This essay is part of the #IndianWomenInHistory campaign for Women’s History Month to remember the untold legacies of women who shaped India, especially India’s various feminist movements. One Indian woman is profiled each day for the whole of March 2017.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was one of the many women who were at the forefront of the Indian freedom struggle whose life accounts remain less celebrated. Apart from playing an active role in activist politics of the era, and being the first woman to contest elections for the seat in parliament, her concerns included mass-mobilization for the cause of independence from the British. She understood the quotient of home-produced arts and craft and the acknowledgement of domestic labour of women that is almost always invisibilized to be essential in terms of policy-making and law-making. Throughout her lifetime, she founded and headed several organisations for the multiple causes she espoused.
An Introduction: Kamaladevi’s Personal Life
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was born in Chitarpur Saraswat Brahmin community of Mangalore to Ananthaya Dhareshwar and Girijabai. Both her parents, who were progressive thinkers and involved in the freedom struggle of the era, played important role in her upbringing in different ways. Her mother was chiefly responsible for her scholarly upbringing before and after her father’s death. Her grandmother was known to have challenged the limitations placed on widows and continued her pursuit of knowledge and independent living. These two women had a great influence on her life and choices ahead in her career when she founded the Indian Cooperative Union and the Indian National Theatre. These institutions were not only first of their kind, but also early prototypes of reputed cultural institutions like Crafts Council of India and the National School of Drama.
Kamaladevi was already a widow at the age of 16 and later married Harindranath Chattopadhyay, whom she met at Queen Mary’s College through his sisters Subhashini and Sonalini. Here, she was introduced to the group of intellectuals that had an active role in the intellectual and political organization of the freedom struggle. In 1921, Kamaladevi joined Harindranath in London and pursued her Diploma in sociology. It is known that Miss Luke, Principal of Bedford College tried to dissuade her from the course and the field work based in the East-end of London due to the “weird garb” she wore, but she insisted on it and took up the course.
Kamaladevi’s Political Career
Kamaladevi was greatly inspired by Gandhian ideas and the concept of resistance by non-violence. She was exposed to Marxist thought during her time in England, which added to her understanding of the workings of imperialism. According to her, imperial power was assisted by princes and capitalists, and her anti-Zamindari stance was understood to be communist. Kamaladevi rejected this and pleaded for deeper understanding of history in the intellectual environment that was antagonised against any kind of western import of thought. Although she was anti-communist, Kamaladevi was also very in the Congress Socialist Party and inaugurated the All India Peasants and Workers Conference in 1935 while arguing for peasant’s right over the land.
Mrs. Margaret Cousins or Gretta was responsible for initiating Kamaladevi into her political career as she insisted that she take the post of General Secretary of All Women’s Educational Conference set up in 1927. Kamaladevi, along with other activists like Margaret Cousin, Sarojini Naidu, Maharani of Baroda among others, campaigned for the Central Legislative Assembly to pass legislations such as the Child Marriage Restraint and the Age of Consent Bill. She also was the first woman to contest an election in the Legislature in 1920 from Madras province, after the women activists pressed for women’s political rights at the time when women in Britain, too, didn’t have the right to vote.
Kamaladevi was elected as the Secretary of All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), which took up the cause of the welfare of women and children, mobilising women politically for the freedom struggle at the same time. AIWC took up the then-controversial and futuristic stance at various topics regarding the celebration of breastfeeding and family planning. Kamaladevi’s motto behind founding the Family Planning Association in 1930 was to “wage a war” on women’s sexual dependence.
In terms of economic rights, Kamaladevi criticized the neglect of women in Trade Unions which led to reforms in the area. AIWC pushed for the demand to recognize women’s work inside the house and on the field, equal wage with equal opportunities. Kamaladevi’s organization also vouched for the Uniform Civil Code to secure women’s rights to property and children’s guardianship. Some of these suggestions were overlooked and have re-surfaced in contemporary political discussions.
In 1927, Kamaladevi joined the Congress Party and in 1929, she became the President of the Youth Congress Session in Ahmedabad. Her troubled marriage got worse as Harindranath Chattopadhyay was jealous of her political influence. However, she continued to be a part of the freedom struggle and made Gandhi change his decision when he excluded women from being a part of the Dandi March to launch the civil disobedience movement. After that, she kept selling illegal salt, got arrested and shared the prison with Sarojini Naidu in Yerwads Women’s Prison.
Due to her association with the youth movement, Kamaladevi headed the Women’s Wing of Seva Dal which she had set-up along with Dr. Hardikar. She was responsible for training hundreds of Sevikas, the orange-sari clad women who protested against foreign goods and other colonial policies openly. Throes of women joined the movement abandoning their homes and families for the movement, especially the older women. Unfortunately, due to the masculinist drive of history, the contribution and sacrifice of these women have been forgotten or over-written by patriarch-figures.
Kamaladevi and the Arts
Kamaladevi was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s use of Khadi as a political weapon to signify the importance of indigenous craftsmanship. She was committed to helping the survival of traditional arts and crafts. She espoused the notion that working with one’s hands serves to decentralize social and economic from an industry-oriented state and also creates a culture of plurality. She established the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) for this very purpose, engaging refugees and other people who had lost their homes during or after independence. Soon, there were well-established cooperative farms, and Pandit Nehru who had earlier declared the project ‘utopian’ appraised this as a model of community development.
The Central Cottage Industries Emporium was set up by the government to popularize traditional arts and crafts, but it continuously suffered losses. As a result, it was handed over to the Indian Cooperative Union for the purpose of running it. Since then, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay propelled the Emporium by reaching out to traditional artists and art forms in the most remote areas and systematically addressed the problems of the artisans. Kamaladevi is the one responsible for the survival and revival of Kalahasti Kalamkari, Poochampalli, Jaipur Blue Pottery, Nandra Buti in Indigo, Toda Embroidery, Stone Sculpture of Mahabalipuram and much more.
Kamaladevi along with her crew made a journey to convince the last surviving master of Kalamkari art – Jonnalagadda Lakshamajah – in 1956, to convince him to train more students. It is because of her efforts that this mode of dying art survived along with many others. Her persuasion brought Poochampali and Nalgonda artists to weave their designs of double ikat, hence introducing fine quality silk ikat saris and relieving villagers of their economic problems as well.
Apart from her contribution in the Indian Handicrafts industry, she also set up the Indian National Theatre (INT) in 1944, setting up the ground for National School of Drama as we know today. It was more of a movement to recognise and celebrate indigenous modes of performance like dance, folklore, and mushairas and help the freedom struggle. The venture that started in Bombay soon spread to other parts of the country. This also led to a movement of skilled artists creating effigies, masks, costumes and other paraphernalia used by theatre artists that are now collected in the U. S. Malliah Theatre Crafts Museum.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay headed and looked over several organisations and government bodies in her lifetime. She was responsible for introducing opinions and movements in Indian legal system, arts and freedom struggle that were way ahead of her time. She was hailed as the leader figure among several women whom she trained and guided during the freedom struggle. Unfortunately, history doesn’t account for their contribution alongside the male participants whom they interacted and fought with.
- Jasleen Dhamija (2007). Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. National Book Trust.