Threads of change: relevance of Gandhi’s charakha today

The charkha’s potential in kindling critical thinking and mindful practice needs to be re-looked, as we grapple with modern-day challenges

September 28, 2019 01:12 pm | Updated October 01, 2019 04:56 pm IST



This year, we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. It is another opportunity for us to explore the relevance of his ideas to today’s challenges.

One of the ideas that Gandhiji was passionate about was the charkha (spinning-wheel), and its potential for transforming India into an independent nation with a unique model of development. There is something inherently powerful in this idea since it continues to inspire new thoughts even after 100 years. For instance, Prof. S. Balaram, author of Thinking Design, showed us why charkha can be considered an excellent Indian case study on user-centric design. Ashish Jaiswal, in his recent book Fluid , proposed charkha as a metaphor for creative thinking and a new kind of specialisation that is required for the emerging world of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In addition to elements of design thinking and creative thinking, the history of how and why the charkha emerged as a symbol of economic, political, social and psychological transformation also demonstrates the intertwining of strategic thinking, critical thinking and mindful practice.

Powerful symbol

Gandhiji appears to have first grasped the idea of the spinning-wheel as a locus of societal transformation in 1908 while he was developing his ideas on independent India. It was only after his return to India in 1915 and engaging with the masses in rural India that he started to aggressively promote the charkha as a tool for individual, social and political transformation. By the mid-1920s, the charkha had captured the imagination of the people and emerged as a key symbol of the independence movement.

However, not everyone agreed with Gandhiji’s views on the charkha. Notable among them was Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. In an article titled The Cult of the Charkha (1925), the great poet had expressed concern that the blind faith on a very large scale in the charkha and its repetitive manual work could have a demoralising effect on the masses. Tagore’s observation is true in cases where the work is not owned by the worker or when such an activity is seen from an external observer’s point of view. I think Gandhiji viewed charkha spinning differently — as a mindful practice like meditation. It is like a carpenter cutting a piece of wood. Only the carpenter will experience every cut differently, while an outsider may see it as repetitive. A designer would experience something similar while sketching a product concept. Multiple sketches must be created to reach a meaningful output. It is not repetition. Each iteration involves some improvisation.

I have noticed that young children also enjoy repetitive activity. When my son was about five years old, he became obsessed with documenting a calendar. He would take any calendar around and replicate the months and days on a large chart. Once he finished one chart, he would do the same on another chart, sometimes with the same calendar or with another calendar. This went on for about three to four months. One day, when we were travelling out of the city, and he was forced to sit idle for a long time, he proposed a game to his grandmother — “Can you tell me a date, and I will tell you the day”. She obliged and suggested one date, and he translated it into the corresponding day. I did a quick check and found that it was correct. We then repeated it for a few other days in the year and then across one to two years. Most of his responses were accurate. I started wondering how he was doing this. Later, upon probing, I understood that through the process of repeatedly documenting the calendar, he had identified some patterns like, in a year, January 1 and December 31 are always the same days. He then developed a heuristic to connect any date with the day, and framed a game to play while we were travelling. Nobody had taught him about the calendar, what patterns to look for or asked him to frame a game.

It was much later while interacting with Jinan Kodapully, who had studied learning in tribal children, that I understood that the ability to create new knowledge through playful immersion in the context is natural to all of us, and a key source of self-belief. It is this self-belief in creating new knowledge that should be at the heart of our education reforms.

The charkha certainly needs a re-look as it has the potential to inspire mindful practice, self-belief and creative thinking among students, faculty and industry professionals as we grapple with the challenge of employability and innovation.

The writer is Dean (Design, Innovation & Incubation), IIITDM Kancheepuram.

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