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The flying shuttles of Melkote

At the khadi weaving centre at the Hosa Jeevana Daari campus of the Janapada Seva Trust—a few kilometres ahead of the temple town of Melkote in Karnataka—a chirpy young woman who sits with her steel tiffin box open calls out to me in Kannada: “Come and have some lunch.”

I don’t remember the last time a stranger extended the courtesy of sharing her lunch with me. I regret the hasty meal I have had en route and thank her for the offer.

While I wait for Sumanas Koulagi from the trust, I wander along the U-shaped corridor flanked on one side by walls of exposed brick with gaps for better ventilation and light. The rooms leading from the corridor are occupied by a warping machine which winds an intricate web of cotton thread on to the warping beam, and a row of clacking frame looms where a particularly striking bolt of blue fabric catches my eye. There are no lights above the looms. At first appearance, this seems unusual for a weaving centre. Surely they must be working in shifts?

Twenty-four-year-old Sumanas arrives, and we sit in the verandah as he narrates the story of how the weaving centre, although started only about six years ago, has actually been 56 years in the making.

In the late 1950s, his grandfather Surendra Koulagi spent a few years as the personal secretary of Jayaprakash Narayan, which put him in touch with numerous Gandhian ideas in action, especially in the area of rural upliftment. Along with friends and well-wishers, in 1960, he set up the Janapada Seva Trust, a voluntary organization that has been serving society through need-based initiatives.

Surendra Koulagi’s decision to base Janapada Seva Trust in Melkote itself had a lot to do with the village’s weaving tradition. Melkote’s weavers were renowned for weaving panche or dhoti with deep red borders on unbleached hand-woven cotton or silk fabric. Some believe that the colours symbolize the Thiruman Sricharanam or colours of the forehead mark worn by the Iyengar community, harking back to the time when the Hindu philosopher Ramanuja lived here for 12 years and established a centre for Vaishnavism.

The weavers supplied dhotis to the priests, devotees and the resident deity at Melkote, Narayanaswamy. To that extent, the demand was local.

The trust’s activities, however, responded to a need for residential facilities for differently abled rural children. The facility was called Karunagruha. Over the years, the trust went on to introduce other initiatives, like a unique women’s upliftment programme that identified and enabled those who wanted to complete their SSLC education.

Some aspect of weaving has always been part of every stage of Janapada Seva Trust’s growth. For the children at Karunagruha, Surendra procured box charkhas so the children could learn to spin yarn. The hobby loom arrived at the trust thanks to his chance visit to a weaving centre in Maharashtra in the early 1970s, where they employed young men with disabilities to weave shoulder bags.

Surendra Koulagi met the person in charge who agreed to host his son Santosh and teach him. Santosh returned to Melkote with the know-how and they created an indigenous loom to begin producing shoulder bags.

In the 1980s, when Santosh joined the trust, he also began Hosa Jeevana Daari (a new way of life), a centre for sustainable living alternatives. Santosh regards Masanobu Fukuoka, the author of One-Straw Revolution, as a major influence in his life and this reflects in his outlook towards agriculture in particular, and sustainability as a whole.

Seeing the demand move favourably towards khadi and naturally dyed fabric, Santosh also began the khadi unit. His son Sumanas was home-schooled up to Class VII and then joined a Kannada-medium school. He went on to complete his masters in biodiversity conservation at Oxford and has been working closely with the khadi weaving centre.

The initiatives that the trust is currently into encompasses the interests and expertise of all three generations—a specialized adoption agency, a tree-planting effort with rare native varieties of the area, the centre for sustainable living alternatives that is primarily into environment education and the khadi weaving unit. But it is the last one, with its unique perspective to productivity, which is intriguing.

Reviving khadi

While our economic systems steer us increasingly towards infinite growth as a worthy, even imperative goal, the Koulagis and the Janapada Seva Trust are taking a different route to reviving weaving with their khadi centre.

For one, running such a unit requires a certification from the government, which the trust has, but apart from that it strives not to make use of any support or subsidies. “That’s the whole idea and spirit of khadi,” says Sumanas.

Also, the trust has taken the onus of sourcing yarn, creating loom space and marketing out of the hands of interested weavers and freed them up to focus on what they do best—weave.

“In most places across India, with livelihoods like weaving, the younger generation does not want to continue with the work,” says Sumanas.

“About six years ago, we thought of reviving the weaving process. One thing we understood was that the weavers’ remuneration was low. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act stipulates at least Rs250-300 per day. We thought of keeping the wages at least Rs300 per day. So, now our weavers make around Rs8,000-10,000 per month, which is good in a rural set-up. The scenario has changed today and a lot of people, including people from non-weaver families and especially the younger generation, want to join us.”

As we walk alongside the frame looms, with their flying shuttles moving back and forth between the threads of the warps, Sumanas explains some basics. While both handloom and Khadi fabrics are woven by hand with non-automated looms, handloom weaving could employ machine-spun yarn. To that extent, the khadi process is done completely by hand from spinning to weaving to dyeing.

“You can make out the difference in the knots that you see in khadi fabric where the hand-spun fibre has snapped and has been knotted,” says Sumanas.

The trust has no spinning facility. A unit in Chitradurga supplies slivers of continuous fibre to most of the khadi units in south India and a unit at Badanavalu procures the slivers from Chitradurga, and spins the yarn which the trust uses.

Two types of fabric are woven here, explains Sumanas. One is from organic cotton that they procure from Asha (Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture), a network of organic farmers and activists across India. Tula markets the finished organic fabric through their outlet in Chennai.

The second type of fabric is woven from the regular khadi cotton they get from the Khadi and Village Industries Commission. This fabric that they call Janapada Khadi is partly fulfilling orders from Nature Alley in Bengaluru or Fabindia, and partly retailed by them from a small outlet in Melkote.

The khadi weaving unit is one of the few in India where organic dyes are used. We walk past pits of water and a cauldron where yarn is being soaked in dye.

“We dye in three primary colours—red, blue and yellow. We get red from alizarin, a plant root, yellow from pomegranate peel or aralekkai (Terminalia chebula) and blue from indigo. Then we mix these colours and get others. Unlike chemical dyeing, in natural dyeing, the process is longer in trying to make the dye adhere to the cotton yarn.”

Dyed yarn hangs on wooden beams drying in the sun. It is visually stunning, every bundle of colour complementing every other. I begin to wonder if this is because they are organic dyes, owing their colours to nature, where every colour adds to visual harmony.

Photo: Janapada Seva Trust

In Melkote town, across the street from the Koulagi residence, is a yard with children’s park equipment and a structure that houses Janapada Seva Trust’s adoption centre. Two rooms in this building are used as the khadi weaving unit’s tailoring room and storage facility. An open shelf is stacked with small squares of fabric, leftover scrap that has been cut to size to be sewn into patchwork quilts.

The tailoring unit makes about seven types of garments, including kurtas, salwars, formal shirts and college uniforms. In addition to these, the stockroom also has neat enclosed shelves storing towels, sarees, dhotis, dupattas and stoles. As I run my hand over the fabric, an unbleached kora saree with an indigo blue border, the knots on the surface stand out, like a textural fingerprint of khadi fabric.

Scale and philosophy

Sumanas reveals another aspect of the weaving unit’s future that sets it apart. “When we increased wages, people started working overtime. We had a meeting with them to explain that this is not the idea of khadi. This is not a factory and people must not become machines. That’s why we fixed the maximum limit for production—250 metres per loom per month. If they want more money, we should be able to bring more money for the same volume.”

This volume is usually completed in 28 or 29 days. Work usually ends at around 5pm, which explains the absence of light above the looms. There are no weekdays or weekends, and weavers are free to come and weave any time. It’s entirely up to them. This led to their getting some free time and they began a food-sharing day and movie screenings, which initially began with commercial Kannada movies of the 1970s and ’80s and are transitioning gradually to documentaries. The idea is that workers must understand the bigger picture and the importance of their work.

When he speaks of maximum scale, Sumanas references Kirkpatrick Sale’s book Human Scale that expounds on the perils of gigantism, the idea that while size matters, human scale matters even more. “Every activity has a scale. The minimum makes it viable but the maximum is also important. Once you go beyond the maximum scale, the efficiency starts decreasing. We feel that these 11 looms and one warping machine, with a set up involving 30-40 people including spinners in Badanavalu, are good enough.”

I ask him about people who are interested to join them and whether that would be an opportunity to expand capacity. He says, “If someone is interested and if they are willing to do it on their own, we can guide and support them.”

It is then that the penny drops. I sense resonances between Sale’s views on the myth of bigness and optimal limits, Fukuoka’s belief that modern science was taking man increasingly away from nature and Gandhi’s ideals on self-sustenance. Nowhere is this more evident than in Sumanas’s choice of subject for his PhD in development studies at the University of Sussex, UK—his thesis will be on shifting developmental focus to human energy with khadi as example.

Janapada Seva Trust’s projects are perhaps modest since they support need-based initiatives. The success of an initiative is in reaching a point where it is redundant. For instance, Karunagruha became redundant due to the success of the government’s polio eradication campaign. For a voluntary organization such as this to be successful at need-based initiatives requires it to be of a modest size and nimble enough to gauge any impending redundancy. Also, from a purely work-life balance perspective, the maximum scale ensures that the weaver’s quality of life doesn’t suffer in the pursuit of infinite growth.

Between 1811 and 1816, loom workers in Nottingham, UK, wrecked machinery and burned down mills rebelling against industrialization in the textile sector. The word Luddite, referring to these workers, has since been misattributed to technophobes in the digital age worthy of ridicule.

The Koulagis and the three men who inspire them—Gandhi, Fukuoka and Sale—can all be called Luddites in the etymological sense (Sale even went on to write about the Luddites). They all have one thing in common—they aren’t so much afraid of industrialization or technology as they are opposed to the loss of livelihoods.

But unlike the 19th-century textile workers who resorted to violence to assert their skill in a rapidly industrializing society, the Koulagis strive towards the same goal—human development—but by non-violent means.

The journey ends at the Koulagi residence, where we wait to meet Sumanas’s grandfather, Surendra, and his father, Santosh.

“Meanwhile,” Sumanas says, “come and have some lunch.”

Saritha Rao Rayachoti is an independent writer based in Chennai

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