From struggles for national freedom and women's emancipation to promotion of India's crafts, the life of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya was a journey with missionary zeal.
THE uncanny thing about Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a woman described as "the supremely romantic figure of the freedom struggle", is how relevant her mission seems today - a hundred years after she was born. Whether it is her free-thinking feminism, her egalitarian politics, her driving interest in theatre, her belief in the cooperative movement or Indian handicrafts, she was one of that rare breed of people whose ideas seem relevant even now.
Kamaladevi was a feminist long before feminism became fashionable. She critiqued what she saw as the excesses of Western feminism that cast women in eternal victim roles and pitted them against men, instead of patriarchal institutions. Born into a liberal Saraswat Brahmin family in Mangalore, she inherited her mother's independent streak. Her exposure to politics came from icons of the freedom struggle like Gopalakrishna Gokhale, Ranade and Annie Besant, who were friends of her family. After her meeting with Margaret Cousins, a key figure in the Suffragist movement in the West, Kamaladevi joined active politics and became the first woman to contest a seat in the Legislative Assembly (in 1926, from the Madras State Provincial Legislature). She headed the All India Women's Conference for several years, campaigning for legislative changes to further women's rights. She pressed for a uniform civil code as a means to promote gender justice and worked hard for the prevention of child marriage.
Many of her ideas that seemed radical are accepted as given today, like the right to maternity leave and child care and the need to consider women's unpaid household labour an economic activity.
Kamaladevi's swadeshi convictions were also largely fuelled by her feminist agenda. She linked the Western system of mass production as a deathblow to women who formed the bulk of the work force in unorganised sectors such as traditional crafts. Similarly, according to her, traditional and indigenous knowledge, which passed on from mother to daughter (like herbal cures), was also threatened by Western systems of medicine. Her study on the abject situation of women in the mining industry led to her deep association with labour unions. She traced the crucial link between class and gender in a 1948 report of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. It was subtitled `The Basis of Feminism'.
In 1936, Kamaladevi became president of the Congress Socialist Party, which had leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and Minoo Masani. Through her long involvement in the freedom movement, she stuck up for women's rights, standing up to veterans like Motilal Nehru and C. Rajagopalachari. In fact, when Mahatma Gandhi opposed the inclusion of women in the salt satyagraha march (claiming that Englishmen would not hurt women, just as Hindus would not harm cows), Kamaladevi spoke out against this stand.
However, after Independence, she entered a new phase in her own life. She rejected the political track, which she called `power with a very big capital P, with scramble and pushing around'. Refusing offers of posts such as Union Minister, Governership, Ambassadorships and even Vice-Presidentship, she immersed herself in causes that stirred her spirit of service. `I left the highway of politics to step into the side lane of constructive work'.
After Partition, Kamaladevi threw herself into humanitarian service, drawing up a refugee rehabilitation model based on the principle of cooperation. L.C. Jain, Gandhian and former member of the Planning Commission, who worked with her those days, said he used to be `transfixed by her questions'. While Jawaharlal Nehru dismissed her ideas as "one of those newfangled plans that the Socialists would think up", Gandhi gave her the go-ahead on the condition that she did not ask for state assistance. The Indian Cooperative Union, despite huge obstacles, finally managed to create an industrial township called Faridabad on the outskirts of Delhi, founded entirely on community effort. Inaugurating the township, Nehru said he wanted India "to be a cooperative commonwealth".
Kamaladevi's stances were motivated by a simple theory of justice that a fair society would have to accommodate the rights of every disadvantaged individual.
Kamaladevi always did her own thing in situations that might have cowed other people. Widowed at fifteen, she broke all the rules to pursue a glorious career in public life. After a scandalous debut on stage-considered thoroughly improper for women from respectable families, she blazed a trail for women all over the country. With her second husband Harindranath Chattopadhyay (poet-playwright, brother of Sarojini Naidu), she performed across India, experimented with regional drama, and even acted in two silent films. Theatre for her, in her own words, was "like a crusade", which drew its life-force from its connection with people's everyday lives, "an open, creative playground for all". She stressed on the folk heritage in the performing arts, and set up a theatre crafts museum in Delhi to preserve these forms.
She set up the National School of Drama in Delhi, and later headed the Sangeet Natak Akademi. As her biographer Sakuntala Narasimhan put it, "the dominant strand in her work, both in crafts and in theatre, was her emphasis on aesthetics as an important and vital dimension of lives". Whether it describes flourishy pillar carvings or just the swirling perfection of the South Indian snack murukku, all her writing is informed by this profound sense of the pleasure principle. Kamaladevi would surely have agreed with anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman's view: "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution'. Like Goldman, Kamaladevi asserted that everyone had "the right to beautiful radiant things".
Her keen sense of the beautiful, as well as her deep belief in local heritage naturally led Kamaladevi to Indian handicrafts. She is indeed the patron-saint of today's handloom chic brigade, singlehandedly reviving craft traditions that were in danger of dying out. "She saw this revival as linked to our sense of self-worth", says handicrafts expert Jasleen Dhamija, who worked with her for several decades. Equating artisans with artists, she constituted several awards for these master craftsmen. Travelling all over the country to excavate these traditions, she set up the all-India Handicrafts Board and made it a thrumming, vigorous industry.
Kamaladevi's staggering achievements had doubtless something to do with the nation-building fervour of the post-Independence period. Kamaladevi accepted with grace awards such as Magsaysay, the World Crafts Council award, UNESCO recognition or the Padma Vibhushan. Her real imprint on public life was in the creativity and passion she poured into each of her magnificent projects.
On her death in 1988, President R. Venkataraman said he found it difficult to prefix the word `late' to Kamaladevi's name, because "hers was, and will always be a palpable presence". The truth of that statement seems undeniable today, as so many of the cultural institutions in India are a gift of her vision.