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At exactly 9.30am, a gong sounds outside the main hall of the Charaka ashram in Heggudo, a remote village in Karnataka. Inside, the women have already assembled, sitting cross-legged on the floor, along the three walls of the room. On the front wall hangs a large painting of a woman spinning the wheel, with the words “A life of hard work is the right life" inscribed in Kannada.

In the centre of the floor, sitting upright with eyes closed in prayer, is a white-bearded man, dressed in a beige handloom kurta and striped handloom three-fourth trousers. 

His equanimous mien sets the mood for the prayer assembly. He is Prasanna, the founder of Charaka and a self-confessed Gandhian. A few minutes of silence and the prayer session begins with the women singing, “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram".

In his book Hind Swaraj, Gandhi described handlooms and spinning as “the panacea for the growing pauperism of India". When he later set up his ashram, one of Gandhi’s goals was to make it a centre for spinning as an activity that gave women economic independence.

Prasanna founded and modelled Charaka on Gandhi’s ideology, as a self-sustaining rural handloom cooperative, owned and managed by women.

In the verandah outside the main hall, three women get ready to spin coloured yarn into reels. One of them is Gowramma, the president of Charaka and the first woman to join the organization in 1996 at Prasanna’s insistence.

Gowramma. Photo: Deepa Padmanaban
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Gowramma. Photo: Deepa Padmanaban

In 1994, Prasanna, then a dramatist and activist, had come to teach at Ninaasam, a theatre school in Heggudo set up by Magsaysay awardee K.V. Subbanna. During his tenure there, he founded the Kavi Kavya trust, a cultural organization for poets.

Kavi Kavya was later awarded a project by the state government to conduct a training programme for anganwadi workers in the villages of Shimoga district.

Prabhakar Shamsie, an old associate of Prasanna from the days of Kavi Kavya, recalls the moment when Charaka was conceived. 

“After the training programme, we had some money left from private donations. We decided to do something for the women of the area and started a tailoring unit," he says. “We started with 10 people, experimented with various processes of weaving, developed various skills, and over time, the organization grew. We never expected to be so successful."

The entrance to Charaka. Photo: Deepa Padmanaban
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The entrance to Charaka. Photo: Deepa Padmanaban

From a small tailoring unit, Charaka has now grown into a handloom cooperative with over 50 looms. Unlike traditional weaver communities, weaving at Charaka is not based on tradition or caste, but a skill taught and offered to anyone willing to learn.

Sitting at his desk, on a hand woven dhurrie on the floor of his spartan room, Prasanna said, “Very often, village industries collapse due to a lack of middle management, for which they are dependent on outsiders. Charaka was developed as a model, with a focus on training, where the women learn all skills of administration."

There are more than 300 women who are now part of Charaka. They oversee each and every step of the management of handloom production—the procurement of yarn, dyeing, the spinning of the yarn into reels, weaving, printing, embroidery, tailoring, inventory and quality checking.

Photo: Deepa Padmanaban
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Photo: Deepa Padmanaban

A few yards from the ashram, sitting on a small hillock among big banyan trees, is a small red building where Charaka was born. Folk paintings called hase-kale adorn the walls of the building. Here, the final stages of handloom production take place.

Charaka produces on average about 20,000 metres of handloom fabric per month and about 200 varieties of products. The products are sold through Charaka’s sister organization, DESI (Developing Ecologically Sustaining Industry), in Bengaluru and other cities in Karnataka.

Today, Charaka is synonymous with women’s empowerment and handlooms, a success story scripted by one man and taken forward by hundreds of women. So successful have their products become that they are not able to meet the demands of the market.

This success led Prasanna to look beyond Charaka. His goal is to see this model replicated among other village industries. Through DESI, a registered trust, Prasanna and his fellow activists work with rural groups who struggle to find markets for their handmade products; they step in at different levels of production and also tie up with the right markets.

Through DESI, Prasanna has also been spearheading a campaign for the implementation of the Handloom Reservation Act.

“Some years back, the government tried to change the definition of handloom and club it with powerloom," he says. It was then that DESI and another handloom organization, Dastkar Andhra, came together to form the Federation of All India Handloom Organizations. They held hunger strikes and padayatras across Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Odisha—all strongholds of the handloom industry. As a result, the move to change the definition was abandoned.

But the struggle isn’t over yet.

“Then we were stuck in the mode of ‘save handlooms’. But now we are saying that handlooms are the fabric of the future. Handlooms are the only fabric created in a green, organic and sustainable way," Prasanna says.

In fact, Prasanna believes that the way forward is to build a broad front for sustainable living. “In today’s world, with energy and fuel sources being depleted, there is a need to invest in sustainable products," he adds.

In true Gandhian style, he held a satyagraha in April 2015 at Badanval, a village near Mysuru. Badanval was once a flourishing village with many industries, but fell into ruin due to neglect and caste riots. 

A khadi and cottage industry complex started there by Tagadoor Ramachandra Rao was a major centre for weaving. Gandhi once visited it during its prime. A Gandhi statue stands there even today in testimony to his visit, but the khadi centre lies decrepit, except for a few looms that have managed to survive.

Badanval was hence chosen as a metaphor for once-flourishing sustainable village industries that have withered over time. On 5 April, Prasanna went to the village. “A few of us squatted among the debris and ruins of the khadi centre for days," he says. As news of his stay spread, a movement for sustainability swept across the state.

Padyatras were initiated from five different towns and finally converged on Badanval on 19 April. Satchidanand K.J., a painter from Mysuru who took part in the padyatra, says, “It was an amazing journey. We walked about 90km over five days. Each night, we stayed at a village where the villagers hosted us. In each village, we held debates and discussions with the villagers on how the village industry can be strengthened and sustained. The next day, they escorted us to the next village and went back."

Several senior Gandhians such as freedom fighter H.S. Doreswamy, environmentalist Timakka and Uzramma, founder of Malkha, an organization that connects buyers directly with the weavers of handloom cloth, visited the village and released the Badanval declaration. The declaration demanded that “practices of traditional societies such as cattle herding, cooking and hand spinning should also be treated as wealth generators, thereby promoting equitable and sustainable economy".

On 19 April, all the padyatris as well as people from the villages where the padyatris had camped reached Badanval. In front of the Gandhi statue congregated 5,000 people in all, including several city dwellers, to participate in the convention for sustainable living.

“The convention was held with an idea to learn from each other; the simple sustainable life of villagers on one hand and on the other, the non-discriminatory life of the cities, where caste system does not exist," says Sharada Ganesh, an author and activist based in Bengaluru.

Of their own accord, people from different walks of life came together and put up stalls showcasing their handmade products and as well as live demonstrations of mat weaving, pot making and hand-weaving.

“A connection, a language evolved between us city people and villagers," says Satchidanand. “In Karkola, a village that was once famous for mat weaving, only three weavers are left now. A few of us want to take this forward and do something for Karkola. Prasanna has ignited a spark and this is just a curtain raiser."

Through the year, similar conventions were held in different districts and towns of the state—Davanagere, Koppal, Heggodu, Arsikere, Karkala, Raichur.

“We worked with grassroots organizations which were already active in these districts," says Ganesh. “We got a chance to interact with locals and hear their efforts and success stories, issues in their journey towards sustainability."

Through these conventions, Prasanna wanted to initiate discussions on organic farming, environment and sustainable living.

He recently wrote a book provocatively titled Shoodraragona Banni, meaning “Let us become Shudras". In this age of technology and machines, Prasanna extols the virtues of a life of manual work. According to him, there are too many “neo-Brahmins"—people who only use their brains. So, the book was written to re-emphasize the importance of hard labour and the power of using our hands, rather than only our brains.

But is it practical to shun technology? Prasanna replies, “Is truth practical? When you face truth, you can take the middle path as Buddha did. The book grapples with truth. Tools separated humans from animals, but misuse of tools cause problems. Our messiahs and religious leaders of the past warned of this."

He believes that returning to a life of physical labour is a way to make the rich take to simple living, to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The book is a call to reduce inequality, simplify our lifestyles, make sustainable choices and reduce consumerism.

In July, Prasanna held a sustainability conference in Bengaluru. Eminent personalities such as author Ramchandra Guha, M.S. Sathyu, Arundathi Nag and others were invited to present the basic philosophies of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Marx and Vivekananda.

“Today, the youth is being separated based on these different ideas. Gandhians won’t talk to Ambedkarites and Ambedkarites won’t talk to Vivekananda followers," Prasanna said. “We want to find a commonality between these philosophies to unite the youth."

After this three-day event, a bunch of like-minded people—software professionals, students and artists—came together to form a Gram Seva Sangh, an informal group that will work to spread the concept of “physical labour, simple living and equality".

To take this movement forward, Prasanna is now going back to his roots—theatre. 

He has written a play, Swaraj All Over Again, based on Gandhi’s book Hind Swaraj. Hind Swaraj, which was written as a conversation between an editor (Gandhi) and reader (the common man), talks about self-governance and how at the individual level, one can create change by cutting down excesses and by working with one’s hands.

“Various independent theatre groups will be invited to perform the play across Karnataka," said Ganesh, who is also one of the core members of the Gram Seva Sangh. “The condition being the play should be staged frugally and initiate a dialogue with the people. The process should reflect the philosophy."

When asked if there are any plans to take this movement to the national level, Prasanna said, “Once we look at it nationally, it becomes political, and political solutions are useless. We have decided to go slow now. Once the dynamics are settled, good ideas will spread on their own."

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