Woman of substance
A biography of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya launched recently, details the life of the visionary. It is a must read for all those touched by the history of Independence, says SABITA RADHAKRISHNA.
A POWERFUL portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya in this well-researched, compact biography is positioned against the canvas of Indian Independence, portraying the dynamic woman in her multifarious roles as champion of women's rights, political activist, author, theatre person and the grande dame of Indian craft and folk art. Intimate glimpses of Kamaladevi, the woman, would have undoubtedly made more interesting reading. Reena Nanda emphasises this point in her bibliographical note, where she explains that details of Kamaladevi's personal life with its share of anguish was suppressed in the latter's autobiography also.
Kamaladevi was born on April 3, 1903 in Mangalore. Supported by her mother Girijabai who had progressive ideas, the young girl refused to bow her head to widowhood and went on to complete her studies from the Madras University. With the leaders of the Saraswat Brahmin community to which she belonged, organising Swadeshi protests, Kamaladevi grew up with nationalist ideals. A militant woman, "headstrong and self-contained" with lofty ideals, individualistic in thought, Kamaladevi had the courage never to do things she did not believe in. Being outspoken and vociferous in her criticism of certain political ideologies, she was often misunderstood. Kamaladevi, therefore, rejected political posts offered to her realising she would have to play the rules of "the dirty game".
Gandhiji was biased against Kamaladevi, despite the enormous respect she had for him, and the conflict between them was inevitable. It was a challenge to Kamaladevi to tackle seemingly impossible situations. She was the kind of woman who would hitch her sari up and wade through danger if the circumstances so warranted and was ever ready to travel despite her age and physical condition.
Melded with the pragmatic dimensions of Indian politics were the creative yearnings that balanced her personality. "A lover of Nature, Kamaladevi spent her childhood wandering in enchanting woods, broken with patches of sunlight, like a fugitive seeking a pathway... " Her passion for theatre led her into marriage with Sarojini Naidu's brother Harindranath Chattopadhyaya.
Significantly influencing her life were the two giants, Dr. Annie Besant and Mahatma Gandhi. It was Dr. Besant's oratorical style that she admired and absorbed and coupled with her theatrical talents, Kamaladevi could hold a crowd with her speeches. Thanks to Annie Besant she developed a her keen appreciation of Indian cultural traditions, while her life's mission to restore Indian craft and cultural heritage was inspired by Gandhian philosophy.
A visionary, Kamaladevi could put her finger on the pulse of the problems that assailed the sub-continent; yet her fiery zeal could not implement the radical reconstruction that she believed was necessary to free India, and set it on a healthy course, changing its economic base and social character. Plunging into politics in 1929, Kamaladevi courted arrest many times. The influence of Marxist literature led her to become one of the founding members of the Congress Socialist Party in 1934 and the fight for Swaraj also was tinged with a craving for Marxist socialism.
Kamaladevi fought for women's rights and worked with trade unions in her home district of Mangalore. She strongly supported the women's movement for giving women their rightful place in society, along with political power. Thanks to Kamaladevi, and those who worked closely with her, the movement gained national prominence ensuring that gender equality would be given due importance in the political agenda of the Indian National Congress.
While Kamaladevi's intense involvement with the body politic has been highlighted, her love for craft and her working towards the betterment of Indian craft have been limited to a few pages, and there is only a passing mention of the Crafts Council. The Crafts Council was founded by Kamaladevi as a non-profit organisation, which served as a platform to lobby for the rights of craftspersons, to restore to them their rightful status and to resuscitate languishing craft. Today, the Crafts Council of India is a powerful apex body, carrying aloft the banner of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and her ideals. Nanda admits to this discrepancy again in her bibliography note, but this lacuna would have been suitably overcome had she met with some of the older people who worked closely with Kamaladevi in her pursuit for a renaissance of craft.
To Kamaladevi who loved the traditional skills of Indian craftspersons and weavers, long before folk and ethnic chic became fashionable terms, the ideas and norms of the English educated held no appeal. The first woman pioneer to start a revival in Indian textile art, she was appointed Chairperson of the All-India Handicrafts Board in 1952 and later Vice-Chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi.
Kamaladevi's vision brought handicrafts into the ambit of the national economy. "For Kamaladevi, craftsmanship grew from the village community, its joys and burdens, the change of the seasons, the memories filled with song and verse legends, myths and local romances from the core and substance of their daily existence." She was the force behind the intensive surveys carried out by the Handicraft Board of various crafts. Kamaladevi believed in a sound home market for Indian craft, as a result of which the State Governments opened a chain of Government emporia in all major cities. Her involvement with craft was so deep, she travelled the length and breadth of India, watching "every coil of cane" juxtaposed into a basket, every thread of warp and weft transformed into fabric.
The Theatre Crafts Museum owes its existence to her. Her ideas on various projects were widely borrowed, but due credit was not given for all the spadework she unstintingly put in.
Kamaladevi wrote her autobiography, besides authoring books on the status of women, handicrafts and embroidery. It is difficult to meet anyone of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya's stature... the human dynamo as Reena Nanda describes her, with interest in many creative dimensions, crafts, embroidery, theatre, folk art and performing arts, music and dance. Her compassion for the marginalised sections of society transformed itself into a zealous protection of their interests and giving of herself physically and mentally towards activating social reforms to make their world a better place to live in. A meticulous organiser, Kamaladevi was unfortunately not able to implement most of her personal projects, for she needed a strong administrator and a dedicated body of workers.
In all of this, her home life suffered. Harindranath's alcoholism and his womanising caused her to consider divorce as the only way out, for the future of her son Rama. Widowed at a tender age, remarried and divorced and watching her son grow away from her, made her lonely in her autumnal years.
A force to contend with, Kamaladevi remained active till her end at the age of 86. Hers was a life well spent and her fervour devoted to meaningful causes, difficult to emulate. Today, her larger than life personality lives on in the hearts of people who remember her work. This well-written book should be read by everyone who is touched by the history of Indian Independence and every craft activist as it inspires and sends out ripples of messages stirring the most complacent of us.
Reena Nanda, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, p. 168.
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