Spinning the thread of life: a photo-essay from Karnataka

September 25, 2017
By Rang De Team

As part of our work at Rang De, we are often moved by people and places that don’t get mentioned in the popular media. This photo essay depicts the everyday life at Charaka, a handloom weavers cooperative in Shimoga, South India, that the Rang De family is proud to support.

It is said that the texture and tiny blemishes in the weave define a piece of handloom fabric. The magic of handloom, however, lies in the way it is made.

In ancient Greek Mythology, the Moirai were goddesses of fate, and it was one of the 3 goddesses, Klotho, who spun the thread of life. At Charaka, a weavers cooperative in the Western Ghats of India, the women who operate the spinning wheel, spinning cotton into thread and yarn, create life everyday.

You would be hard pressed to differentiate one spool of thread from the next, but the patterns and cloth they are ultimately woven into are all different.
Kind of like people, don’t you think? Made the same, but ultimately so very, very different.

Weavers use different spools of thread to weave distinct patterns; patterns that make up a small piece of fabric, adding up to reveal the beauty of the entire tapestry.

Pomegranate yellow, Manjishta pink, Arecanut brown. The colours used during the dyeing process at Charaka all spring from nature; they are coaxed out of these natural materials using traditional techniques before they stain the cloth a deep brown, a light pink, or a pungent yellow.

After the agony of the dyeing process, the ecstasy of soft colours and vibrant hues. But after the ecstasy, as Jack Kornfield says, comes the laundry.

Melange. Despite high-end fashion labels hijacking the word to denote sophistication and cool, the word remains particularly relevant to the art of weaving

Where we might see a bunch of different threads hanging from the rafter, a weaver sees a melange of colours; in her vision, each strand of thread, in its individuality, is not a threat to the fabric, it contributes to the final aesthetic of the cloth.

Anyone who has watched a skilled weaver in action recognises the dance; the hand keeps rhythm to the staccato beat of the loom, and the cloth weaves itself in step with both. The calm demeanour of the weaver or the insistent, regular, rhythm of the loom all indicate a pattern being followed, like a dance recital with the steps rehearsed.

Yet, each piece of cloth when it emerges from the loom, like a performance ending in a burst of swirls and swoons, tends to be uniquely its own​.​

The earliest designs on cloth were made by hand, by careful illustration or the slow, sure impression of paint on cloth. Design on handloom cloth is a slow, time-consuming process; the effort it takes to produce a length of patterned cloth and the bespoke nature of the product is part of handloom’s infinite charm and allure.

Hand-made, natural-dyed & gorgeous.
Pieces of handloom fabric made by Charaka, a weavers cooperative nestled in the lush hills of the Western Ghats in Shimoga, Karnataka, are stacked together.

Sisterhood, Labour, Solidarity — At the garment production unit at Charaka, neat rows of women work at tailoring units for 8 hours a day. There are no factory managers; the more experienced seamstresses guide the younger girls, who in turn rib each other incessantly, talk and laugh but never at the cost of work. These women are proud of the work they do; and the work that they do, they do together, as a community.

Shramajeevi | ಶ್ರಮಜೀವಿ

Hard work — the closest English translation of this beautiful Kannada word does not quite capture its essence. For the people at Charaka, to be a shramajivi is not just to work hard, it means work as service, something Mahatma Gandhi exemplified.

Spinning the yarn, working the loom, or cutting cloth — arriving at a state of selflessness through shrama, through effort, through hard work, is a reward in itself.

For more than 20 years, the weavers at Charaka have been producing handloom cloth using natural materials and traditional techniques.

The clothing label DESI that Charaka manages has come to stand for cloth produced using ethical practices and environmentally sustainable production techniques. The 750-odd people working at Charaka have imbibed the ideals and values the organisation stands for: self-sufficiency, dignity of labour, and the idea of work as service.

The Rang De family is proud to associate with and support social enterprises like Charaka.

Except where mentioned, photo credits go to Rajiv Namathirtham

In September, we fulfiled Charaka’s loan request of Rs 15 lakhs. You can support other social enterprises through Rang De here