A village in Andhra Pradesh produces the most exquisite hand-spun khadi in India. Tradition demands a higher price from the spinners
Amita Shah | 09 Aug, 2019
K Sarojini spins the Gandhi charkha at her home in Ponduru, Andhra Pradesh (Photos: Rohit Chawla)
THE FLORAL tattoo on her frail arm has been there for almost as long as she has been spinning yarn on the Gandhi charkha. At 70, Jallapalli Kantamma’s memories of the origins of both are hazy. Holding raw cotton in her hands, she combs it with the jaw of the Valuga fish from the Godavari river—the first of the five persevering stages before spinning cotton to make hanks to be woven into pure handmade khadi.
Sitting on the floor of her small verandah, next to her five-decade-old charkha dotted with white muggulu or rangoli, a part of the region’s folklore, generally at the entrance to welcome the Goddess of wealth Lakshmi, she looks up and smiles. “I learnt the skill as a child from my mother,” says Kantamma. Ever since, her life has spun around the single-spindle charkha in Ponduru village of Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh.
Almost every door on Mugivani veedi (street) in Ponduru opens into a verandah with a Gandhi charkha. Old and middle-aged women sit on clean cement floors poring over it, holding cotton wrapped in a layer of dried banana tree stem in one hand, moving it like a musician playing the violin, the other hand turning the charkha, in the daylight that filters through the iron grill. In some homes, the darker room behind the verandah has a loom, generally operated by a man. The houses, with tin or terracotta-tiled roofs, are designed one room leading into another. The last one is the kitchen. Around 10 years ago, the houses had thatched roofs.
Scrutinising the cotton, Kantamma focuses on removing the dried leaves and other impurities from it, her stone-studded nosepin gleaming, an image of elegance, patience and simplicity, reminding one of Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “If we have the khadi spirit in us, we would surround ourselves with simplicity in every walk of life. The khadi spirit means illimitable patience. For those who know anything about the production of khadi, know how patiently the spinners and the weavers have to toil at their trade, and even so must we have patience while we are spinning ‘the thread of Swaraj’. The khadi spirit means also an equally illimitable faith.”
While travelling across the country in the early 1920s, Gandhi had stopped at Dusi railway station, about 10 km from Ponduru and it was there that he heard of the khadi being spun in this village, says Shankar Rao, an accountant who has been working with the Andhra Fine Khadi Karmikabhivruddhi Sangh (AFKKS), a Government undertaking, since 1991, when he joined as a clerk. Gandhi was surprised to see the finesse of the khadi made by artisans of the region. A few years later, he sent his son Devdas to Ponduru. After staying for a week, he conveyed to Gandhi how the women in the region spun, what came to be known as the finest hand-made khadi, on the single-spindle charkha. It is said that Gandhi, who is known to have worn what he spun, liked the dhotis from Ponduru.
Almost a century later, khadi, the way Gandhi visualised it—organic, indigenous and self-reliant—is still being produced in Ponduru. The Gandhi charkha, the original creator of khadi, is believed to be in use only in Ponduru and a cluster of villages in Srikakulam district. The difference in the hanks—one made on the single-spindle charkha with organic short staple cotton, and the other in the motorised multiple-spindle Amber charkha which supports long staple cotton—is palpable. According to Rao, under the AFKKS, which supplies the cotton to the spinners, there are around 950 Gandhi charkha spinners in around 35 villages of the region. Of these, 200-250 are in Ponduru. There was a time when almost every house in the village, now a mandal, had a spinning wheel. Some have moved to other professions, an evolution towards greener pastures in the search of a better life, leaving the family tradition of spinning and weaving.
Almost a century later, khadi, the way Gandhi visualised it, is still being produced in Ponduru. The Gandhi charkha is believed to be in use only in Ponduru and a cluster of villages in Srikakulam district
Like Kantamma, whose children have left Ponduru, many other spinners know that the next generation may not pursue spinning. A single-spindle charkha spinner gets around Rs 150 per day, while those working on the Amber charkha, with eight spindles, make around Rs 200 per day. The Amber charkha produces 30-40 hanks (each being 1,000 metres), while the Gandhi charkha produces a hank a day. Rao, one of the few in the village who speaks fluent Hindi, knows every spinner and weaver in Ponduru by name. “With cost of living going up, in another 10 years, I fear it will be difficult to find Gandhi charkha spinners and weavers.” Of the 50 spinners’ houses on the street, Rao says the youngest spinner is 20 and their average age would be 45-50. He, however, points out that over the past five years, the demand for Ponduru khadi has been growing. Earlier, the demand was lower, but there were more spinners, while now the situation has reversed. There is hope in his eyes.
A couple of dwellings down the street from Kantamma’s house, 45-year-old K Sarojini, wearing a mill-made printed cotton saree, is busy spinning. Above the door in an inner room is a photograph of her taking an award from Prime Minister Narendra Modi for best spinning, in Ludhiana, in 2015. “The art and skill of spinning is in the hands,” says Rao. In the photograph, Sarojini is wearing a white Ponduru jamdani khadi saree, spun by her and hand-woven by her husband Sriramulu. That was the first time she had ever worn a khadi saree, which costs at least Rs 9,000. A saree made on the Amber charkha costs Rs 2,500-4,000. Even in Ponduru and the villages around it, sarees of completely handmade khadi, a unique combination of fineness and coarseness, are a rare and treasured commodity—a work of art depending on the skill of the spinner.
Sarojini’s son works for the State Bank of India as a cashier while her daughter has done her MA, BEd. Her husband, who was a weaver earning around Rs 200-300 daily, now sells fruits making Rs 500-1,000 a day. But Sarojini, recognised for her work, pledges to continue spinning all her life. Kantamma’s neighbour M Kalyani, 45, also finds satisfaction in spinning, an art that is respected in Ponduru and has brought the village on the international map because of its fabric. On the other side of the AFKKS, in a small house, a jamdani saree is in the process of being woven in the loom. For 55-year-old M Thavitamma, who has been spinning from the age of 10, it is a tradition that has come down generations. Her daughter too has learnt it, but lives in Srikakulam with her husband, who has quit weaving to work as a compounder in a hospital. “They earn more than they would in spinning,” says Thavitamma. The story is similar in most homes of the Gandhi charkha spinners of Ponduru.
In a large hall next to her house, around 20 women—young and old—operate the Amber charkha. Unlike the Gandhi charkhas, which are owned individually and used in homes, these are provided by the Government. The women, who come to work in a space provided by the AFKKS, earn around Rs 200 per day. The question that stares at Ponduru is: how long can the Gandhi charkha survive the odds?
Every Sunday, the spinners take the hanks to the AFKKS to sell. When the AFKKS opened in 1952, it was the only pucca building in the village. The other structures were all of thatched roofs. Inside the long two-storeyed structure with shiny cement floors and wood and terracotta roof, there are photographs of Vinoba Bhave and Jawaharal Nehru in some of the rooms. Vinoba Bhave, who had undertaken the Bhoodan Movement from Pochampally, had inaugurated the AFKKS. After the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) was formed in 1956 under the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, the AFKKS fell under its aegis. According to Rao, till then the spinners and weavers used the khadi they made to barter for other goods. A statue of Gandhi at the AFKKS entrance was inaugurated by Gandhi’s grand-daughter, Tara Bhattacharjee, in 1997.
Poludas Nagendra Satish of Kora Design Collaborative, a Hyderabad-based design and research initiative working intensively with hand-spinning, says despite working daily for six hours and producing 1,000 metres of fine hand-spun yarn for just Rs 100, the women look very content. “We have to understand that it is not just money which is making them practise this slow skill every day. The idea of khadi is to make people self-reliant, which we lost over a period of time as we just see it as a commodity or a product with a story to sell.” The two indigenous cotton varieties, kondapatti and errapatti, were just sustained because of the continuation of hand-spinning activity and the rest of the 28 varieties grown in nine districts of Andhra Pradesh faded out under the influence of hybrid BT cotton varieties.
According to him, more than 90 per cent of what is available today as khadi across the country is made on Amber charkhas using hybrid foreign cotton varieties, which are processed on imported machines to make sliver or roving. This itself, he says, defeats the idea of khadi, as the machine determines the cotton variety to be grown and yarn specification to be made, which is not the case with hand-spinning. For the fabric to have a future, he says “we need to value it.”
It is a catch-22 situation. If the wages of spinners are increased, the cost of the already expensive fabric shoots up further. If not, the number of spinners will further dwindle. The cost of long staple cotton, the variety supported by the Amber charkha, is Rs 50-60 per kg, while the short staple cotton used by the hand-spinner is valued at Rs 200-250 per kg. Vijaya Switha of Hyderabad-based Chitrikha Foundation, which has been working with artisans to create business enterprises, says hand-spun khadi is already in the premium segment and has a narrow market. “The purists want it to be a luxury product. But if you don’t look at it from their eyes, we can work on short staple cotton with some hand and some mechanised procedures as an answer to the dilemma about it.” So far, no such experiment has been undertaken, says Switha, who has travelled to various states to see the work being done in the segment. She also did not find the fine khadi produced in Ponduru elsewhere.
In Devaravalasa village, a nine-kilometre drive from Ponduru through rich vegetation, Chitrikha has started an initiative called Vamshadhara Weavers Producer Company Ltd, the largest employer of weavers in Srikakulam. Of the 150 families involved in spinning and weaving, 30 use the Gandhi charkha. N Kantamma, 62, has been spinning for 30 years, having learnt the skill from her mother-in-law. Her red, green and yellow bangles jangle as she turns the wheel. Her husband does the weaving. She says between them, a metre of khadi takes 12 hours. They get paid Rs 18,000 for 33 metres. Asked if she herself ever wears a khadi saree, she smiles. “It’s too expensive. I cannot afford it.” Of around 80 houses in the village, nearly 40 have charkhas. Some weavers had left the village but have returned because of better wages ever since Chitrikha ventured into it around a decade ago, says Padma, a resident of Devaravalasa. Earlier, the hanks were taken to Ponduru to be sold.
While private players have got into khadi, it is not easy to know how many mix the hand and Amber charkhas, though technically they may be correct in calling the product handmade. Even to make handwoven khadi an exclusive product, it requires a proper ecosystem
With an increasing trend in favour of the organic, Switha says people are ready to pay more for such products even in clothing. “There may not be too many, but there are.” While private players have got into khadi, it is not easy to know how many mix the hand and Amber charkhas, though technically they may be correct in calling the product handmade. Even to make handwoven khadi an exclusive product, it requires a proper ecosystem that involves addressing issues of farmers growing organic cotton, spinning, weaving and dyeing, she says. “If all this can be done, then there is a future for it. Otherwise, the pure handwoven khadi may just reach the museum level.”
Even in the sprawling multi-storeyed khadi outlet in the capital’s Regal building, it is rare to find Ponduru khadi sarees or clothes. The Intellectual Property Facilitation Center’s Technology and Innovation Support Centre, Visakhapatnam, has reportedly initiated a proposal for Geographical Identification for Ponduru khadi. A GI, used on certain products which correspond to a specific geographical location, ensures that none other than those registered as authorised users are allowed to use the popular product name. The latest to join the over 500 GI tagged items in India is the Odisha rasagolla.
Designer Rajeev Sethi, in a lecture in Jaipur in 2015, had said that khadi was not the responsibility of any government, department, NGO or group alone and called for passionate participation from each and every person. “Yoga and ayurveda are synonymous with India. Unlike yoga, which now belongs to the world, khadi is relatively unknown. Yet, it represents precious skills that can create a unique edge for us in global markets… provide original content in a knowledge economy… hungry for ecological products and services,” he had said. Further, he expressed the view that India needed to make its brands of the handmade so big, so well-documented and better-distributed so that everyone knows and realises the strength of a true patent.
The story of the weavers is not as disheartening as that of the spinners. On Vanarangi veedi, there are around 100 weavers. Appa Rao, 72, is sitting on the floor in a white dhoti, rolling the hank. His 40-year-old son, Mupanna Srinivasan, got the award for best weaving. Rao was 15 when he started weaving. Four members of the family are involved in weaving, bringing in daily earnings of Rs 600-800. Before starting to weave, the process involves putting the hank in water for two days after opening it, rolling and warping. Once processed, three-four metres can be woven in a day. Of the 150 traditional weavers under the AFKKS, 60 are from Ponduru. But even among weavers, there is a desire for progression to other fields. A middle-aged man, K Sankara Rao, who was a weaver, quit and started working in a jute factory. There are just three jamdani weavers in Ponduru now. Along the weavers’ street, inside a small square shack, Suri Babu, 57, is busy warping, a basic component in the process of weaving. He and his family do warping for the Government and private players in the field. Apart from the warping equipment, there are pictures of gods in the room. Babu, who makes Rs 1,000-1,500 a day, has been doing it for 30 years. His entire family follows the tradition. Ultimately, it boils down to economics.
For Gandhi, khadi was more than a political weapon in the spirit of swadeshi. It was a social movement to make the poor in India’s villages self-reliant. In Ponduru, a two-hour drive from Visakhapatnam through the scenic coastal Andhra Pradesh, life is caught between the past and the future. The narrow streets of the village, with an Ambedkar statue at its entrance, are lined with small eateries, film posters, small houses and shops. A little away from the spinners’ street, is a cinema where two Telugu films, iSmart Shankar and Dear Comrade, are running. Leaving Ponduru, as the sun sets, one wonders if its precious hand-spun khadi will really get confined to museums some day or if someone will find a way to take it beyond its history into the future.