India's powerful women: An inspirational artistic presence

India has always nurtured powerful women who have led from the front, inspired people around them and enriched public life.

ht view Updated: Jun 29, 2015 02:24 IST
Freedom movement,women's rights,Kamaladevi

She is 15 and also 4,500 years old. I have not seen her ‘in person’ at the National Museum, New Delhi, where she resides; only pictures of her.

But I am not sure if the long-armed and heavily-bangled ‘the dancing girl’ of Mohenjo-daro, discovered in 1926, is a dancing girl at all. And having heard the distinguished art historian Sadanand Menon on the subject, I suspect she is anything but.

Her stance, her smile, the way she rests the arm at her waist show the 4.1 ft tall athletic Indus Valley icon to be an extremely confident young girl who may or may not have known dance but certainly knew something about power.

She overwhelmed the master archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who said: “She’s about fifteen years old… she stands there with bangles all the way up her arm and nothing else on… perfectly confident of herself and the world.

There’s nothing like her, I think, in the world.” She is in complete charge of her life and can cock a snook at power, whether that of her ‘coach’, her teacher or of any man around including the ‘priest-king’ whose stone bust is also a famous Harappan find.

Her bangled arm reminds me of a photograph by OP Sharma of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.

The grand dame of the Indian freedom struggle and socialist guardian angel of craftspersons is smiling through her hundred wrinkles in that black and white masterpiece.

But what grips you are the glass bangles.

Covering her right arm from wrist to elbow, they seem to say ‘yes, we are beautiful…but beauty is about being strong’.

Kamaladevi was a strong woman.

Strong to Gandhi, who she acknowledged as her leader, not master, stronger to Nehru, who she saw as her colleague, not her leader, strongest to Indira Gandhi, who she saw as, simply, a politician with an enormous ego.

Kamaladevi said ‘no’ to power both in terms of doing her own thing, always, but also in the sense of saying ‘no’ to high office. She declined to be minister of state in Nehru’s first Cabinet not just because she believed she deserved Cabinet rank but because she could do much more outside the corridors of Lutyens’ Delhi for the causes she held dear — labour, women, crafts, theatre.

There was a handwoven softness to her personality, with the melting roughness of a warp. Beauty and utility used to go together, she would say, like dignity and labour; they should not be bifurcated.

‘Don’t divorce creativity from livelihood, imagination from reality’.

Real people flocked around her, weavers, artisans, refugees. K Kamaraj wanted her to be governor of Madras. “She would be terrific, Kamaraj, of course”, Nehru told him, “but she is hardly likely to agree. You go ask her.”

Of course she declined. That increased her stature. Like all strong people, Kamaladevi had her prejudices. She too had her ego.

She never took to the other socialist heroine of the freedom struggle, Aruna Asaf Ali. That was a loss to the India of egalitarian struggle.

And she kept the other great patron of handicrafts, hand-weaving and the arts, Pupul Jayakar, at her bangled arm’s length.

That was a loss to the India of cultural equity. Pupul’s strength was both intrinsic and derived. Few understood, instinctively, the promise of India’s craft traditions as she did.

Widely travelled, she wanted to showcase India’s art to the world. There was a glitter to Pupul and it is only right that the great Indian craftshop in New York was named ‘Sona’. Beautiful people surrounded her, as did the ambitious and manipulative.

Her autonomous sensibility inspired those around her, with Jiddu Krishnamurti regarding her as a fellow-journeyer on his singular and singularly clean paths.

Being among cranks on the Krishnamurti road was good for them. But being among cronies on the Indira Gandhi road was bad for her. With every increment in status, there was a stepping-down in stature.

‘Kamaladevi was a creator’, it was said, ‘Pupul is an executive’. That was unkind but not untrue. Kapila Vatsyayan is a design woven on the same loom as those two remarkable women. She is a bas-relief carved on the same plinth as those two support from the sides.

Theatre is her life, drama and dance her natural genre, literature her forte. But the bureaucracy has kept her captive.

If the bureaucracy kept Kamaladevi out and drew Pupul in, it has made Kapila its mannequin made of deadening ink and constricting tape. She has been deployed for its magic and its rituals. Kapila knows this better than anyone else for she is a woman of enormous intelligence.

The creases on her face have always gone from end to end like norwesters or wesnorthers, signalling thunderstorms of disapproval or admonition. Now they interlock like criss-crosses on a weather-beaten palm.

But when Kapila smiles, which is very, very rarely, the web of lines vanishes like into thin air. And then we have vintage Kapila Vatsyayan, playful and wise, forgiving and remonstrative, above all, very thoughtful.

No one I know today who belongs to the Indian ‘north’, understands India’s ‘south’ as she does. She knows, by instinct almost, that Balasarasvati’s cousins Brinda and Mukta were as great artists as the renowned dancer but Balamma kept centre-stage, that Rukmini Devi was both an artistic pioneer and a Theosophical mystery, that the mridanga has power but the chenda has magic.

This master of the theatre knows that on India’s power-stage wisdom is ageing and weary, folly young but empowered rascality perennially middle-aged.

The dialogue in her stage-script is a mix of Kalidasic Sanskrit at the high moments, Blakean English at the median, but mostly Prem Chandian Hindustani and Mantoesque Urdu, with Punjabi coming in from scenes in the scullery.

And the music? Yes, of course, there is plenty of music in the play of Kapila’s lifelines! And it is a blend of Kumar Gandharva’s dhun-s, the plangent melodies played by Hariprasad Chaurasia with a chorus comprising Sahir Lushianvi’s and Guru Dutt’s lyrics of the 1950s and 1960s.

An engaging biography of Kapila by Jyoti Sabharwal, just published, has triggered these thoughts on four powerful Indian women, starting with the Mohenjo-daro ‘dancer’ who may never have danced after all.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor in history and politics, Ashoka University.
(The views expressed are personal)

First Published: Jun 28, 2015 22:48 IST