Areca slurry, manjistha twigs & pomegranate peels weave a spell in Heggodu


PTI, Feb 22, 2024, 1:47 PM IST

Image credit: Google

Heggodu: Don’t get taken in by the quietness that greets you as you enter the sprawling Charaka Shramajeevi Ashram in Heggodu.

You just have to scratch that silence to hear the underlying bustle – the sloshing of the water as the dyers dunk yarns in it, the whoosh of the boiler as it lets off steam, the clacking of the wood as weavers jostle with the warps and wefts, the rustle of the cloth as the woven material is folded into bales, the rhythmic thuds as the blocks leave prints, the whirring of the sewing machine, the soft chuckle of women as they spread out manjistha twigs (that is boiled to get a brownish shade of red) in the sun… In about three decades, Charaka, a weaving collective run mostly by women, providing employment to more than 800 people, has become the fulcrum of the locals living in and around Heggodu village in Sagara taluk of Karnataka.

Take 50-year-old Mahalakshmi for instance. For almost three decades, she has been working with Charaka, gradually rising the ladders of hierarchy to become a director today. She points to her two-storeyed house, not far from the centre, which stands as a proof to how her steady income has improved the life of her family. “My husband is an auto driver and if not for Charaka, we would have been struggling to make ends meet with that and subsistence farming,” says Mahalakshmi.

The founder of Charaka, Prasanna, a renowned theatre director and activist, says the weaving centre has become his fulcrum too. Disenchanted with theatre, Prasanna had taken refuge in Heggodu in the early 1990s. He says he wanted to explore Kannada language theatre more and Heggodu became his natural choice as it is home to Ninasam, considered a Mecca for Kannada theatre artists. “But I realised that I couldn’t really do theatre all through the year in a village. I had to relate to the village, to the village people…” says Prasanna.

Before long, the man who conceptualised Samudaya in the mid-1970s, a theatre company that mobilised actors to shake up the prevailing socio-political order – like the Emergency – through plays and street skits, came up with the concept of Charaka, his solution for the unsustainable exploitation of nature that he saw all around him in Heggodu. “I realised that unless an alternative livelihood is created, people will continue to exploit the land for a living,” says Prasanna.

Training first-generation weavers is no easy task, says Terence Peter, who recently took over as the CEO of Charaka, following the organisational shake up post Covid. “It takes about three months for them to get the hang of it. Every person that we train adds to our production cost,” says Peter. Also, as most Charaka weavers are relatively new, they fall under low or medium skilled categories, says Peter. This meant Charaka manages mostly fabric of 2x40s count – the higher the count, the finer the fabric, but it requires a highly skilled weaver for a fine muslin cloth.

For people like Neelavathi though, who comes from a village not far from Heggodu and who has been weaving for six years now, the new skill became a game changer. “I have been given a house closer to the weaving centre to stay. We get yearly bonuses too. The best part is, I really like weaving,” says Neelavathi, who is one of the skilled weavers of the centre.

Padmapriya, who oversees design and research, says Charaka not only teaches locals weaving, but also invests heavily in R&D. This lets the team, for instance, use an agricultural by-product that is available in abundance in the region – areca nut slurry called ‘chogaru’.

“It yields a darker shade of brown and when mixed with alum, a lighter brown. We also get green by mixing it with indigo,” says S A Rudrappa, the incharge of the dyeing unit in Charaka who joined the organisation as a tailor 25 years ago. Rudrappa says Charaka began its journey with chemical dyes and transitioned to natural ones 20 years ago. “We began with Eucalyptus leaves and pomegranate peels,” he adds.

When it started in 1994, Prasanna says all he had in mind was affordable and simple handloom sarees and fabrics. But with the cheaper powerloom fabric disguising itself as handloom, it became unsustainable to be sustainable. The project then took its next step. In 1997, it created a brand for itself – Desi. “The idea is to make clothes that appeal to the urban market,” says Padmapriya, who joined as an employee and became a trustee. Prasanna adds that Desi is also an attempt to bridge the gap between buyers, particularly in the city, and the weavers. “We started with a retail outlet in Bengaluru and then opened about 15 around Karnataka,” says Prasanna. Early this month, they moved into a bigger shop near Seetha Circle in Bengaluru and, true to its founding principle – ‘social change through cultural activities’ – the shop organises events like Sunday Samvaad, adds Prasanna.

For Reisha Savadatti, a Kannadiga born in the United States and who is in India trying to create a range of furnishing using ‘topi tene’ weaving (made famous by Illkal sarees) once common in Bagalkot district of Karnataka, Charaka is a treasure trove that she keeps dipping in to gain more insight.

“This is my second time interning at Charaka. I have been travelling to places like Kamatagi village, it’s not easy to find traditional ‘topi tene’ weavers anymore. But every time I come here, I feel motivated,” adds Savadatti.

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