Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (3 April 1903 – 29 October 1988) was an Indian social reformer and freedom fighter. She is most remembered for her contribution to the Indian independence movement; for being the driving force behind the renaissance of Indian handicrafts, handlooms, and theatre in independent India; and for upliftment of the socio-economic standard of Indian women by pioneering the co-operative movement.
Several cultural institutions in India today exist because of her vision, including the National School of Drama, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Central Cottage Industries Emporium, and the Crafts Council of India. She stressed the significance which handicrafts and cooperative grassroot movements play in the social and economic upliftment of the Indian people. To this end she withstood great opposition both before and after independence from the power centres.
In 1974, she was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship the highest honour conferred by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s National Academy of Music, Dance & Drama.
Born on 3 April 1903 in Mangalore, Kamaladevi was the fourth and youngest daughter. Her father, Ananthaya Dhareshwar was the District Collector of Mangalore, and her mother Girijabai, from whom she inherited an independent streak, belonged to an aristocratic family from Karnataka. Kamaladevi’s grandmother was herself, a scholar of ancient Indian texts, and her a mother was also well-educated though mostly home-educated. Together their presence in the household, gave Kamaladevi a firm grounding and provided benchmarks to respect for her intellect as well as her voice, something that she came to known for in the coming years, when she stood as the voice of the downtrodden as well as the unheard.
Kamaladevi was an exceptional student and also exhibited qualities of determination and courage from an early age. Her parents’ befriended many prominent freedom fighters and intellectuals such as Mahadev Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and women leaders like Ramabai Ranade, and Annie Besant, this made young Kamaladevi an early enthusiast of the swadeshi nationalist movement.
She studied about ancient Sanskrit drama tradition of Kerala- Kutiyattam, from its greatest Guru and authority of Abhinaya, Nātyāchārya Padma Shri Māni Mādhava Chākyār by staying at Guru’s home at Killikkurussimangalam.
Tragedy struck early in life, when her elder sister, Saguna, whom she considered a role model, died in her teens, soon after her early marriage, and when she was just seven years old her father died as well. To add to her mother, Girijabai’s trouble, he died without leaving a will for his vast property, so according to property laws of the times, the entire property went to her stepson, and they only got a monthly allowance. Girijabai defiantly refused the allowance and decided to raise her daughters on her dowry property.
Her rebellious streak was visible even as a child, when young Kamaladevi questioned the aristocratic division of her mother’s household, and preferred to mingle with her servants and their children wanting to understand their life as well.
She married in 1917, when aged 14, but was widowed two years later.
Meanwhile, studying at Queen Mary’s College in Chennai, she came to know with Suhasini Chattopadhyay, a fellow student and the younger sister of Sarojini Naidu, who later introduced Kamaladevi to their talented brother, Harin, by then a well-known poet-playwright-actor. It was their mutual interest in the arts, which brought them together.
Finally when she was twenty years old, Kamaladevi married Harindranath Chattopadhyay, much to the opposition of the orthodox society of the times, which was still heavily against widow marriage. Their only son Rama was born in the following year. Harin and Kamaladevi stayed together to pursue common dreams, which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, and in spite of many difficulties, they were able to work together, to produce plays and skits.
Later she also acted in a few films, in an era when acting was considered unsuitable for women from respectable families. In her first stint, she acted in two silent films, including the first silent film of Kannada film industry, ‘Mricchakatika'(Vasantsena) (1931), based on the famous play by Sudraka, also starring Yenakshi Rama Rao, and directed by pioneering Kannada director, Mohan Dayaram Bhavnani. In her second stint in films she acted in a 1943 Hindi film, Tansen, also starring K. L. Saigal and Khursheed, followed by Shankar Parvati (1943), and Dhanna Bhagat (1945).
Eventually after many years of marriage, they parted ways amicably. Here again, Kamaladevi broke a tradition by filing for divorce.
Shortly after their marriage, Harin left for London, on his first trip abroad, and a few months later Kamaladevi joined him, where she joined Bedford College, University of London, and later she received a diploma in Sociology.
While still in London, Kamaladevi came to know of Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement in 1923, and she promptly returned to India, to join the Seva Dal, a Gandhian organisation set up to promote social upliftment. Soon she was placed in charge of the women’s section of the Dal, where she got involved in recruiting, training and organising girls and women of all ages women across India, to become voluntary workers, ‘sevikas’.
In 1926, she met the suffragette Margaret E. Cousins, the founder of All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), and was inspired her to run for the Madras Provincial Legislative Assembly. Thus she became the first woman to run for a Legislative seat in India. Though she could campaign for only a few days, she lost only by 55 votes.
In the following year, she founded the All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC) and became its first Organizing Secretary. In the following years, AIWC, grew up to become a national organisation of repute, with branches and voluntary programs run throughout the nation, and work steadfastly for legislative reforms. During her tenure, she travelled extensively to many European nations and was inspired to initiate several social reform and community welfare programs, and set up educational institutions, run for the woman, and by women. Another shining example in this series was the formation of Lady Irwin College for Home Sciences, one of its kind college for women of its times, in New Delhi.
Later she was a part of the seven member lead team, announced by Mahatma Gandhi, in the famous Salt Satyagraha (1930), to prepare Salt at the Bombay beachfront, the only other woman volunteer of the team was Avantikabai Gokhale. Later in a startling move, Kamaladevi went up to a nearby High Court, and asked a magistrate present there whether he would be interested in buying the ‘Freedom Salt’ she had just prepared.
On 26 January 1930 she captured the imagination of the entire nation when in a scuffle, she clung to the Indian tricolour to protect it.
In the 1930s, she was arrested for entering the Bombay Stock Exchange to sell packets of contraband salt, and spent almost a year in prison. In 1936, she became president of the Congress Socialist Party, working alongside Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and Minoo Masani. For her, feminism was inseparable from socialism, and where necessary she opposed her own colleagues when they ignored or infringed women’s rights. For instance, when Mahatma Gandhi opposed the inclusion of women in the Dandi March (claiming that Englishmen would not hurt women, just as Hindus would not harm cows), Kamaladevi spoke out against this stand. Some time in the 1920s she and Harindranath separated and divorced by mutual consent; their marriage had largely been one of convenience and they had followed different paths.
When World War II broke out Kamaladevi was in England, and she immediately began a world tour to represent India’s situation to other countries and drum up support for Independence after the war.
Independence of India, brought Partition in its wake, and she plunged into rehabilitation of the refugees. Her first task was to set up the Indian Cooperative Union to help with rehabilitation, and through the Union she made plans for a township on cooperative lines. At length Mahatma Gandhi reluctantly gave her permission on the condition that she did not ask for state assistance, and so after much struggle, the township of Faridabad was set up, on the outskirts of Delhi, rehabilitating over 50,000 refugees from the Northwest Frontier. She worked tirelessly helped the refugees to establish new homes, and new professions, for this they were trained in new skills, she also helped setting up health facilities in the new town.
Thus began the second phase of life’s work in rehabilitation of people as well their lost crafts, she is considered single handedly responsible for the great revival of Indian handicrafts and handloom, in the post-independence era, and is considered her greatest legacy to modern India.
Around this time she became concerned at the possibility that the introduction of Western methods of factory-based mass production in India as part of Nehru’s vision for Indian’s development would affect traditional artisans, especially women in the unorganised sectors. She set up a series of crafts museums to hold and archive India’s indigenous arts and crafts that served as a storehouse for indigenous known how. This included the Theatre Crafts Museum in Delhi.
She equally promoted arts and crafts, and instituted the National Awards for Master Craftsmen, and a culmination of her enterprising spirit lead to the setting up Central Cottage Industries Emporia, throughout the nation to cater to the tastes of a nation, rising to its ancient glory.
In 1964 she started the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography (NIKC), Bangalore, under the aegis of Bharatiya Natya Sangh, affiliated to the UNESCO. Its present director is famous danseuse Smt. Maya Rao.
Kamaladevi was a woman ahead of her times, she was instrumental in setting up the All India Handicrafts Board, she was also it’s the first chairperson, The Crafts Council of India was also the first president of the World Crafts Council, Asia Pacific Region.
She also set up the National School of Drama and later headed the Sangeet Natak Akademi, and also a member of UNESCO. Her acclaimed autobiography, Inner Recesses and Outer Spaces: Memoir was published in 1986.
The Government of India conferred on her the Padma Bhushan (1955) and later the second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan in 1987, which are among the highest civilian awards of the Republic of India. She also received the Ramon Magsaysay Award (1966) for Community Leadership. She was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, Ratna Sadsya, the highest award of Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama, given for lifetime achievement in 1974,.
UNESCO honoured her with an award in 1977 for her contribution towards the promotion of handicrafts. Shantiniketan honoured her with the Desikottama, its highest award. UNIMA (Union Internationals de la Marlonette), International Puppetry organisation, also made her their Member of Honour.