A Beautiful Mind: Looking back at the life of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

She pioneered the cooperative movement in India, but remains lost in the shadows of history. On her 27th death anniversary, looking back at the life of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and the nationalist, feminist and socialist ideas she upheld.

Written by Vinay Lal | New Delhi | Updated: April 3, 2018 7:48:48 am

Despite her many contributions, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay is little remembered today in India Despite her many contributions, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay is little remembered today in India

The gifted Indian writer Raja Rao, in introducing Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s memoirs, Inner Recesses Outer Spaces (1986), did Kamaladevi the unusual honour of describing her as “perhaps the most august woman on the Indian scene today. Firmly Indian and therefore universal, highly sophisticated both in sensibility and intelligence, she walks with everyone, in city and country with utter simplicity.” We shall not linger on what Rao may have intended to convey when he suggested that she was firmly Indian and “therefore” universal, for surely not everything Indian is universal, nor does India, whatever the conceit of those who always applaud it as the “greatest” or oldest civilisation, have a monopoly on the “universal”. The greater puzzle is why Kamaladevi, who passed away on 29 October 1988, and who left behind the impress of her intelligence, insights, and remarkable energy on everything that she touched, and whose contributions to so many diverse fields of human activity are such as to stagger the imagination, is so little remembered today in India and is virtually unknown outside the country.

Born on 3 April 1903 into a Saraswat Brahmin family in Mangalore, Kamaladevi was initiated into politics at an early age. Her memoirs are scanty on early dates and details: she lost her father, who had not written a will, when she was but seven years old, and the family wealth and properties all went to a stepbrother with whom there was little contact. At a stroke, Kamaladevi and her mother were left disinherited. This dim awareness of the precariousness of women’s lives would, in time, lead to the recognition that, as she wrote in her memoirs, “women had no rights”. At the home of her maternal uncle, Kamaladevi received another kind of political education: he was a notable social reformer and visitors to the home included eminent lawyers, political luminaries, and public figures, among them Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Srinivasa Sastri, Pandita Ramabai, and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru. Throughout, however, Kamaladevi’s mother and grandmother left the deepest impression on her. Both women were educated, ecumenical in their interests, and enterprising, and it is from them that Kamaladevi inherited her love of books.

Like many educated upper-caste Hindu women of her generation, Kamaladevi was brought into the political life of the nation in the 1920s and 1930s by the ascendancy of Mahatma Gandhi and his insistence on adhering to a nonviolent struggle. Kamaladevi’s relationship with Gandhi, whom she acknowledged as a titan without peers, is a vast and complex subject. By 1923, she had fallen under his spell and she enrolled herself in the nationalist struggle as a member of the Congress party. Three years later, she had the unique distinction of being the first woman in India to run for political office. Kamaladevi competed for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly and lost by a mere 55 votes. Along with the rest of the nation, she was completely captivated by the Salt Satyagraha, but she differed with Gandhi’s decision to exclude women among the initial group of marchers. Though Kamaladevi was charged with violation of the salt laws and sentenced to a prison term, the most dramatic moment that brought her to the nation’s attention occurred when, in a scuffle over the Congress flag, she clung to it tenaciously.

While Kamaladevi’s admiration for Gandhi never wavered, and the ideals to which he aspired became her own, she occasionally felt stifled by the authoritarian strands within his personality and felt restless at the slow pace of change. She had been slowly drifting towards the socialist wing of the Congress party and in 1936, she took over leadership of the Congress Socialist Party. Meanwhile, Kamaladevi had been establishing extraordinary networks of political solidarity within and outside India. In 1926, she met the Irish-Indian suffragette Margaret Cousins, who founded the All India Women’s Conference and remained its president until Kamaladevi assumed that role in 1936. Kamaladevi’s first writings on the rights of women in India date to 1929; one of her last books, Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom, was published in 1982. Over a period of some five decades, Kamaladevi articulated in dozens of writings and speeches a distinct position, one that was mindful of the liabilities faced by Indian women that were both peculiar to them and common to women everywhere. While she became an advocate of positions that are now commonplace to women’s movements all over the world, such as equal pay for equal work, she also resisted the idea that the experience of the West was to furnish the template for women’s movements in India.

Kamaladevi was, however, also a key figure in the international socialist feminist movement. From the late 1920s to the 1940s and beyond, Kamaladevi became not only an emissary and spokesperson for Indian women and political independence, but for larger transnational causes, such as the emancipation of coloured people around the world from colonial rule and political and economic equity between nations. She attended the International Alliance of Women in Berlin in 1929, only to become aware of how race and national boundaries might become obstacles to the solidarity of women: it was a “misnomer” to call it “international”, she says, as the only non-Western representatives were from Egypt and India. At the international session of the League Against Imperialism in Frankfurt, Kamaladevi could discuss problems encountered in common by colonised peoples in West Africa, North Africa, Indochina, the American south, and elsewhere. Though this has never been recognised as such, Kamaladevi facilitated India’s emergence as the leader of the non-aligned movement and the crafting of the Bandung Declaration of 1956 which was nothing other than a clarion call for a fundamental reordering of the world order.

Kamaladevi was a prolific writer, and her 20 odd books furnish unimpeachable evidence of the wide array of her intellectual and political interests, and a global outlook which shunned alike a narrow nationalism and a superficial cosmopolitanism. She traveled to Nanjing and Chongqing and met with resistance leaders during the country’s occupation under Japanese rule — from this resulted a small book, In War-Torn China (1944). Yet, given her spirit of inquiry, she also took it upon herself to visit Japan and came to the conclusion, in Japan: Its Weakness and Strength (1944), that the Japanese, who had sought to be the vanguard of a pan-Asianism, had bloodied their hands with the most virulent strands of materialism and imperialism. She is also among a handful of people in India in the 1930s-1950s who wrote widely on the US. In Uncle Sam’s Empire (1944) and America: The Land of Superlatives (1946), she reverses the gaze. Reams and reams have been written of the saffron robe-clad monk, known to the world as Swami Vivekananda, visiting Chicago in 1993 and thereby bringing Hinduism to the New World; and yet, we know little of the sari-clad Kamaladevi wandering around the United States, making her way into prisons, union meetings, political conventions, black neighbourhoods, and American homes, and leaving behind the distinct impressions of an Indian feminist with strong nationalist and socialist inclinations of the possibilities and limitations of the experiment with democracy.

Kamaladevi was arguably the best travelled Indian woman of her generation, yet, as her work in social, political, and cultural domains amply showed, she remained solidly grounded in the ethos of Indian life. The lives of common people were of abiding interest to her. The city of Faridabad today has a population of around 1.5 million, but hardly anyone is aware of the fact that Kamaladevi played the critical role in giving birth to this industrial township, a flagship project that she undertook as the founding leader of the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) to resettle nearly 50,000 Pathans from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in the wake of the post-Partition migrations.

The Kamaladevi that most Indians are familiar with is a figure who, above all, revived Indian handicrafts, became the country’s best-known expert on carpets, puppets, and its thousands of craft traditions, and nurtured the greater majority of the country’s national institutions charged with the promotion of dance, drama, art, theatre, music, and puppetry. It must seem strange to those acquainted with the first half of her life that someone who was so intensely political should have eschewed every political office in independent India. Did she abandon “the political centre” as she acquired prominence as an authority on India’s craft traditions and the country’s tribal populations? Greatly disillusioned by the Partition, Kamaladevi had come to recognise that India was not going to even remotely take the shape that she had envisioned at the dawn of freedom. However, it may be a mistake to partition her life in this fashion. Her life offers many cues about the intersection of politics and aesthetics and in her resolute insistence on autonomy and the integrity of every life we find the threads that enable us to fold the various Kamaladevis into one majestic figure.

Vinay Lal is professor of History at UCLA, USA, and has co-edited, along with Ellen Dubois, The Plural Universe of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (forthcoming, Zubaan Books, 2016)

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