A Very Special Woman

A collection of writings offers a rare insight into the life of one of India’s most eminent but little remembered public activists

Written by Jaya Jaitly | Published:July 15, 2017 12:47 am
Despite Kamaladevi’s constant study of and deep concern for the condition of women, she disliked being labeled a feminist and firmly stood her ground as a socialist. Illustration by Subrata Dhar

A Passionate Life: Writings by and on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Edited by Ellen Carol Dubois and Vinay Lal Zubaan

Page: 483 Pages

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903–1988 ) is finally being remembered with the attention and repect she deserves, after 30 years of being consigned to the edge of memory, far from the cognizance of academics, freedom fighters, those engaged in gender studies, politicians, and even generations of craftsmen and women of India for whom she was a crucial lifeline after India attained Independence. Some die-hard craft lovers and surviving colleagues hold on tenaciously to her widely distributed legacy, but that has hardly been enough.

For too long, we have adopted the tendency to compartmentalise public activists, forgetting those who simultaneously contributed to a variety of fields, and stood on a wide range of platforms. Women in public life are particularly prone to this. In a world dominated by patriarchal mindsets, it minimises and marginalises them even more. In a world of specialists, a special woman who excels in many activities is lost between the divisions. Kamaladevi was one such person. Additionally, she often became a victim of the “darbar” system that operated in those days under Indira Gandhi, when “czarinas” ruled the cultural field and “favourites” held sway. In a poignant meeting with Kamaladevi in Bangalore, some months before she passed away, she sat sadly in the fading evening light, sharing with this writer her regret that all she had built up was being destroyed around her. She should not have felt that sad.

Editors Ellen Carol Dubois and Vinay Lal, both professors at UCLA, have put together this study with a perceptive and admiring foreword by the eminent feminist writer Gloria Steinem, who had met Kamaladevi briefly. Steinem, who has influenced peple the world over, writes, “Because of Kamaladevi, I also began to understand the politics of history… we often dismiss 95 per cent of the 100,000 or so years that humans have been around, call that ‘pre-history’ and only begin our study after patriarchy, hierarchy, monotheism, colonialism, racism, caste, class and other relatively new institutions began…” It shows the depth of women like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.

A Passionate Life presents a collection of Kamaladevi’s rarely available writings on various concerns, including women, their status and rights, and democratic socialism, often mistaken for communism.

This section includes an uncharacteristically sharp attack on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, when he sarcastically belittled the socialists of India, calling them ‘reactionaries’ out of date with reality. Kamaladevi had worked closely with Nehru, Gandhi and a host of other leaders as an equal partner during the freedom movement. She advised them, collaborated with them on momentous occasions and pulled them up with a free and independent sense of autonomy when she felt they were going wrong.

Her wide range of interests and intellectual engagement with movements in the USA, Africa, China, Vietnam and other Asian countries, apart from cultural and creative expressions that demonstrated India’s special genius, shows up the hollow women leaders of today, who, like most of their male counterparts, wallow in localised issues. The will to engage with the world at large while fighting for the political, social and economic liberation of her own people is repeatedly highlighted in this collection of her writings during different periods of her life. The uniqueness of her political and creative thought process is manifest in Annie Devenish’s chapter: ‘Creativity as Freedom, Kamaladevi and the Politics of Self- Expression’. She analyses Kamaladevi’s statement “Freedom is not a theory, it is an experience” by saying, ‘What she meant was that the creative engagement of individuals with the world around them, whether in the name of art or politics, was an essential way for humans to express their freedom’.

Despite her constant study of and deep concern for the condition of women, she disliked being labeled a feminist and firmly stood her ground as a socialist, embracing the human rights of all. This valuable book makes it clear to the feminists of today (and that day) that India must have its own understanding, rooted in its own culture and history, of the rights and capacities of women that does not ape the western depiction of feminism.

The chapter on ‘Feminism and Women in India’, with a short introduction by one of the editors, is particularly significant in today’s unnecessary stand-off between right and left intellectuals. In 1929, when there was no battle about where and when Indian civilisation was great, debunking the claim that Indian women were inferior till the British came, Kamaladevi wrote, “In those beautiful days of the Vedic period of India, the glory of which still surrounds the country like a faint halo, women took part freely in the social and political life of the country, and, in the celebration of religious and cultural festivals, they had a special place of importance assigned to them.” She quotes the Rig Veda to list examples like Viswavara, Lopamudra, Vak, Maitreyi, Gargi and Tara as great philosophers and intellectuals of their time.

As a progressive, liberal, socialist promoter of the creative arts, craft and theatre, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay never pushed the ancient greatness of India aside. Maybe there is an important lesson in that.

The writer is founder, Dastkari Haat Samiti

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