Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was a Mangaluru-born social reformer and freedom fighter that maybe not many have heard of, but should have, for she led an extraordinary life that transformed the ordinary lives of so many others especially women.
A freedom fighter and a close associate of Gandhi and Nehru, Kamaladevi represented a generation of Indian women who were freedom fighters responsible for freeing Indian women from social and economic boundaries. Being a dancer and theater artist, she was also instrumental in reviving Indian crafts and craftsmen.
This legend of Karnataka has been brought to life again in this illuminating story excerpted from the Exhibits at the exhibition organized by INTACH (Mangaluru Chapter) in association with the Delhi Crafts Council.
In January this year, the members of the Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH (Mangalore Chapter)) in association with Delhi Crafts Council organized an exhibition of photo stories on the legend in Mangaluru, the place of her birth. The exhibition comprised rare photographs and biographical quotes handpicked from authoritative literature concerning Kamaladevi’s life, a life from which there is so much to learn. Prof. KP Rao, a software expert who had a personal association with Kamaladevi opened the exhibition, and with a few personal reminisces gave the world a glimpse of who Kamaladevi really was, as a person.
He asserted that Kamaladevi was in many ways ahead of her times, “Kamaladevi always had the courage to face the taboos of society, whether it was in her own widow remarriage or acting in films which was looked down upon. She also participated in Dandi March, much against the wishes of Gandhiji. In the 1930s, she became the first woman in India to contest for an electoral seat when she fought the council elections, which she lost by only 28 votes. She tried to be the best in each of the areas she worked in.” “Kamaladevi strived for the betterment of society, especially the downtrodden. Today if handloom, handicrafts exist, it’s due to one person and that is Kamaladevi. We owe a debt of gratitude to her,” he added.
Let’s start at the very beginning
An extraordinary life!
Kamaladevi was born on 3 April 1903, in the picturesque town of Mangalore on India’s west coast. She was the fourth and last child born inthe liberal Saraswat Brahmin family of Girijabaiand Ananthaia Dhareshwar. She was educated at St Anne’s Convent, Mangalore, Queen Mary’sCollege, Madras, and Bedford College, London. Her childhood in the lush environment of theWestern Ghats, was one filled with local traditions, celebrations of festivals with their ritualistic decorations, enjoyment of community puppetshows and story-telling, folk performances like Bayalata and Yakshagana. Equally, her parents exposed her to intellectuals and freedom fighters such as Gopalkrisna Gokhale, Srinivas Sastri, Ramabai Ranade and Annie Besant.
Since her early childhood she assimilated the values imparted by her mother, grandmother, and the English suffragette Margaret Cousins, in short, a generation of women who instilled in her values which guided her life and work for over seven decades. Kamaladevi represented a generation of Indian women who were freedom fighters, in and out of jail; and also those who were responsible for freeing Indian women from the shackles of narrow social and economic boundaries.
Widowed as a teenager from her first marriage, Kamala broke out of traditional constraints and married again at the age of 16. She took her last name from her second husband, Harindranath Chattopadhyay, whom she divorced in 1933. The proceeding was the first such legal separation granted by the courts of India.
Kamaladevi always did her own thing in situations that might have cowed other people. She broke all the rules to pursue a glorious career in public life. After a scandalous début 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.”
Politics and more
The real launch of Kamaladevi’s political career was after she met the suffragist Margaret Cousins, the founder of All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). Inspired by her, Kamala ran for the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1926, becoming the first woman to run for a legislative post in India. She went on to become the General Secretary of All India Women’s Educational Conference, and got involved with social issues at the national level, travelling, addressing public meetings, and engaging with issues of women’s rights.
In 1927 Kamaladevi became a member of the Congress Party, and was elected to the All India Congress Committee the following year. She also joined the Youth Congress, and was elected its President in 1929. Kamaladevi summed up her experience of the momentous Salt March to Dandi in her memoirs, “The distance to the seaside where Gandhiji was to break the law was 240 miles from Sabarmati where he started, and was to be covered by April 5. As the march progressed, it was as though millions of Indians were marching, keeping pace with him. The whole air became so surcharged, every nerve in the body tingled. I felt elated as part of one of the most spectacular dramas in India’s political history, pulsating every moment to its subtlest nuances.”
Congress absorbed the Seva Dal, and Kamaladevi was appointed the head of the women’s wing. She set up the Borivili Training Camp for women volunteers. The Orange Brigade, as the Sevikas came to be called after their uniform of bright orange sarees, attracted the notice of the public and authorities alike for its motivation and discipline.
In 1932, in a sweeping ban on all organizations perceived as a threat, the government banned the Seva Dal and shut down the camp. Kamaladevi was arrested and sent to Arthur Road jail and then to Belgaum. While in prison, she contracted jaundice and was ill for several months. Having experienced the appalling medical facilities in jail, after her recovery she set up a hospital in prison for other inmates like herself.
After her release from another imprisonment at Vellore, Kamaladevi joined the newly formed Socialist Party which had been set up within Congress. She settled in Mangalore, and got involved in labor and peasant issues. She organized a strike by women labour in the cashew industry, and was involved with the first All India Kisan Sabha conference.
In 1933, her divorce from Harindranath Chattopadhyay had come through. Meanwhile, their son, Ramakrishna Paramahans Chattopadhyay, was enrolled at the residential Scindia School in Gwalior.
Till 1939, Kamaladevi immersed herself in activities of the Congress Party, and the Socialist group within it. From the summer of 1939, she took a two-year break from politics, when she took her son to the USA for higher studies. She took the opportunity to travel widely, articulating India’s position wherever she went. While she was away, World War II broke out.
On her return to the country, she plunged back into political work. She attended the All India Women’s Conference and was elected its President. The War changed the mood and pace of the political situation.
In August 1942 Gandhiji declared the Quit India movement, enjoining upon each Indian to “Do or Die”. The authorities started to round up Congress workers and leaders. Kamaladevi was arrested and sent again to Vellore prison.
By the summer of 1944, Kamaladevi was in very poor health, on account of which she was released from prison. She resigned from presidency of the All IndiaWomen’s Conference and concentrated her efforts on rebuilding the Congress Socialist Party.
In 1946, when Nehru became Congress President, Kamaladevi became a member of the Congress Working Committee.
Crafting women’s empowerment
Thereafter, Kamaladevi threw herself into rehabilitation work, seeing the cooperative path as the way to forge solutions. She put together plans for what became the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU). Though Pandit Nehru was skeptical, seeing the plan as utopian, she had Gandhiji’s blessings.
Single handedly, she successfully organized the resettlement of displaced families from Punjab in Chhattarpur near Delhi. Together, they made a multi-faceted community project, which included industrial cooperatives. These produced new and exciting objects that were sold through a small retail centre that was set up in Delhi. This was the seed of Refugee Crafts Centre.
Committed to the cause of refugees and to the cooperative path, she continued with this work. Faridabad, a new township built on cooperative lines by refugees from the North West Frontier, was an extension of this approach, and became a model for community rehabilitation and development.
As President of ICU, she organised the All India Exhibition of Handicrafts in 1951-52. In 1948, Central Cottage Industries Emporium (CCIE) was set up by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, to popularize and market handicrafts. This was an effort by the government in line with Gandhiji’s concern for handicrafts. However, the Emporium had heavy losses in its initial years.
Impressed by Kamaladevi’s work with Refugee Handicrafts Centre, in 1952 Pandit Nehru handed over CCIE to the Indian Cooperative Union to run. Its policies were reformulated, and new guidelines created. It was transformed into a marketing organization for crafts which also saw itself as an important player in the development of the handicraft and handloom industry.
The government set up All India Handicrafts Board (AIHB) in 1952, with Kamaladevi as its Chairperson. She appointed a dynamic young Gandhian, L.C. Jain, as Member Secretary of the Board, and enlisted the support of noted economists P.N. Dharand Dr Raj Krishna to develop a viable approach for handicrafts.
AIHB set up a planning and research division, which carried out surveys throughout the country to assess the status of crafts and employment figures, technological and design requirements. Based on 18 months of intensive field work, the All India Report on Handicrafts was released in 1954.
Following this, a programme was developed for the crafts sector. Special cells were set up within the Board to strengthen work in different areas, marketing, design development, technical development, export, publicity, etc. Regional Design Centres were established, and Marketing Clinics introduced. AIHB also instituted Pilot Development Centres, for the preservation of rare ancient crafts of greatartistic value.
Kamaladevi personally visited important craft centres to supervise their development. Kamaladevi’s experience as a political worker led her to approach a problem directly, going into the field, personally surveying the situation, meeting the artisans. She was not a Chairman who, having acquired a plethora of secretaries and officials, cars and privileges, directed them by remote control. She led them personally to all important places where Crafts existed, to meet craftsmen personally, see their work, study their problems, and to relate the programmes to actual needs.
Along with Aileen Webb and Margaret Patch, Kamaladevi co-founded the World Crafts Council (WCC) in 1964. Delegates from 50 countries attended the first congress of the new body to establish a craft movement to provide a better future to the craftspersons of the world. Affiliated to UNESCO, and with regional centres covering Asia Pacific, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America, WCC has continued into the present as a network reaching out to crafts persons and supporting members across the world.
In the same year, Kamaladevi established Crafts Council of India (CCI). To generate a movement of voluntary workers to help the development of crafts, she persuaded active organizations and individuals to set up Crafts Councils in their own regions. Delhi Crafts Council was set up under her patronage in 1967.
Today, CCI is based in Chennai, and works with nine regional Crafts Councils located in different parts of the country. Kamaladevi was also instrumental in establishing the National Awards for Master Craftsmen, with an Apprentice Training Scheme.
Kamaladevi ceased to be the Chairperson of AIHB in 1967 leaving it with a nationwide infrastructure in place.
Culture too, was her craft!
Kamaladevi’s appreciation of the rich folk ritualistic drama tradition in Dakshina Kannada was the foundation of a deep involvement in experimental theatre, stressing on the folk heritage of performing arts.
Even before her involvement with the Handicrafts Board, Kamaladevi had set up Indian National Theatre and Bharatiya Natya Sangh. With her intuitive understanding of the connection between crafts and the performing arts, at AIHB she instituted surveys of traditional theatre across a number of states to document, collect and perpetuate theatre crafts.
Along with U.S.Mallya, who was a renowned politician from the undivided Dakshina Kannada District (he served an 18-year tenure as member of Parliament, from 1946–1965 and played a key role in development of undivided Dakshina Kannada) Kamaladevi set up what came to be the Srinivas Mallya Memorial Theatre Crafts Museum. Its core collection came from Bharatiya Natya Sangh. Many of its masks, puppets and costumes had been personally gathered by Kamaladevi over the years.
The Theatre Crafts Museum also absorbed Naika, apilot theatre crafts workshop set up by Kamaladevi.This was a training and promotional centre for artisansworking in theatre crafts.
To her last days, Kamaladevi continued to be involved with crafts, her first love. India’s experience, the first such far reaching programme, provided an example to the world. Many countries emerging from colonialism saw India as a resource. Ministers, heads of government departments, trainees visited from Mexico, Iran, Syria, many African countries, Pakistan, the Philippines, South East Asia to learn from the Indian experience. Many individuals trained by Kamaladevi went on to become advisers to international programmes and help shape crafts policies in many parts of the world.
The craft movement, not only in India, but throughout the world, owes a tremendous debt to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.
The images and portions of the text for this article have excerpted from the exhibits at the exhibition of photo stories of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in Mangalore organized by INTACH (Mangaluru Chapter) and the Delhi Crafts Council, which in itself was taken from the original exhibition ‘Kamaladevi and the making of modern India – an exhibition’ conceptualized by Devaki Jain, Aparna Basu and Kapila Vatsyayan in April 2016. The text was adapted and edited from the original exhibition (April 2016) by Aloka Hiremath.
Major Institutions set up by Kamaladevi
Indian National Theatre
Bharatiya Natya Sangh
Lady Irwin College
National School of Drama
Sangeet Natak Akademi
Central Cottage Industries Emporium
World Crafts Council
Crafts Council of India
Delhi Crafts Council
Srinivas Malliah Memorial Theatre Craft Museum
Major awards and citations received by Kamaladevi
1955, Padma Bhushan, Government of India
1962, Watamull Foundation Award for services in the social, economic fields
1966, Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership
1970, Deshikottama Title, Shantiniketan
1972, Tamrapatra Award for freedom fighters, Government of India
1974, RatnaSadasya, Lifetime Achievement Award, SangeetNatakAkademi
1977, UNESCO Award for Promotion of Handicrafts
1987, Padma Vibhushan, Government of India