A freedom fighter, social reformer and a feminist, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was an exemplary woman. This is why we shouldn’t forget her!
November 1 is the day, Karnataka remembers celebrated people from the soil. Nevertheless, one noteworthy name has slipped away from public memory without a trace. This is a case of historical amnesia, not just of Karnataka, but of India at large.
That person is Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a Mangalore based freedom fighter. Her remarkable life journey earmarks her significant contributions as a social reformer, a feminist, the maker of ‘Faridabad’ for the migrated craftsmen from Pakistan. She was also a tireless activist who revived Indian handicrafts, handlooms, theatre and was also the founder of many institutions of reputation post-independence.
Against this backdrop, what is the significance of Kamaladevi’s reminiscence today? To start with, let us explore her roots in Karnataka. Kamaladevi was born on 3 April 1903 in Mangalore.
She completed her primary education at the local St. Ann’s Convent. Growing up in a land with rich cultural heritage, especially of music and dance form of Yakshagana, she developed a taste for traditional art forms.
After her father’s untimely death, Kamaladevi moved to her maternal uncle’s house. There she met renowned freedom fighters namely, Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Srinivas Shastri, Ramabai Ranade and Annie Besant.
Kamaladevi was married off traditionally at the age of 14 and widowed two years later. Unperturbed by these life events, she joined Queen Mary’s College in Madras for higher studies. There she met Sarojini Naidu’s brother Harindranath Chattopadhyay. Their mutual love for theatre ensued their wedlock. Though widow remarriage was quite a rare phenomenon during those days, Kamaladevi withstood the social constraints.
After their marriage, they travelled across the country, producing plays and skits. Later, she accompanied Harindranath to London and enrolled for a diploma at Bedford College. However, their marriage ended over incompatibility issues and this created history of being the first legal divorce granted through Indian court of law.
Moving on to Kamaladevi’s contribution to India’s freedom struggle, she was the first woman to contest Madras Assembly elections. Though she lost by a narrow margin, she got recognition and was appointed as the Secretary of the All India Women’s Conference. After this, she joined Congress party in 1927 and was elected to the All India Congress Committee within a year.
During the Salt March, she convinced Gandhi to give equal opportunity to women to be at the forefront of the march. Afterwards, she joined Seva Dal and trained women activists.
However, the British government banned Seva Dal and put Kamaladevi in jail, where she was diagnosed with jaundice. Experiencing the pathetic condition of the prison hospital, she built a hospital for inmates upon her release. Soon after, Kamaladevi got attracted to socialism and took up the problems of labourers and peasants.
During World War II, she visited America and met several political activists, mostly blacks and shared India’s non-violent approach to the freedom struggle. Getting information about her activism, the British banned her return to India. Unmoved Kamaladevi, continued her voyage by visiting South Africa, China, Japan and Vietnam.
Unarguably, Kamaladevi was the embodiment of woman empowerment. She was an advocate of female sexual freedom and birth control. Her remarriage after widowhood and legal divorce from second marriage were noteworthy symbols. When a journalist asked her about her views on women empowerment she said, “Let men learn to be equal to women first.”
Kamaladevi lived her life to the fullest which was a rare phenomenon for Indian women in her times. She acted in several films, including a Kannada film when it was not considered a respectable career for women. Do we know of another Indian woman who was as much a globetrotter as she was?
Indeed, Kamaladevi’s immense travel experience made her a secular, socialist world citizen. She rehabilitated the nearly 50,000 Pakistani craftsmen who moved to India during partition, in a newly built city, Faridabad. Post-independence, she could have easily got a berth in Nehru cabinet. Instead, she chose ‘real’ social service by helping the revival of Indian handicrafts and building institutions for the new India.
Sadly, we don’t acknowledge her contribution in setting up of several institutions of great repute. Some of the are Indian School of Drama, Bharatiya Natya Sangha, Lady Irwin College, Sangeet Natak Academy, Central Cottage Industries Emporium, World Craft Council, Craft Council of India, and Delhi Craft Council. Without her tireless service to revive Indian cultural heritage, our present would have been left wanting.
Kamaladevi was a prolific writer too and she wrote 18 books, touching upon women’s issues, Indian handicrafts and her foreign visits. She published her autobiography, ‘Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces: Memoir in 1986. Kamaladevi received several awards in recognition of her public service. She’s received a Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, Ramon Magsaysay Award and UNESCO Award.
Kamaladevi died on 29 October 1988 at the age of 85 in Mumbai. She lived beyond her times and space then and perhaps now too. And still remains a woman of substance, remained an incomprehensible mystery to traditional Indian mindset.
We speak of great national tradition, but we exercise historical amnesia to the true builders of India. Sadly, Kannadigas too have failed to reminisce the proud daughter of the soil.
A version of this was first published here.
Picture credits: Stills from The Better India’s video on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay on YouTube
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Dr. Jyothi, Assistant Professor, Department of English, University College of Science, Tumkur University. Has been
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