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Images below: first from bottom - Lachman Singh. Third from below - Sant Singh.


The Charkha:
A Disappearing Act





Seventy-five-year-old Sant Singh turns nostalgic as he traces the tradition of manufacturing the spinning wheel, the charkha, in his village - Jodhpur Pakhar, Punjab -  that has, over the years, virtually been pushed into oblivion as there are hardly any buyers of the beautifully-crafted manual spinning machine.

Like other nearly 80 charkha-maker families in the village, Sant Singh, who is the third generation in the art, is now doing odd jobs to earn his livelihood in this non-descript village of Bathinda district.

The village that earlier was an icon of Punjab in the field of manufacture of the traditional charkha, now lies in isolation as the youth has shifted to towns in search of gainful employment. The elderly ones have now shunned the job of charkha making and have either adopted carpentry or other jobs to keep themselves busy.

Sant Singh and another senior, Joga Singh, recall that earlier those engaged in the trade earned handsome money as a number of visitors from the diaspora would carry with them as a souvenir the miniature version of the charkha while returning home from Punjab. However, now the number of such visitors coming to the village to purchase the charkha has reduced to a trickle.

Moreover, the charkha was earlier an integral part of a bride's trousseau in Punjabi weddings and, as such, a good number of units were sold throughout the year, particularly during the marriage season. Sant Singh says that he sells only one or two charkhas in a year to foreign visitors now, generally from Canada, who carry it as a showpiece. He says it is uneconomical to manufacture the charkha as the raw material is costly and it takes about seven days to produce a single unit.

Joga Singh and his brother Kulwant Singh have now turned to taking agriculture land on contract to cultivate the seasonal crop instead of charkha making, which is no more a lucrative business. Joga Singh says that the "rahuda" wood used for crafting the charkha has now become extinct. Earlier, it was brought from Rajasthan and Haryana, but now the species has disappeared as its fresh plantation is not being done because it takes a very long period to mature.

Harjinder Singh, whose family has been engaged in the tradition for the past over 70 years, has now turned to carpentry, while Gulzar Singh is working as a daily wage earner.Lachman Singh, whose forefathers used to manufacture high quality charkhas, has now started selling lubricants and cans of petrol and diesel as there is no petroleum outlet in the village.

The villagers who had earned fame in charkha manufacturing rue that neither the state government, nor the Khadi and Village Industries Board has come forward to save the tradition.

They say that the art has been wiped out as the charkha is not being used any more to spin yarn, since mechanical looms have taken over. The charkha was helpful in spinning short-stapled cotton yarn.


[Courtesy: Tribune]

October 30, 2011 


Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ), October 30, 2011, 5:39 AM.

This was in the early 1950's. We had a carpenter by the name of Bhai Mehtab Singh who looked every inch a Santa Claus. He had a white flowing beard and a ruddy face, and the necessary bulk and a healthy loud laugh to go with it. He wore white working clothes and looked majestic in his simple apparel. He had a bewitching smile and a tremendous sense of humour to go with it. He was never short of customers. They dropped in regularly either for his carpentry or just for the sake of his good company. He was my friend and I usually stopped on the way to college with the usual greeting of 'Sat Sri Akal ji, sunnaa-o, Baba ji, faujaa(n) da key haal hai?' - How are the troops today? One day he was visiting us for some minor repair job and while we offered him the customary tall glass of lassi and some missi rotis, a small child from the neighbourhood came by and plunked himself in his lap. He was engrossed by Baba ji's face, as the latter was talking. "Baba ji, Baba ji! Tussee boldey kitho(n) ho?" - Where do you speak from? - the child finally asked him. Baba ji's mouth was almost covered by his drooping moustache and flowing beard; they hid the movement of his lips as he talked. To oblige the child, he quickly brushed back his mustache and beard to show where the words emerged from! That little boy today is a well known cinematographer in Bollywood, famed for his imaginative observation skills! In those days, it was common to include a charkha in a marriage trousseau. (It was later replaced with a sewing machine.) I happened to be sitting at Baba ji's tiny workshop one day when a villager came along and asked for a charkha. "What is the price, Baba ji?" "Seventeen Rupees!" "Oh! For that much, one can buy a jhhota' (bull), for heaven's sake!" "Good! Then go get your daughter a jhhota!", was Baba ji's prompt reply.

2: Minnie (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.), October 30, 2011, 3:48 PM.

I wish I could find a charkha for sale. There is a huge group of knitters and spinners that meet around here that would buy such a wonderful compact spinning wheel. I have seen many different kinds of spinning wheels for sale at fiber and yarn festivals. I ran across this article by accident but I would love to support an artist so that these beautiful little machines do not disappear. Maybe the government will not step in to save this dying art form but knitters and spinners around the world support each other. They are always looking for new ways to expand their own skills and work with new techniques and materials. I would love to help get these into the hands of home spinners over here.

3: Dr.. H. K. Virik  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ), October 30, 2011, 7:38 PM.

How I would have loved to have a charkha in my home to remind me of my heritage, my roots and the songs associated with it. The vulnerable feelings that they created in the hearts and minds of the young brides missing their paternal homes whenever they worked on them! How life changes for us all. Education fortifies us but also brings other yearnings More 'jhhotas', no charkhas.

4: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), October 31, 2011, 7:53 AM.

Mahatma Gandhi used to spin the charkha to make his own clothes. In 1918, when he set up an ashram near the river at Ahmedabad, the people joining him had to take a vow to spin charkha and make their own clothes. At that time, the charkha and its manufacture, became very popular across the subcontinent.

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