Spinning for Swaraj

I have read many varying descriptions of myself. Some call me a saint. Others call me a rogue. I am neither the one nor the other. All that I aspire to be—and I hope I have in some measure succeeded in being—is an honest, god-fearing man. But the things I read about myself do not annoy me. Why should they? I have my own philosophy and my work. Every day I spin for a time. While I spin, I think. I think of many things. But always from those thoughts I try to keep out bitterness. Study this spinning-wheel of mine. It would teach you a great deal more than I can—patience, industry, simplicity. This spinning-wheel is for India’s starving millions the symbol of salvation.

—M. K. Gandhi, The Daily Herald, London, 28 September 1931

If there is one thing we still remember about Gandhi, it is his preoccupation (some might even say obsession) with spinning. The Mahatma entrusted the humble charkha (spinning wheel)—and the even humbler takli (hand spindle)—with the herculean tasks of rescuing the starving millions of India from their misery, of delivering India its freedom from British rule, and of restoring the soul and spirit of his people. It was obligatory for all Gandhians—and certainly for residents of his numerous communal residences (ashrams)—to spend a certain amount of time at the spinning wheel or produce an optimal amount of yarn daily. He chastised those who did not meet his expectations, and held up as exemplary those who did. The music of the wheel, he insisted, was superior to any other he had heard. In a letter to his Danish devotee Esther Faering Menon on 10 February 1926, he even declared, “I would prefer to go without a meal than without the wheel.” And indeed, a few years earlier, on the morning of 22 March 1922, on his first full day in Yeravda Jail at the commencement of a six-year prison term, he did forgo eating on being deprived of his spinning wheel. The prison authorities relented within 24 hours! The spinning wheel was the symbol of salvation to not only India’s starving millions, but also for its Mahatma. In the words of the Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud, for Gandhi, spinning is the dharma of our yuga, the most sacred of duties for our times.
From the 1920s into the present, professional and gallery artists of India show the Mahatma in the company of the spinning wheel, some beautiful images over the decades consolidating our dominant visual sense of him as a spinner par excellence. Along with his walking staff—another humble object—the charkha is his most steadfast companion in their works. One such early work was produced by Mukul Dey (1895–1989), the Bengali artist who spent close to a month with the Mahatma in his ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati in 1928: the work must have pleased Gandhi for he added his signature to it (Fig. 1). Nearly 20 years later, the American Margaret Bourke-White (1904–71) arrived in India in March 1946 and photographed the Mahatma absorbed in reading, a silent spinning wheel in the foreground almost displacing its famous user as the object of our attention. Over the years, this “iconic” photograph has secured a fascinating afterlife, including its deployment in a commercial by that most capitalist of corporations, Apple Inc., in its “Think Different” campaign in the late 1990s. On the other hand, Bangalore-based Ravikumar Kashi (b. 1968) flips the famous photograph, possibly seeking to liberate the Mahatma from the clutches of photographic freezing—and such commercialization (Fig. 3).

Artistic takes on the Mahatma engaged in spinning range from the serious and somber, as in works by Gandhian Haku Shah (1934–2019) (Fig. 2), to the comical, as in a mass-produced print, revealingly titled Bharatmata ki Godh Mein Mahatma Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi in the lap of Mother India), in which an ageing Gandhi, clad in his usual knee-length dhoti, sits contemplatively on Mother India’s lap in a childlike manner, clutching his spinning wheel as if it were a toy (Fig. 4). So indelible is the association of the spinning wheel today with the figure of the Mahatma that even when Gandhi himself is not present—as in some stunning recent works by New Delhi-based Arpana Caur (b. 1954)—it does not matter. The wheel in fact has become the proxy for the man himself (Fig. 5; Fig. 6; Fig. 7).

In the large and ever-growing scholarship on Gandhi, much has been made about his penchant for spinning. Little attention has been paid, however, to the place of the child which, in the Mahatma’s plans for the wheel, was crucial, if not constitutive. The ideal Gandhian child is a spinning child (Fig. 8; Fig. 9). In turn, with the help of the spinning child, the Mahatma hoped to instill this foundational habit in every Indian household, and across the nation. When the child began to spin and made it a daily habit, the destiny of India itself would be secured. For the sake of the spinning child, Gandhi even invested in the development of “the beautiful takli,” or hand-held spindle, which he insisted was easy to use, took up no space, and produced lots of yarn in virtually no time at all. As early as October 1919, soon after he himself had learned to spin, Gandhi began to call for spinning to be introduced into schools, declaring at various points that if he had his way, he would make it mandatory in the curriculum. In January 1921, he recommended an hour’s spinning every day for the child, but within a matter of weeks, he began to urge that four of the six hours of school time to be devoted to spinning. In April 1922 while in prison, he wrote a primer in Gujarati for elementary school kids which supposed that the intended reader-pupil had already spent a year studying spinning. He also hoped that when it was published, the little book would include “pictures of the spinning wheel.” Spinning took precedence over literary training, and at various points he argued that through the act of spinning, the child could learn history, geography, as well as mathematics. When he formalized his philosophy of nayee taleem (“new education”) in 1937, spinning indeed became foundational to the curriculum.

In April 1921, Gandhi proudly recalled that during the course of the Satyagraha (or National) Week, some children of his ashram had spun for ten hours per day, starting at the wheel as early as 4.30 a.m. A report published in Young India on 5 May 1927 included the names of several young spinners, the amount of time they had spun, and the quantity of yarn they had produced. One young spinner recalled later:
I began to lose courage in the eighth hour. The hands refused to work, my head reeled. Much against my will I left the wheel and lay down on my back; but I could get no peace. Suddenly the thought of the Jallianwala Bagh, the anniversary of which we are celebrating, came to me and with it the picture of those that lay bleeding in the Bagh for over twelve hours untended. Then my fatigue left me and with a bound I was at the wheel again.
At the same event, Mani, a girl of nine, spun daily 3,000 yards of thread per day.
Over the years, various nationalist gatherings would be invariably accompanied by spinning competitions and exhibits, with prizes given to the child who produced the most and best. Gandhi’s own letters and speeches were filled with accounts of children who wrote to him about their spinning feats, or whom he witnessed in the act. To quote from one among many such, he wrote in 1946 of meeting five-year-old Aruna in Madras. “She watched me spin and was seized with the desire to do so herself… In a single day Aruna had prepared a sliver and brought it to me. Then when she saw me spin that sliver her joy knew no bounds. I explained to her the defects of the sliver and her parents helped her to remove them. Since then she has been making slivers and spinning quite well.” In turn, when he wrote his numerous letters to the various children who were under his care, he would invariably ask them about the number of hours they spent spinning. He praised them for success, and chastised them if they fell short of their daily quota. His grandson Arun recounts receiving a letter from his famous grandfather dated 17 December 1945, “I think of you every day, but especially today during silence. Do you spin carefully at least 160 rounds daily? Is the yarn even? Do you yourself fix the spinning wheel? Do you keep a daily account? If you keep this one promise, you will learn a lot. Blessings to you all from Bapu.” In an earlier decade, writing from prison on 21 March 1932 to the boys and girls of Sabarmati Ashram, he reminded them, “Spinning is primarily an education, for it arouses in us a sense of the duty of service, we learn in it a very useful occupation and there is beautiful art in it.” Speaking in 1925 to the children of the Gujarati National School in Bombay, he asked them to “never forsake the charkha.”

Mumbai’s child artists who come to paint in the annual competitions at Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya have certainly not forsaken the charkha, an object that repeatedly appears in their paintings (digital album, 19, 43, 77, 81, 90, 94, 95, 131, 135, 147, etc.). Although their Bapu had insisted that “the only art worth learning is spinning,” the children pay due homage to his passion for the wheel through the art of painting. It is not altogether surprising that they draw and paint him in the company of the spinning wheel—this is after all the iconic image of the Mahatma that they see everywhere thanks to the force of visual culture in iconophilic India.

Nevertheless, they also insert their own imagination—and aspirations and hopes—into the pictures. Thus, young Apurva, a student in Standard IV in S.M. Shetty School, strings up the words “Ham Sab Ek Hain” (“We Are All One”) on the thread spun by her Bapu on his wheel (Fig. 12). Like Apurva, other children make a pitch for adopting native goods and burning foreign manufactures, another pet Gandhian cause (swadeshi). Eighth-grader Dinesh ingeniously replaces the wheel with Gandhi’s own head! (Fig. 13). Like in many a mature artist’s work, another eighth-grader Chetan summons Gandhi into his picture through his proxy, the wheel, a clenched “revolutionary” fist showing the determination to “leave the fad of foreign clothing, appreciate indigenous textiles, make a society free of foreign cloth” (Fig. 14).

I give the last word—or picture—to Omkar, a student of Standard IX at Raja Shivaji Vidyalaya who in 2007, in response to a call to paint “Khadi and Village Industries,” produced a powerful image that connected the wheel to a young man’s martyrdom (Fig. 15). Dominating the painting is the bespectacled Gandhi holding a baby named khadi (homespun) that he had “birthed” with the help of the spinning wheel in the foreground. A large Indian tricolor occupies pride of place. But our eyes are also drawn to the bleeding body in the upper left-hand corner. Next to the body, Omkar has inscribed the words in Marathi, “Babu Genu’s sacrifice for khadi and swadeshi.” The 22-year-old Baburao Genu was a Bombay mill worker killed on 12 December 1930 by the colonial police while protesting against a foreign cloth vendor. Now a largely forgotten hero, his death provoked a nationalist outcry and protests in a city that was already in the throes of the civil disobedience movement. Gandhi himself was in jail by then, and it is not clear if he heard of the young man’s death for the cause of khadi and the charkha. I imagine though that if he knew of his passing, he would have approved—as he would have of young Omkar’s attempt to bring Genu’s sacrifice (balidan) to our attention all these decades later.
Select References

Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 23: 122–23; 27: 218–19; 29: 454; 48: 79; 49: 220–21; 85: 141.

Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hedgedus, Grandfather Gandhi. New York: Athaneum Books for Young Children, 2014; “National Week at Sabarmati,” Young India, 5 May 1927, 146; Tridip Suhrud, “Introduction.” In The Diary of Manu Gandhi, 1943–1944, edited and translated by Tridip Suhrud, ix–lxi. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2019; and Lisa Trivedi, Clothing Gandhi’s Nation: Homespun and Modern India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.