Delhi weekend: Exhibition on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
The name of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay should be a fixture in Indian textbooks -- she was a freedom fighter, a social reformer, a feminist icon and a pioneering force in the revival of India’s handicrafts. Instead, on April 3, when Google created a special doodle to mark her 115th birth anniversary, her name was unfamiliar to most Indians, a testament to how often history forgets to celebrate remarkable women.
It is not easy to contain Kamaladevi’s life and legacy on a few mounted placards, but a new exhibition at the India International Centre attempts to introduce people to her vast contributions. It is befitting that both the venue and the organisers speak of Kamaladevi’s legacy -- the exhibition has been put together by the Delhi Craft Council, which was founded by her in 1967 and is showing at IIC’s Kamaladevi complex, named after her in honour of her services as the organisation’s first vice-president.
Kamaladevi was born on April 3, 1903 in an influential Saraswat Brahmin family from Mangalore. The youngest of four sisters, she was a keen student, learning dance and Sanskrit drama traditions. Prominent freedom fighters and thinkers such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Ramabai Ranade, Annie Besant were early influences in the young Kamaladevi’s life, but she drew her inspiration equally from her mother and grandmother, both educated, resilient women who brought her up.
In Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and the Making of Modern India, a collection of essays on her many achievements, academic Radha Kumar recalls how she tried to convince Kamaladevi to let her write about her life, arguing that “her memories would repair a crucial gap in our knowledge of the history of the pre-Independence Indian women’s movement and, most crucially, of the immediate post-Independence period.”
Kamaladevi refused, but Kumar made a compelling case.
Remarkable is a word that applies easily to Kamaladevi’s life. Married at 14, widowed at 16. At 20, she married for a second time, to poet-playwright and Sarojini Naidu’s brother Harindranath Chattopadhyay, with whom she produced and acted in several plays, making her stage debut. If that was risqué, Kamaladevi defied tradition further by acting in silent films in the early 1930s, an act still considered taboo for women from upper-class, upper-caste households.
Hers was a life of many firsts, since she never shied away from exercising her agency in the face of constraints. She travelled to London with her husband and obtained a diploma in Sociology from Bedford College. Inspired by the suffragette Margaret E Cousins, she founded the All India Women’s Conference and became the first Indian woman to run for a legislative seat.
At the height of the Indian freedom movement, Kamaladevi was swayed by Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas and joined the Congress in 1927. Two years later, she was elected as the head of the Youth Congress. When Gandhi launched the Civil Disobedience movement in 1930, Kamaladevi persuaded him to allow women to participate actively. She was arrested for her part in the Salt Satyagraha at Bombay and sent to Yerwada jail.
She emerges as a woman fiercely committed to her convictions. Though she remained a proponent of Gandhi’s ideas, she was vocal in her disagreement with him on several issues, such as the participation of women in Dandi march and, crucially, on the Partition, which finally lead her to severe her association with politics. Post-independence, Kamaladevi eschewed any political positions, choosing to work for the rehabilitation of refugees and helping set up a Refugee Handicrafts Centre.
Kamaladevi’s vast, rich legacy has been the revival and championing of Indian handloom and handicrafts. In 1952, the government set up the All Indian Handicrafts Board, appointing her its chairperson. As its head, Kamaladevi invested in research, training and marketing and the result of her efforts could be seen in the revival of many a craft tradition, from the Chamba Rumals of Himachal Pradesh to the Ikats of Pochampalli.
How she lived, her political career, her literary and cultural oeuvre, her single-minded devotion to the handicraft industry, in all ways Kamaladevi’s life exemplified how the personal is the political. This weekend, head to this quiet exhibition to acquaint yourself with this extraordinary life.
What: An exhibition titled ‘Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: An Extraordinary Life’
When: April 2 to April 15, 11.30 am to 7 pm
Where: Kamaladevi Complex, India International Centre