Sunday, August 15, 1999
Deh charkhe nu geda,
lor nahin topan di
THESE folk ballads (bolis) of Punjab typified by charkha convey the spirit of nationalism before 1947. Charkha, which was once the source of livelihood of artisans and the companion and helpmate of women, acquired a mystique during the freedom struggle when it became the symbol of Swadeshi movement which sought to bring about an economic revolution by discarding machine-made goods of Manchester and Lancashire and replacing them with Indian hand-made cloth. The emphasis on charkha was aimed both at removing the poverty of villagers who could supplement their income by working at home and at impeding the flow of Indian money to the British industries.
Charkha was given a new meaning and novel interpretation by Mahatma Gandhi. It reminded him of "the ever-moving wheel of divine law of love: and he wished to die with his hand at the spinning wheel. To him spinning was like penance or sacrament, a medium for spiritual upliftment, a symbol of dharna, of self-help and self-reliance, of dignity of labour and human values. Besides, it was an emblem of non-violence. "We cannot visualise non-violence in the abstract. So we choose an object which can symbolise for us, the formless," he said.
Mahatma Gandhi saw God in every thread that he drew on the spinning wheel; its music was like a balm to his soul. He also pointed out the therapeutic use of the spinning wheel it was a nerve relaxant and could help in gaining steadiness of mind, and in controlling passion. "...the yarn we spin is capable of mending the broken warp and woof of our life."
Mahatma Gandhis movement for charkha was aimed at building a new economic and social order based on self-sufficient non-exploitative village communities of the past. It was also a protest against growing industrialism and materialism which were making man a slave of machine and Mammon. To quote him: "The message of the spinning wheel is much wider than its circumference. Its message is one of simplicity, service of mankind, living so as not to hurt others, creating an indissoluble bound between the rich and the poor, capital and labour, the prince and the peasant. That larger message is naturally for all."
Mahatma Gandhi was convinced that the revival of hand-spinning and hand-weaving would make the largest contribution to the economic and moral regeneration of India. He wrote: "The spinning wheel represents to me the hope of the masses. The masses lost their freedom, such as it was with the loss of the charkha. The charkha supplemented the agriculture of the villagers and gave it dignity. It was the friend and solace of the widow....Charkha included all the anterior and posterior industries ginning carding, sizing, dyeing and weaving. These, in their turn, kept the village carpenter and the blacksmith busy."
Mahatma Gandhis obsession with charkha as evidenced by his speeches and writings on Khadi economics, Khadi science, Khadi learning, Khadi spirit, Khadi epoch, Khadi franchise for Congressmen, yarn currency and Khadi romance baffled his contemporaries, some of whom, like Rabindranath Tagore, felt that the spinning wheel had been turned into a cult, "thereby distracting attention from other more important factors in our task of all-round reconstruction."
"So if we are taught", wrote Tagore, "that in the pristine charkha we have exhausted all the means of spinning thread, we shall not gain the full favour of Vishnu. Neither will his spouse Lakshmi smile on us. When we forget that science is spreading the domain of Vishnus chakra, those who have honoured the discus-bearer to better purpose will spread their dominion over us. If we are wilfully blind to the grand vision of whirling forces, which science has revealed, the charkha will cease to have any message for us. The hum of the spinning wheel which once carried us so long a distance on the path of wealth, will no longer talk to us of progress."
This provided Mahatma Gandhi to come out with a fitting rejoinder in Young India which stated inter alia: "The poet lives in a magnificent world of his own creation his world of ideas. I am a slave of somebody elses creation the spinning wheel. The poet makes his gopis dance to the tune of his flute. I wander after my beloved Sita, the charkha, and seek to deliver her from the ten-headed monster from Japan, Manchester, Paris, etc..."
Tagore did not like Gandhis command "spin and weave. In a manifesto entitled A Call of truth (Modern Review, October, 1921), he asked: "Is this the gospel of a new creative age? If large machinery constitutes a danger for the West, will not the small machine constitute a greater danger for us?" To this the Mahatma retorted (Young India, October 13, 1921) that it was Indias love of foreign cloth that had made the charkha redundant. "A plea for the spinning wheel is a plea for recognising the dignity of labour. I claim that in losing the spinning wheel we lost our left lung. We are, therefore , suffering from galloping consumption."
The idea to employ the spinning wheel as a symbol of national resurgence and as an economic and political weapon against the British Raj came intuitively to Mahatma Gandhi in 1908 when he was going from London to South Africa. As per his own testimony, he could not then differentiate between the loom and the spinning wheel, and in Hind Swaraj (1909) which he wrote on board "S.S. Kildonan Castle" used the world loom to mean the wheel. He first took to weaving in his Satyagraha Ashrama (later known as Sabarmati Ashrama) which he founded in 1915 after returning to India. He had not seen the spinning wheel till 1917 when Ganga Behn Mazumdar, a social worker of great accomplishment whom Gandhi met at the Broach Educational Conference, finally discovered it for him from Vijapur in the then Baroda state. Gradually, he learnt the art of spinning and with the mechanical expertise of Magan Lal Gandhi, he was able to make some improvements in the wheel and manufacture it in the ashrama itself. Spinning was raised to the rank of a daily mahayajna and included among the ashrama vows.
Charkha found a
place in the programme of Indian National Congress as
well as on the first National flag (also called swaraj
flag) in 1921. The flag began to be officially hoisted by
Congressmen from the 38th session of the Congress held at
Coconada (Andhra Pradesh) in 1923. The Congress
constitution made it compulsory for its candidates
standing for election to be habitual wearers of hand-spun
and hand-woven khadi. With the formation of Akhil Bharati
Khadi Mandal (1924) and Akhil Bharati Charkha Sangh
(1925) charkha began to hum in nationalist
circles. It caught the imagination of even school
children who delivered the message of self-reliance in
their homes. The Dhanush takli, a kind of spindle
used in hand-spinning without the aid of spinning wheel,
of Mahatma Gandhi became a symbol of peace, goodwill and
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