If Yusuf Meherally, a fellow freedom fighter, was to name the most intrepid woman of India, he would unhesitatingly point towards Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, he writes in his book, Leaders of India (1942). She was a national icon, a feminist before being one was fashionable, who led from the front during India’s freedom struggle. In the latter half of her life, she was instrumental in reviving textiles and handcrafts, and set up leading cultural institutions in the country. That is how, and much more, how the recent exhibition, “Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: An Extraordinary Life”, brought to the fore her multifaceted life. Presented by the Delhi Craft Council, it marked her 115th birth anniversary on April 3.
“The trajectory of her life is amazing. She is an inspiration and we know her works in handicrafts but I didn’t know so much about her political life. So we decided to present her story in a simple format, along with some rare pictures,” says Purnima Rai, former President, Delhi Crafts Council. A similar exhibition was organised by the Crafts Council of Karnataka, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru.
Born in 1903 in Mangalore, she was widowed as a teenager. A rebel that she was, she married again at the age of 16, to Harindranath Chattopadhyay, Sarojini Naidu’s brother. A panel at the exhibition had a photograph of her with Naidu, which illustrates their long association and companionship during the freedom movement.
With her poet-playwright husband, she travelled across India and performed theatre, which was like a “crusade for her”, as she had once said. She left her touch on Indian cinema too, and presented her acting skills in a Kannada silent film Mricchakatika (1931), followed by Hindi films Tansen (1943), Shankar Parvati (1943), and Dhanna Bhagat (1945).
Her remarriage wasn’t well received by the society. Even her divorce, in 1933, created ripples. The proceeding is regarded as first such legal separation granted by the Indian courts. “It is not well-known but she was the one who initiated the first ever trade union for women in India. She also fought for and represented women in the Congress party. By the time, we entered the women’s movement in 1975, her image had declined to being a leader of the handicrafts movement; the other image, of a famous political radical activist, got erased,” says Devaki Jain, 85, a feminist economist and a close associate of Kamaladevi. She had conceptualised an exhibition on her life, also showcased at India International Centre in Delhi, in 2016, which became the genesis of the recent one.
Another panel at the showcase had portraits recording various stages of her life, carrying excerpts from her memoir, telling how Kamaladevi was not convinced with the Western notions of feminism, which pitted women against men. For her, the fight was against patriarchal institutions. “What is really interesting is that she catches on to some things which become important in the feminist movement of the West later on”, says Vinay Lal, a professor of history at UCLA. He has edited A Passionate Life: Writings by and on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, with colleague Ellen Carol Dubois.
“Kamaladevi was writing about issues such as equal pay for equal work in the 20s and 30s. I didn’t know she was animated by the question of the freedom of women to choose their own sexuality, but we can see that she kind of practised it in her own life,” he adds.
“She was brave and independent. All the women who followed Gandhi during the freedom struggle used to wear white; it had become the national costume then. She used to march with them while wearing a bright south Indian saree,” says Jain. Kamaladevi’s foray into politics happened when she was all of 16. She just happened to be in Mumbai when Mahatma Gandhi was addressing a mammoth gathering, which led her to volunteer for the Congress party.
In her memoir, Inner Recesses Outer Spaces, she states: “I feel greatly privileged that I can talk of some of the significant events and some of the personalities not as distant historical figures cast on an imaginary screen but as part of my own life and own contemporaries with whom I shared some of the adventures, hopes, fears, sorrows, from whom I drew inspiration, sustenance, above all warm companionship.” The exhibition had letters that Gandhi had written to Kamaladevi, along with photos where she shares the stage with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and is one of the few women at political gatherings.
The actual launch of her political career is considered when she met suffragist Margaret Cousins, who inspired her to run for a seat at the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1926, being the first woman in India to do so. She lost by a short margin of 55 votes, but her crusade continued. In two years’ time, she was elected to the All India Congress Committee. And in 1930, when Gandhi launched Civil Disobedience Movement, it was Kamaladevi who persuaded him to allow women to participate. She threw herself in organising women for the Salt Satyagraha. She was one of the two women leaders, with Avantikabai Gokhale, where she was arrested and sent to Yerawada jail. In a photo, she is seen along Aruna Asaf Ali, who also participated in the protest.
When the Partition was endorsed by the All India Congress Committee, she opposed the move. She felt she would not be able to live with her conscious, and with that she broke her link with political life. “By now, a realisation had been growing on me that this was not my vocation,” she wrote in her memoir. Post-independence, she engrossed in organising resettlement for displaced families from Punjab, in Delhi’s Chattarpur and in Faridabad. It was here the seed of Refugee Crafts Centre was sown, and was the inception to her immense contribution in reviving Indian textiles. A series of photographs at the exhibition showed an elderly Kamaladevi visiting craft workshops and exhibitions, and interacting with people.
She set up Central Cottage Industries Emporium in 1948, an endeavour through which she discovered and revived crafts such terracotta of Panchmura in Bengal, Chamba Rumals of Himachal Pradesh, Phad paintings of Rajasthan, traditional saris of Kanjivaram, brocades and Tanchois of Surat, Ikats of Pochampalli, and more. “Her experience as a political worker led her to approach the problem directly – going to the field, 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,” writes Reena Nanda in her book, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay – A Biography.
Her political life can be seen in two parts, before 1947 and after, says Lal. The later life is seen as divorced from politics, when she revived textiles and handicrafts, but that is a mistaken reading, it’s not that she left politics, he says. “Her politics had changed. Post 1947, she gets involved in the lives of tribal communities and understands their role in India that the art they are producing is dying. To get interested in it is to rethink of the project of nation state. That was she was seeking to do,” adds Lal.