I first encountered Charaka in Mysore. I was looking for local cotton production of which I had heard there was lots but was struggling to find any handloom beyond the absolutely gorgeous but somewhat overwhelmingly bold silk sarees of which Mysore is so famous. This is when I found myself at the Desi Angadi store in Kuvempu Nagara. In this gorgeous, green, residential neighbourhood, up a flight of stairs on an adorable yellow old house I found myself surrounded by a really impressive quantity and variety of handwoven cotton garments. Their collection which includes the traditional basic garments associated with khadi as well as their contemporary spins on them, some homeware products, accessories and a collection of variety of sarees featuring traditional Karnataka weaves and motifs including Chikki-paras and Gomi border styles finely checkered or striped bodies. All of their products are made of cotton handloom, woven in their centres and villages across northern Karnataka. I expressed my excitement to one of the lovely sales assistants and asked whether a visit would be possible. She nodded handing me a brochure with a smile and said they would be happy to have me.

Having decided that Mysuru was growing on me a little too fondly and that it was time to get out before I became fully integrated, I chose Gokarna as my base – an ideal spot to wait out the Holidays of Ganesh Chaturthi on the beach. This meant that I’d be traversing the Western Ghats, and it was bound to be a full day of travel heading for Shimoga.

So: the DESI* Stores are the marketing agencies** of the Charaka Trust. This trust was set up by the prominent theatre personality Prassana, to support village people while maintaining the Karnataka tradition of cotton weaving. While the industries surrounding cotton have ancient roots in Karnataka, the Bhimanakone Village, where the trust’s production centres are, was not historically a weaving community. This activity was introduced by the trust to the community as an alternative source of income to the over dependence on agriculture in a changing climate and as a means of empowering rural women and positive activism.

After a very engaging and encouraging phone call with a Mr Krishna I found myself climbing slowly up north. I began my walk along the beach from my hut just after six in the morning with the sun slowly rising to my side. Three different buses, multiple seat companions, several idli, some crazy bumpy hairpin bends and a couple hours of confused waiting later, I found myself at a railway station style sign announcing CHARAKA (and again in Kannada). After a little confusion on arrival I was swiftly and warmly guided through the tailoring unit of the trust. This luscious, terraced, campus is constituted by several units each housed in the most beautiful buildings featuring the vernacular clay walls and wood carved details. On this campus the finished yardage is prepared for and transformed into garments, including pattern work, tailoring, finishing quality control and inventory. The majority of the stock is held here, consisting of completed garments, accessories, homeware products as well as yardage. After completing the circuit, along with many friendly greetings and giggles along the way, I was swiftly advised to visit the “Ashram”.

Around 2km down the road, passed the local Desi outlet, is the Shramajeevi Ashram. Translating to “hard working soul”, Shramajeevi is the primary production hub of the trust. The first building one encountered upon entering the compound houses a prayer hall featuring the images of Gandhji  and a female deity of handloom who is depicted at the Charkha. Just outside the hall, in a corner of shade a woman slowly working away on a wheel, spinning cotton onto bobbins for weaving. A little further down the path is the central, open court yard of the campus, walled in by four long, low buildings constructed in the vernacular style and material, mostly packed mud and wood. In this serenely natural setting I was welcomed warmly and guided to the beginning of the process.

The cotton used is by Charaka is mechanically spun in local mills supplied by the NHDC, differentiating it from Khadi, which defined by being handspun cotton. First the cotton is scoured, applying heat and manual labour to make the yarn more responsive to the all natural dyeing process. All of Charaka’s products fall within a limited, cohesive palette of variations on the six colours of naturally derived dye they use – including indigo, pomegranate skins, Indian madder and a Eucalyptus Ferrous sulphate combination amongst others. While the natural dyeing process its still a physically demanding one, it is much better for the environment, consumer and for the craftsmen doing the dyeing who are otherwise exposed to highly toxic chemicals. After a little broken but excitable banter with the men of the unit about cricket – AB De Villiers always being a solid favourite in Karnataka – we crossed over to the women dominated units of the process.

First the yarn is spun onto the warp beam and the bobbins and then the frame looms are prepared for weaving – a process which takes generally around a day as they mostly weave relatively simple designs of yardage here. The trust provides training for aspiring weavers and I happened to catch a young woman in process, sharing a quick grin while she clacked away rhythmically away at an empty frame loom, while the other women steadily clocked through their yardage. Once the weaving is complete it is cut from the loom, taken for shrinking washing, dried and then either taken for block printing or another form of dyeing which they experiment with here such as Shibori, before being taken for quality control.  Some of this fabric will go for embroidery or other handwork which is done by the women of the village in their homes and then delivered to the centre. The sarees are put into stock on this campus while the majority of the yardage goes to their other campus for either tailoring or into the stock room from where much of it is sold as yardage.

There is also a sampling and designing unit which is full of exciting energy, investigating and experimenting with new designs, techniques and waste recycling initiatives. Another major activity here is the production of patchwork quilts which are made from wastage scraps. After several more radiant grins and shy giggles, a cup of chai and the last of my many questions fielded with grace, an auto was called for and I was gunning towards the bus stand in the hopes of making it back to my beach shack before midnight. On the long return journey – made even longer by throngs of festivities and chariots for Ganesh – I was overwhelmed by a state of content tranquility.

My words fail to express what an impression the physical spaces of the Charaka Trust – the two village campuses as well as the three DESI stores which I have visited have had on me. There is an overwhelming sense of humanity which radiates from them buildings. From the natural construction materials and traditional architectural style to the hand painted motifs adorning the window sills and door frames to the carefully laid rangoli*** these spaces are designed for and shaped by the people who spend their days in them, their climate, their histories and their futures. These are the kinds of spaces that make you want to stay a while, the kind of place I could easily imagine passing my days happily in, amongst a community. Many social work initiatives deal with concepts and projections which are abstract, or at least intangible, where I feel the Charaka Trust really seems to have exceeded all standards is in the quality of the day to day lives that they create for the people engaged in their activities. There is a true culture of dignity and community which radiates from the place, and from the employees who form the centre of all activity.

There is one seemingly small detail which stands out to me in particular and brings me, beyond all, immense Joy. Technically the Charaka Trust does not produce Khadi, as the cotton they use is mill sources. However, the spirit behind Khadi – as an ideological activity – is one of true self sufficiency, independence and decentralisation of the market and the social work and production activities on the campus appear fully aligned with the movement. One of the major sticking points in almost every contemporary khadi producer that I have come across is that the price at which the cloth must be sold in order to provide a decent liveable wage for the weaver means that they no longer have financial access to the product of their own looms. The reality is that the handloom weaver today is weaving for oneself only so far as a source of income and not int terms of material product. For me there is a sad disjuncture in seeing master weavers who employ immense skill, artistry and physical labour into creating the most gorgeous cloth, sitting at their looms in polyester sportswear. Of course this is a matter of personal taste and there is no secret about my bias here – but the fact remains that the majority of handloom weavers are financially excluded from the market of their own products. However, this day was the first time that I have truly seen a spectrum of the workforce, from designer to the aunty who runs the kitchen and a variety of ladies in-between wearing the product of their daily labour. This is a very small detail compared to the huge work – both in scale and social importance – that the trust does, but to me it is a detail which really speaks to the ethos behind the project. For me this is a modest but quintessential symbol of what true sustainability could look like. 



* DESI is an acronym of Developing Ecologically Sustainable Industry, but also translates as local, native or indigenous in Kannada, the language of Karnataka.

** I’ve found that the term ‘marketing agency’ is commonly used by cooperatives or  organisations working with cooperatives of craftspeople for the retail sector of the organisation.

*** Rangoli is a type of decoration associated with Hindu festival time. It is a pattern which is drawn in chalk and then usually covered with some sort of powder or flour, often in white but can be coloured, which are made on the ground just outside of doors

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