Charkha Master

Charkha Master
A Meeting with Narayan Desai

By Mark Shepard

Excerpted from the book Gandhi Today: A Report on India’s Gandhi Movement and Its Experiments in Nonviolence and Small Scale Alternatives, Simple Productions, Arcata, California, 1987

Mark Shepard
Mark Shepard

Gandhi Mural

It happened in a dormitory room at Sarva Seva Sangh’s national headquarters in Benares, at a meeting to organize relief for flood victims in Bihar state.

In came Narayan Desai—head of the National People’s Committee, director of training for Sarva Seva Sangh, right-hand man to Jayaprakash Narayan during the first months of the Bihar Movement, and longtime leader of Shanti Sena, the Gandhians’ “Peace Army”—one of the top Gandhians. He was carrying a wooden box, about the size of a large telephone directory.

When he had settled himself cross-legged on a cot, he opened the box by a hinge at one end and began rearranging the contents. Soon, with one hand, he was turning a wheel inside the box. As the mechanism gave off a soft buzz, he drew out, with the other hand, a fine white line of cotton yarn. When his arm had stretched to its limit, he wound the yarn back onto a spinning metal needle and began again. He kept this up throughout the meeting, gradually building a cone of white along the length of the needle.

The box was a charkha—a spinning wheel.

Narayan Desai

It was no accident or oddity that a major Gandhian was spinning cotton yarn during a serious meeting. In fact, it would have been stranger if Narayan had somehow in his life evaded the activity. After all, he was the son of Gandhi’s chief secretary, Mahadev Desai, and had grown up in Gandhi’s ashrams.

No program had been dearer to Gandhi than his effort to promote this modest skill.

Gandhi’s concern for hand-spinning has often been misunderstood and scoffed at, but it was for the most part reasonable.

The British colonialists had suppressed India’s textiles production—the country’s single most important occupation after farming. They exported India’s raw cotton, made it into cloth in British mills, and returned much of it for sale in India. This arrangement stole work from India’s own hand-spinners and set up a steady flow of wealth out of India into the pockets of British mill owners. Gandhi believed this was the greatest cause of India’s poverty. (Another cause, though—concentration of land holdings in the hands of rich Indians—was probably even more important, as Gandhi’s successors eventually concluded.)

Gandhi insisted that India could never overcome its poverty or gain real independence until it revived its textile crafts. Khadi—homespun cloth—became the cornerstone of his constructive program, and the spinning wheel became his symbol of a nonviolent society.

To promote khadi, the Gandhians searched out traditional tools and techniques and improved them, but in ways that enabled them still to fit in with village life and resources. Narayan’s charkha was an invention by Gandhi himself, using a double-wheel design to increase speed and control, while it reduced size. It represented probably the first conscious use of the principle of “intermediate technology.”

traditional charkha

Another way Gandhi tried to promote hand-spinning was to prescribe it as a national sacrament. He asked everyone in the country to spin at least a half hour a day. His closest followers spun much more than that, and Gandhi himself seldom went anywhere without a charkha or some other spinning tool.

Gandhi’s khadi program actually had several faces. It began mainly as a relief program for poor villagers, a program that during Gandhi’s lifetime would employ as many as half a million people (mostly women) at a time. In the years around 1930, khadi also was the basis of a national boycott of foreign cloth that forced many British mills to shut down.

As time went on, though, Gandhi began urging hand-spinning mainly as a way for India’s villagers to move toward economic self-reliance. By reviving this and other village crafts, Gandhi hoped to stop the flow of money and jobs out of the villages—not only toward Britain but also toward the industrializing towns and cities of India itself. As Gandhi saw, this flow was slowly draining the lifeblood of the villages.

But this economic principle proved too abstract for the villagers; and besides, in the short run, hand-spinning for family use simply didn’t pay. Under the new market conditions, by the time a family bought cotton, spun it, and paid to have it woven, it could have bought factory cloth at about the same price and saved the tremendous effort of spinning.

Amber Charkha

So the idea of khadi for self-reliance never caught on. Khadi survives today mainly in the form of a relief employment program, overseen and subsidized by the government. In this program, the Gandhian spinning wheel has been replaced by a hand-cranked spinning machine of four or more spindles—which in turn is being replaced by foot-pedaled machines of six or twelve spindles.

These developments have greatly increased the spinners’ rate of production and have for the first time made it possible for spinners to be paid a decent wage—but at the cost of much drudgery, as this delicate handcraft has descended to the level of mindless machine-cranking. Perhaps little better could be done, though, as things stand.

Meanwhile, some Gandhians still spin for the use of family and friends, both as a sacrament and as a witness for a village-based economy. As for Narayan—once the “fastest in India,” as he told me—he had been spinning for 49 years, since the age of four. Nowadays his daily spinning was for him a soothing agent and an anchor.

“It is almost like a meditation,” he said.

Since my visit to India, Narayan has moved his home from Sarva Seva Sangh headquarters in Benares to his native state of Gujarat. There he has founded the Institute for Total Revolution, where he devotes himself to training a new generation of Gandhian activists. He is also increasingly called overseas, where he shares his knowledge of peace soldiering and other aspects of Gandhian activism.

But whatever changes come in Narayan’s life, there is one thing unlikely to change. He is still spinning…