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The Mahatma’s charkha spun a big role for itself in India’s freedom struggle, but went off radar since. But today, there is an effort to popularise the charkha. V.R. Devika, who regularly spins the charkha, talks about its history, and continuing relevance.

Selva Vinayagar School, Kothamangalam, Chettinnad, Tamilnadu. Karuppaiah of class VIII is the son of a casual grass cutter. He was hovering around me. I asked him if he had something to share. He said “Madam, when you came to our school last, you showed us a box Raattai (Tamil for charkha, the spinning wheel) I have created my own. It is in my house”. I got him to get the headmaster’s permission and bring it to show me. Karuppaiah had taken the engine of a broken toy car, cut a piece of a rusted iron fence, beaten on it to create a spindle, bent another piece of wire to create the handle, attached the two to the engine with cotton thread, taken cotton from the fruit of the silk cotton tree and began to spin. It was actually a working model! (Check out Karuppaiah’s spinning wheel on our website: www.aseematrust.org)

The charkha’s symbolism
The charkha, or spinning wheel, was the physical embodiment and symbol of Gandhi’s constructive programme. It represented Swadeshi, self-sufficiency, and at the same time interdependence, because the wheel was at the center of a network of cotton growers, weavers, distributors, and users. It also embodied the dignity of labour, equality, unity, as all volunteers were to spin each day, and finally independence, as British control of India was rooted in control of indigenous industries such as textiles. The spinning wheel or charkha became a potent tool in Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent battle of Satyagraha to free the people of India from the yoke of foreign rule and also from a mindset that aped the West for development and progress. The music of the charkha unfolded the meaning of Satyagraha to the people of India. As the messenger of the way to freedom or Swaraj, and the thread of swadeshi (made in India) and swavalamban (self reliance), the spinning wheel united the rich and poor and the diverse people of India.

The writer (centre) training children in spinning the charkha

The writer (centre) training children in spinning the charkha

The British needed to know about Indian textiles and tastes in clothing as part of controlling strategies. John Forbes Watson made an intense study of Indian textiles in 1866 and produced the single volume ‘The Textile Manufactures and Costumes of the People of India’. He had produced earlier, 18 volumes of 700 samples of Indian textiles. His advice to the Lancashire mills in Britain was to target the poorer and rural classes of India and not the educated urbanites, because the manufacture of lower quality cloth for mass consumption was more profitable than the higher quality cloth for the elite.

Gandhiji called for stopping the export of Indian cotton to England and the import of expensive cotton clothes made from that Indian cotton that the British were manufacturing. In order to create fearlessness in Indians, Gandhi felt they needed to get rid of their servile attitude. The charkha was a means of nonviolently undermining the foundation of foreign rule, economic and political domination, uniting people politically and socially and bringing dignity to manual labour as a symbol of total Swaraj (self rule). The charkha also became meditational therapy. Inspired by the example set by Gandhi, freedom fighters began spinning in prisons, during prayer meetings and during political rallies. People spun at home, in trains and other public spaces.

Gandhi saw the philosophy of charkha symbolic of Satyagraha and Sarvodaya. Sarvodaya was the reawakening of the spirit in harmony with nature and environment and for all forms of life. The spinning wheel, with the message of Swadeshi, was to take the freedom struggle to a reconstruction of the social and economic order without the exploitation of man and nature.

Khadi, freedom’s uniform
Khadi as a concept and as reality has mind, body and soul unity. Gandhi made khadi, the livery of the freedom movement. He believed every yard of khadi bought would put food in the mouths of the starving and the poor of India. Gandhi’s radical shift to an alternative economics and signification of clothing set off a chain of cataclysmic reversals that refined the meaning of power, progress and civility. He wanted the ordinary Indian and not the British or the Indian elite who would control cloth production. Simple homes in Indian villages, towns and cities would be the new centres of production, not the mills of Manchester or Lancashire. The traditional charkhas and not the modern mill would be the means used, the collaboration of the masses in production rather than mass production by a few would be the process involved. Home spun khadi would be produced. It would be a symbolic fabric through which unity of purpose in non-cooperation and sustainability would be expressed. Purna Swaraj or complete freedom would be the ultimate aim of cloth production. This process would be the creation of a new mentality to guide a new process that would be diametrically opposed to the hegemonic imperial or elitist model, where the swadeshi or khadi mentality, the decentralisation of the production and distribution of the necessities of life would be the foundation, and where social change would begin in the remotest villages. Commitment to spinning would provide the sign of empathy through which the political leaders could enter into dialogue with the rural masses. Apart from the humbling spiritualising character of the exercise of spinning,it would have shown that there is a connect with the impoverished people. Credibility was at the heart of the exercise. It had to be a dynamic symbol of solidarity.

The writer demonstrating the charkha at Delhi Public School, New Delhi

The writer demonstrating the charkha at Delhi Public School, New Delhi

Gandhi stressed that people must learn spinning whether for recreation or for maintenance. It is a skill that can easily be learnt and is known to thousands. It requires no outlay of capital and the wheel can easily be made. It was also one way of preventing violence in public protest of foreign rule.

Anxious to make Indian society a truly free one, Gandhi put at the centre of his constructive programme, the spinning wheel, the removal of untouchability and communal harmony. Freedom, to him, was a mockery so long as men starved, went naked and pined away in voiceless anguish. The charkha or the spinning wheel would help to redeem the common man from the evils of poverty and ignorance, disease and squalor. “Political freedom has no meaning for the millions if they do not know how to employ their enforced idleness. Eighty per cent of the Indian population is compulsorily unemployed for half the year, they can only be helped by reviving a trade that has fallen into oblivion and making it a source of new income”, he said. Gandhi stressed the use of the spinning wheel as an occupation supplementary to agriculture.

Gandhi felt it was the love for foreign cloth that ousted the charkha from its position of dignity. He also considered it a sin to wear and use articles made with blood labour. One must always be aware whether what one is eating and using will feed and clothe one’s own countrymen. Gandhi’s idea of hands on education has come back to us in the form of activity-based education. Knowledge-based education is getting redundant, with information available at finger tips, so learning by rote and writing from memory can no longer stand in for ability. The world is looking at more and more environment friendly living and the charkha is slowly getting registered in people’s minds, once again.


devika

V.R. Devika

The writer is a cultural activist passionate about traditional performing arts and education. Her doctoral thesis was on M.K. Gandhi’s communication strategies for transformation. She regularly spins on the charkha, gives workshops on it and tells stories of Gandhi to students and teachers, and lectures on Indian culture and ethos. She has traveled widely around the world. She is the Founder and Managing Trustee of The Aseema Trust: www.aseematrust.org

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