How the spinning wheel changed the course of India's history
A lecturer at Swansea University is to research the cultural symbol that defined Indian nationalism and the fight for independence from the British Empire.
Dr Rebecca Brown, a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations in the University’s School of Humanities, has been awarded £4,600 by the British Academy to research the symbolism of the spinning wheel in India.
She said: "At the same time as Welsh nationalists were adopting the leek and daffodil as symbols of Welsh nationhood in the late 19th Century, Indian nationalists were also seeking a unifying motif."
"The difficulty was that India is the size of Europe, and is extremely diverse. There are over 30 major languages and a wide range of cultural practices, so finding a common slogan or symbol that the whole population could unite behind wasn’t easy."
Initially, Indian nationalists adopted spiritual symbols representing the crescent (for Islam) and the goddess (for Hinduism).
However, the use of religious imagery proved divisive and a more powerful image was needed.
In the 1920s, Indian cotton was exported to Britain, where it was milled into cloth and subsequently sold back to India and other countries in the British Empire. The British Colonial Government, backed by the British Government, banned the sale of Indian-made cloth in Britain.
Mohandas Gandhi sought to boycott British cloth, and urged India to make its own. He advocated a return to village traditions and urged everyone in the nationalist movement to spin cotton and make yarn for half an hour a day. He consequently introduced the spinning wheel as a symbol of the nationalist cause.
His call tapped into nostalgia for a simpler, pre-colonial time, and people felt they could participate in the nationalist movement without having to take part in protest marches.
Dr Brown said: "I believe that it is the symbolism of the spinning wheel that mobilised India. It transcends religion, connects to an ideal image of the village, and is rooted in very powerful anti-colonial rhetoric about British rule."
"It became a very powerful visual symbol, despite misgivings by India’s businessmen and mill owners about the economic impact of boycotting British-made cloth and turning solely to handspun, handloomed cotton."
The British Academy grant will allow Dr Brown to study archives in the UK and Europe to trace the history of the spinning wheel motif.
Dr Brown said: "The use of symbols by nationalist movements is just as relevant today as it was for India in the 1920s, and I’m hoping that my research will shed light on how ordinary images like the leek and the spinning wheel can mobilise nations and evoke such powerful emotions."
For further information about School of Humanities at Swansea University, please visit www.swansea.ac.uk/humanities
Further information about Dr Rebecca Brown is available on the Department of Politics and International Relations web pages at www.swanseapolitics.org.uk.