The Charkha: A Project for Heart Change

The Charkha: A Project for Heart Change

A Handloom project from the desert of North Western India which aims to promote ancient wisdom and spread ideology of decentralization through social enterprise

Traditionally, the people of the Thar Desert – a North Western region of modern India – have a folk culture scarce in resources but rich in culture and handcraft.

In an environment where very little grows, humans and animals often develop strong relationships. For the people of this region sheep and camels have formed a central role in the life and the culture of the region. Amongst many others, the animals have played a vital role as a source of fibre for the communities who would hand spin and weave the wool into multipurpose textiles which would adorn life and ward off the biting cold of the desert winters and nights. The traditional blankets, handwoven of handspun, wool, served as daily use objects as well as cultural symbols of identity and a legacy of wisdom. 

When traveling through Rajasthan in 2018 I searched long and hard for the pattu, the traditional handloom wool blanket of the region and was surprised at their rarity in the contemporary market. Although they are available in some government handicrafts outlets every contemporary example I found are woven from imported merino wool, chemically dyed and subsidized by the government. Although the Merino wool is softer, resulting in a product more appealing to a modern market, I was really disheartened at the disappearance of the local fibre in favor of one imported at great energetic cost. 

On this trip I briefly met Mr Ashok Bishnoi, Founder secretary of HASTSHILP, A society for Handicrafts based at the National Camel Research Centre in Bikaner, a city of the Thar desert region. I was inspired by his work in the production of beautiful, natural, handloom cloth and the centrality of khadi philosophy to his business and his life. 

Ashok Ji has a dedicated his professional career of over twenty years to promoting the handcraft of the region as a means to preserve material folk culture as well as the livelihoods of those living a rural traditional lifestyle. Inspired by Khadi and the symbol of the charkha, this has been central to his work in the preservation of this culture as well as a holistic lifestyle philosophy.

The charkha is a symbol of pre-industrialized, rural India and synonymous with the work and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, who brought it into the twentieth century as the symbol for his philosophy of Khadi, a powerful physical and symbolic tool for Swaraj – his call to self rule by Indians. Cotton was a staple of British colonial rule in India, an export which decimated the national identity, environment and individual livelihood through a system of replacing local cotton varietals with ill suited foreign strains better suited to the industrial processing machinery of Britain, and industry which would then sell the raw material back as an inferior finished product to Indians, locked into the trade through a framework of suffocating taxations and policies. The ideology of Khadi – a cloth woven by hand of handspun natural yarn is ultimately one of dignity, of taking personal and communal pride in labour and as a tool to decentralize industrial systems of power in preference of the individual, village, and community. 

During the current global crisis we find ourselves in, there appears to be a growing sentiment that the centralized systems that we have organized ourselves around may be failing us. The conversation I keep hearing is an interrogation of whether current systems of value and power dominated by capital and individualism serve us as humans, or whether the way to ensure future resilience is through a decentralization of power by returning to social and human centered value systems founded on collective interest.

As a response to the social and economic climate we globally find our selves in, Ashok Ji has developed a project in which the khadi philosophy can be used as a tool to build community and encourage a shift in consciousness and values. 

In collaboration with 5 khadi spinners, 3 khadi weavers and some animal breeders of the Thar Desert, Ashok Ji is inviting 101 participants to join him on a project of heroic ideological scale through the humble medium of cloth. 

The goal of the project is to inspire a global community to shift from centralized systems of power founded on a disjuncture between production and consumption through the application of the khadi philosophy. As an alternative to capital based systems which promote self interest, disrespect labour and exploit finite resources, the value of labour and the understanding that resources and value are earned through hard work and respect are fundamental tenants to khadi philosophy. The ideological objective is to shift the individual’s relationship to self, others and environment through a shared experience of humanity, the progression towards collective wellbeing and a respect based lifestyle.

Materially, the project will be producing three woolen khadi products using sheep and camel wool (Otijatt) local to the Bikaner region: a blanket of 240cm x 140 cm, a scarf of 70cm x 220cm and a muffler of 30cm x 180cm.

Participants are invited to join the project by visiting The Charkha’s Store and placing an order for one or multiple of the products. The project will be limited to 101 participants or the cut off date of 02 June 2020, whichever comes first. Additional interest beyond this figure will be fed into potential follow up projects. 

More than just an opportunity to support the continuation of an ancient local artisan tradition and to benefit from an entirely ethically produced product the project aims to create a connected community. Over the 8-9 months expected for the full production cycle, the majority of which is consumed in spinning, the community will be able to connect with one another, learn about processes, skills and challenges, to exchange ideas and have fun together.

The production will begin with collecting fibre from local sheep herders and camel breeders. Along with folk culture and the very production woolen khadi products in the region, these occupations are in extreme crisis due to shifting market demands and environmental conditions.

The raw material will be carded at Shakti Woolen Mills, a local mill near Bikaner. The carded fibre will then be given to five spinners who will spin the wool on charkhas in their homes in the nearby village of Udasar. The spun wool will be woven in the homes of three weavers in the villages of Ambasar, Bikaner and Raisar. 

Washing, milling and pressing services will be provided by Khadi Mandir in Bikaner, before the final products are finished, labeled and dispatched by HASTSHILP, A Society for Handicrafts Bikaner.


For further information about the project or enquires, you can get in touch with Mr Ashok Bishnoi directly, and follow any of his channels: 
Phone:+91 9461047725

instagram: @khadi_ashram

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