Beyond khadi


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SPINNING is a matter of taming a mass of tiny, unruly cotton fibres into a cohesive chain. The question is how to go about it without beating the life out of those fibres. Hand spinning can do it, but is too energy intensive to give the spinner a living wage. Machine spinning fails the test: it kills the fibres’ vitality. This dilemma was Malkha’s starting point; it has been my focus for the last twenty years and it’s not over yet.

All that I’ve learnt has been under the pressure of selling handloom cotton cloth. Whether you agree with them or not, handloom weavers see selling the cloth they have woven as their biggest problem, and if you want to win their confidence you must take their priorities seriously. So, though we saw ourselves as researchers, we had to prove ourselves to weavers as successful marketers. We found ourselves selling the handwoven cloth of Chinnur, in Adilabad district of Telangana.

In the last decade of the 20th century a small group of us were in Adilabad to learn about village India. We were new to village crafts, but looking to them as alternatives to industrial style production. Cotton grew in the fields around and village elders told us that until a generation earlier, cloth had been woven here for village needs. Everything was cotton: this was not wool country. On winter nights we slept under the thick, heavy, doubled up cotton bed coverings called ‘dupatlu’.


Sarees here had not been modernized to be worn with underskirts, and I enjoyed the freedom of wearing a seven yard saree kilted up between my legs. We were told that special sarees with two pallus had been woven for the Golla women, who brought us cow’s milk each day, but alas, like the six yard turbans for men, these sarees are now extinct. In those days there were no buses between the villages and we walked miles to get from one place to another across the open countryside. Curious passers-by would ask us which jati we belonged to. ‘Ay kulam?’ they would ask; ‘Tirrigin’orlu’ (wanderers), we would reply, inventing a new community.

Put one foot into the realm of cotton hand weaving and you’re hooked. I was. It’s a world where technology and nature, society, life and livelihood all meet and where the tensions between them are never resolved. Yarn, the vital raw material for cloth making is at the heart of the matter. The yarn which machines spit out today lacks the poetry it should have. That’s because today’s spinning machines have no soul. They iron out the variations inherent in Indian cottons, variations nurtured through hundreds of years of small-scale farming of cotton in the huge diverse Indian subcontinent. Variations that show up in the cloth that was woven from those cottons, different in each region and proud of it. Hobson-Jobson lists a hundred different kinds: Albelli, alrochs, cossai, baftas, bejutas, corahs, doreas, dosooties, chhint, ginghams, jamdanis, morees, mul-muls, mushroos, nainsooks, nillaees, palempores, punjams, susi... and the list goes on.

This diversity is what people throughout history saw as the essence of Indian cotton cloth. Tome Pires, a Portugese apothecary, writes in 1515 from Malacca describing the ships that came there from Gujarat and the Coromandel coast, ‘worth eighty to ninety thousand cruzados’, he says, ‘carrying cloth of thirty different sorts.’ Pyrard de Laval in the early 17th century says Indian fabrics clothed ‘everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman… from head to foot.’ Certainly the largest manufactured trade commodity in the world in pre-industrial times, Indian cotton cloth, paid for in gold and silver, was perhaps the chief source of India’s fabled wealth. This is the poetry of India’s cotton cloth; and as we discovered, yarn is a crucial part of it. We’ve lost it and we should get it back. Perhaps Malkha will lead us to it.


Just as in a jungle one senses the presence of an animal one cannot see, I could sense, as I entered the weavers’ world, something important just out of sight, that might transform that world, or be the key to a golden future for Indian cotton hand weaving. The contours of the unseen presence gradually came into focus as I and my associates worked on selling cloth, simultaneously digging into archives and at the same time building our own picture of the local history of cloth making. It seemed a simple matter: what Indian hand weaving needed was not just one kind of yarn, but many. Yarns made from the different cottons that Indian farms can grow, to make the different kinds of cloth the handloom can weave. It turned out to be more complicated than we’d thought. We turned to history for help, while we continued marketing the Chinnur weavers’ cloth.

In Chinnur we found that yarn had not been spun locally for thirty years and where there had been thousands of weavers, only about a hundred were still weaving on looms scattered in the villages around. It fell to us to market what they wove and we took it up with vigour while at the same time searching the archives and listening to peoples’ stories of the past.

Ramakrishna, a member of our group, was a maverick graduate of IIT Madras and a tenacious searcher in the historical records. His patience and persistence in the libraries revealed that it was indeed the stage of conversion of raw cotton into thread, the spinning of yarn, to be the critical factor in cotton cloth, the shadowy but powerful presence in the contemporary handloom jungle. It was he who pinpointed the mismatch between the rigid spinning technology that is used today, that produces one kind of yarn from only one kind of cotton, and the diversity at the heart of traditional Indian cloth making which was used to a flexible technology that made different yarns from different kinds of cotton plants.


This is the paradox that Malkha began with, and which, twenty years later, has yet to be resolved. We walked from village to village following the trail of stories. ‘We used to make yarn here’, they told us in Kollur village. Endless conversations over months of visits to Kollur, Ravullapally, Kusnapally and the mandal town of Chinnur brought alive the picture of local cloth making from local yarn spun from cotton grown nearby. Here was history alive in peoples’ memories that could bridge the gaps in the archives.

What Lachchavva and other women from landowning families remembered was the enthusiasm for hand spinning that was triggered by the Independence movement in the 1940s. It was part of the ‘official’ khadi movement that came with its bureaucracy of paid workers doling out carded sliver to the spinners, collecting the spun yarn, paying wages, carrying the yarn back to centres – sangams – from where it would be doled out again to weavers who would bring the woven cloth back to be sold at the sangam. Each stage would be recorded in account books and registers.


For some time the khadi sangams were able to keep up their role as mediators in local cloth production, but as the original enthusiasm died, they began to close down one after another. Each had been dependent on a single dedicated individual, and there was no process that could replace that dedication. The whole structure of storerooms, records and ledgers with its clerks, record keepers, accountants and supervisors, supported only by the productive work of the spinners and weavers, crumbled. Gandhi’s idea of khadi as a stirring call to self-reliance had been shut up into a straitjacket of bureaucracy.

But here in Adilabad, as no doubt all over the subcontinent, there had been yarn spinning and cloth weaving in the villages long before khadi came into the picture. While we went about selling Chinnur fabric in urban markets, the archival research and the village conversations carried on. Historical records had plenty to tell us. John Forbes Watson’s magisterial The Textile Manufactures and the Costumes of the People of India, published in 1866, talks of special yarns being carried to faraway weaving centres: ‘The cotton anciently used in the manufacture of the Chundeyree muslins,’ he says, ‘is stated to have been brought from Oomrawuttee, in Berar ; and the thread, when of fine quality, was sold for its weight in silver.’

Indian cotton cloth, both thick or thin, for elites and commoners alike, had been made of cotton in both warp and weft for millennia. Handspun cotton had been stiffened for the warp by starching (known as sizing) the limp cotton threads with a gruel made from wheat, millets or rice. Careful sizing allowed even the finest yarns to work as warp, making the famous gossamer cotton muslins. In the western world on the contrary, handspun cotton yarn was weak, suited only for use in the weft. English spinners had been used to spinning wool and linen and were unused to the idea that limp cotton yarn should be starched to stiffen it before it could be woven. In England, it was the early mechanically spun yarn, made on Arkwright’s water frame, that in the later 18th century allowed a fully cotton cloth to be woven, for the first time cotton in both warp and weft. It might have taken away the poetry of spinning but it allowed the machines of Lancashire to rule the world for a hundred and fifty years.


The scale at which yarn was spun on machines grew and grew. By the early 19th century it was far beyond the domestic sphere; it had become an industrial activity. Large spinning mills were set up, first in England and soon after in America. In England the machinery often had low level rows of spindles to be worked by children, while in the American mills young unmarried women were recruited for the job. Such pliant hands were less likely to cause trouble than men; the industrialists remembered the recent experience in the north of England of machine breaking by the ‘Luddites’, bands of textile workers thrown out of work by the new machines. Weaving machines were soon added to the spinning frames which completed the mechanization of cotton textile production.

The new mills were built near rivers which supplied water power to run the machinery. Huge quantities of slave grown cotton from the plantations of southern America provided the raw material. The combination of cheap labour and raw material with water power was the basis of the industrial production that swept Indian cotton textiles out of world markets. In fact India itself became a market. India was ‘by far the greatest and most valuable of all the customers we have’, said Joseph Chamberlain.


Yarn from English mills flooded India’s rural haats. Though it was useless for the thin Indian muslins, the English yarn undercut the domestic handspun yarn in making ordinary cloth for ordinary people, which formed the bulk of cotton hand weaving in the country. It was this part, far larger than the weaving of special cloth for the elite, that had been supplied by the millions of domestic yarn spinners. In this mode of production, the growers of cotton, the spinners and the weavers, met and exchanged directly or through the small local markets that promoted such exchanges. Not only did the alien yarn displace handspun yarn, but in doing so it also disrupted this web of social relations.

In India there was no protest on the lines of the Luddite rebellion; instead, the misery and despair it caused in a million households seemed not even to have been noticed by the authorities of the time, or at least there is no existing report of any such reaction. Gandhi in his paper Young India quotes a letter written in 1828 by a young widow to a local newspaper. She writes how by spinning yarn she supported her household ‘through the grace of the charkha.’ But with cheaper imported yarn being sold in the local bazaar, she is unable to sell what she spins, though, ‘men cannot use the cloth out of this yarn even for two months; it rots away’ , she writes.

Gandhi and his ideas were always in the background of our group’s conversations in Adilabad. In our view what Gandhi missed was critical participation in the development of his ideas on the charkha and hand spinning, or indeed of any technology, or of science. On the contrary, his ideas were either unquestioningly accepted or rejected outright. Tagore famously dismissed the charkha as a distraction from ‘our task of all-round reconstruction’, while Nehru and the Congress disowned it.


None of Gandhi’s companions took up a deep study into the relation between the cotton plant and the spinning process with the fervour and focus of a Ramakrishna or the analytical skills of a Shambu Prasad, another member of our group. None of Gandhi’s contemporaries took his proposition seriously of a science that would not deny but would include the spiritual and aesthetic, a science based on advaita that would treat the other as part of the self. This science would not reject rationality but consider it an instrument to test the validity of belief. ‘Faith is a function of the heart and has to be enforced by reason… the more intense one’s faith is, the more it whets one’s reason’, said Gandhi.

It was the Adilabad conversations that led to the germination of the Malkha idea – of a way of spinning cotton yarn that would respect the cotton fibre, that would acknowledge the influences of soil, weather, nature and human culture on the material and on the process, that would carry the diversity of Indian cotton plants all the way into the woven cloth, so that India would regain its millennia-old capability to make hundreds of different varieties of fabrics. We were convinced that the ability to produce a diversity of cotton fabrics with low cost infrastructure in a low energy process on a gigantic scale was the genius of the Indian civilization, and that this needed to be affirmed by a compatible spinning technology.


What of the cotton farmer? Indian agriculture is a vast patchwork of small farms, spread over a diverse countryside that varies in climate, soils and access to water. The farm, the farmer, the way cotton is grown and the way it is treated, are integral parts of a way of life which is essentially small-scale and diverse in nature. Small-scale farming partners small-scale production. The introduction of spinning machinery designed to suit mass production is an anomaly. The farmer suffers by being forced to grow cotton for this machinery, a single variety that has taken over the cotton fields of India, that needs irrigation and attracts pests, that can’t stand up to the floods and droughts that are endemic to the Indian climate. The hand weaver gets only the one kind of yarn the machines can make, losing the diversity of yarn that underpins regional specialization of fabrics. We have become dependent on a technology that calls the shots, that dominates both farmer and weaver.

Small-scale production is a way to a sympathetic industrialization that does not see differences as divergences from an imposed norm. India can be a pioneer in making cloth without generating greenhouse gases, it can take its own path to modernity, it need not join the anthropocene route to oblivion. All it needs is for us to make spinning machinery to suit the range of cotton plants that India can grow. With that we can again clothe ‘everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman’, as we did four hundred years ago.

We can do it, we can make machines with soul, that will restore the poetry of diversity to Indian cotton fabrics.