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Charaka, a weaving community for women, works to save the dying art of handloom weaving while empowering rural women. Here’s a wide-eyed exploration of the community and the toil.
Every kurta has a story behind it. I picked up one – off-white with blue stripes – and ran my fingers over it. The coarse feel of raw cotton, the minor imperfections at places – which comes with handloom, and the brown buttons carved out of coconut shells got me thinking. Where did this one come from? How many people would have been involved in getting this beautiful piece of garment to the wearer? What was the motivation that got them to make it? I never knew that these seemingly random thoughts about a kurta would set me off on a trip to the place of its origin – Charaka.
When RangDe came up with a field trip to Charaka on Independence Day, my interest in understanding the weaving process was rekindled. The eagerness of spending time in a peaceful ashram coupled with the excitement of driving to a remote village – of which we knew very little – made the decision to visit, an easy one. With two of my friends, we set off on the Bangalore-Honnavar road towards Sagara; a diversion at Ulluru set us off on a village road. A few minutes later, we would be entering a lesser motorable mud road, which would take us to “Shramajeevi Ashram”.
We dropped our voices a few decibels lower when we noticed the peace and quiet of this place.
Mr. Ramesh was waiting at the entrance of the path that would lead us to the wooden barricade of the ashram. We dropped our voices a few decibels lower when we noticed the peace and quiet of this place. Apart from a few far-away birdcalls, the air was still, and we had to readjust our tired city-ears to pick up the faint sounds of nature.
Charaka is a weaving community setup in the village of Heggodu near Sagara taluk of Shimoga District, Karnataka. Mr. Prasanna, an alumnus of the National School of Drama, and a well-known Kannada playwright and theatre director, started Charaka to fuel positive activism and empower rural women in the village of Heggodu. Desi (meaning native or indigenous, stands for Developing Ecologically Sustainable Industry) is the marketing division of Charaka, which has over 9 outlets across Karnataka to sell Charaka products.
Charaka has improved the livelihood of multitude of women folk from in and around Heggodu and has given them the confidence to stay independent. They talk about the ashram with a sense of pride that can come only from hard work, which befits the name given to the ashram “Shrama-Jeevi” meaning “Hard working Soul”.
The use of earthy material for constructing the place ensured that the human settlements blend well with the natural beauty of the place. As we walked, to our right we saw the prayer hall which we would visit the next morning. Beyond it was Mr. Prasanna’s living quarters, which he had made his home. A pathway led us to rows of huts constructed around a large courtyard which served as a flower /vegetable garden. The huts had simple mud walls and mud flooring, with roofs lined with tiles.
The walls were painted yellow with simple hand painted designs around the doors and windows. The whole place is powered by a handful of solar lamps and there is no electricity in the huts. The huts are modestly furnished with a charpoy and bed and a small kerosene lamp serving as the single light source during night.
“Raghupati Raghava Rajaram …” sang all of them in unison; their voices had a restraint and calmness to it. Assembled in the prayer hall around 9am, they sat around Gandhiji’s portrait, delivering soulful hymns; sometimes a main voice leading, and the others repeating after her. They paused between lines; the momentary, purposeful pause and the sudden silence caused thus gave us time to register and contemplate. With noble thoughts filled in our minds, we walked out of the prayer hall, following Mr. Ramesh, who would show us the weaving process.
The women proceeded to take their positions behind their charakas, handlooms or tailoring machines, depending on their core skills, and their work. As we walked, looking curiously at each piece of equipment, pausing to take photos (and in some cases, pose for photos), my eyes met some of the women folk in a fleeting moment; some smiled shy smiles, some giggled, some others just looked downwards, too reserved to smile at strangers. Of course, in most cases, we could hear them burst out into laughter and small talk about us as soon as we walked away; our strange ways and our curious looks offering them their share of entertainment for the day.
The cotton is spun into raw thread in the mills. So, the first step in the cloth manufacturing process, which is processing of the cotton and spinning them into yarn, is not done at Charaka. This is the only part which happens outside and thus, their raw material for starting the process is the cotton yarn procured from mills situated in and around Shimoga. We also understood the difference between cotton fabric and “Khadi”; khadi is hand spun yarn, which is spun from raw cotton using Charaka, it is a manual process. Cotton garments which are non-khadi start from the yarn spun at cotton mills.
A batch of ladies was working on large wooden wheels that would spin the yarn on a bobbin. These bobbins would later be used for the weaving. The next step in the process requires special skill and a keen eye for design. This is the step where several bobbins are arranged on a huge wooden rack in a particular order, then a thread from each of these are carefully drawn by hand and fed into a device having fine teeth like a comb. The order in which the threads are drawn and fed into this comb determines the overall design of the fabric. If the cloth requires thin blue lines interspersed with white and yellow, then the designer has to carefully arrange it in such a way.
This requires utmost concentration and they had their best person on the job for this. Once the threads are arranged in the feeder, they will then be routed to the huge wooden rolls in the same order to form the entire length of the fabric. During this process, it is important to ensure number of turns of the barrel is accurate, and there are no cut threads in the process. If there were an error, it would have to be corrected, and in some cases, retraced till the point of error and then corrected. It takes almost 1-2 days to lay out the thread, in this manner, which forms the length of the cloth.These rolls have to be firm and tight to avoid any knots or breakage during the weaving process.
These huge rolls are then placed on the loom to start weaving the breadth of the fabric. The hand loom, is so called due to the human effort involved in moving the “bullet” from left to right by pulling a string by one hand and stepping on a wooden stepper at the same time in a rhythmic way. The bullet carries the thread that will run through the breadth of the fabric, with the length being supplied by the huge rolls previously arranged. The weaving also requires the thread from the rolls to be arranged in a way that the bullet moves through in between two layers of thread (the number of layers determine the thickness) to ensure it is “weaved” in tightly.
The rhythmic movement is essential to avoid crimps in the fabric. Although this seems easy, trying a hand at it for a couple of minutes, we were successfully able to create several crimps, which would then pass off as imperfections of hand-woven fabric. We also got a compliment from the supervisor, amidst giggles and guffaws from onlookers “This kind of weaving is suitable for coarse rugs”, subtly indicating that the imperfections caused disqualifies it for a kurta!
What comes out of the loom is ready to be stitched into garments. It will then be sent to the tailors to cut and stitch into desired designs. The other post-processing like block printing and ironing happens in the next room. They use dyes to create designs using wooden block stencils. The final finishing – like stitching in buttons- happen after the prints are dry.
We also visited the creative team that uses mostly waste material (pieces of discarded cloth from stitching clothes) to make quilts. These beautiful designs are discussed in a room, then each person in the room takes up a part of the quilt, one just cutting waste cloth into square pieces, another stitching them together into patterns, another stitching them together into quilt with a foam layer in between. The end result is a vibrant, multi-color quilt with beautiful patterns and designs.
We were ushered into the kitchen for a tea break, where we met all of them again. Just behind the kitchen area is a large soot-covered cauldron, which boils a concoction of various vegetable matter to prepare dyes. The bubbling liquid gave out a pungent smell, which we were unable to place, and later learnt was mostly of pomegranate peel. The thread obtained from the mills are dyed here and kept for drying in a large room filled with racks of thread.
They need to be turned over periodically to ensure uniform drying. The duration of dipping of the thread into the cauldron determines the shade of the color. There is an in-house lab, which constantly experiments with various combinations of dyes to produce different, new colours. The successful ones that pass the experiment are determined mainly by which holds well and whether the coluor would run when rinsed. All the successful ones are documented for reference. Since no chemicals colours are used in this process, some colours are not obtained. The raw material required for preparing the dyes (like indigo, pomegranate peels, areca) are sourced from other places.
After going through the entire process, we were eager to see (and shop for) some finished goods! Bidding farewell to our kind hosts at Shramajeevi ashram, we set off towards the Charaka outlet that is on the way to Sagara. It is an old house, artistically constructed; we later came to know it was Mr. Prasanna’s house before he moved into his dwelling at the ashram. We were soon engrossed in appreciating the fabrics, spoilt for choices.
This time when we picked up a kurta, or even a pillowcase, we did so with certain respect; respect that comes out of knowing the toil and care behind each of these finished pieces.
This time when we picked up a kurta, or even a pillowcase, we did so with certain respect; respect that comes out of knowing the toil and care behind each of these finished pieces. And of course, with a certain satisfaction that we were encouraging this dying art of handloom, which provided a window of opportunities to women from this village of Heggodu.
RangDe has funded part of this initiative by lending a collective loan to this community. By doing this, they promote handloom and provide recognition to this beautiful community of weavers.
Pic credit: Image of handloom weaver via Shutterstock
This piece was first published here.
Sharada was born in 1982 and has majored in Applied Science and Technology from Bangalore.
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