Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was an eminent Indian social reformer and freedom fighter, as well as an actress and author. Her most memorable contributions were in the field of renaissance of Indian handicrafts, handlooms, and theatre. She also worked for uplifting the socio-economic standard of Indian women, and towards this end she pioneered the co-operative movement.
She was the driving force behind the founding of several cultural institutions such as the National School of Drama, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Central Cottage Industries Emporium, Crafts Council of India, Children’s Book Trust, the Dolls Museum, and many more.
She combined the handicrafts making abilities of rural women for their social and economic development through cooperative movement at grass-root level.
For her contributions, she was honoured with one of the highest civilian awards, Padma Vibhushan in 1987; and in 1974 was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship.
Childhood and Early Life
Kamaladevi was born on 3 April 1903 in Mangalore, Karnatka in an orthodox Saraswat Brahmin Kannada family. She was the fourth and youngest of her siblings. Her father, Ananthaya Dhareshwar was the District Collector of Mangalore, and her mother Girijabai belonged to an aristocratic family.
Her grandmother was a scholar of ancient Indian texts. From her childhood Kamaladevi was exposed to the ancient Indian culture and way of life, and also imbibed determination and courage from an early age.
Her family knew many prominent freedom fighters and intellectuals such as Mahadev Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Ramabai Ranade and Annie Besant. Kamaladevi was very much impressed and inspired by the swadeshi nationalist movement.
She also learnt about the ancient Sanskrit drama tradition of Kerala, Kutiyattam, from its greatest Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar.
Kamladevi faced a lot of tragedies in early childhood. Her elder sister Saguna died in her teens, When she was just seven years old her father died, without a will, and they were left penniless. However, her mother bravely brought her up defying all odds. This inspired Kamladevi to a great extent.
Early Marriage, Widowhood and Re-Marriage
In 1917, when she was just 14 years old, she was married to Krishna Rao. Tragedy struck her life again and she was widowed two years later.
Despite this tragedy, she continued her studies at Queen Mary’s College in Chennai, after completing her schooling in Mangalore. There she became friends with a senior student Suhasini Chattopadhyay, who was the younger sister of Sarojini Naidu. Suhasini introduced her brother, Harindranath Chattopadhyay, who was a well-known poet-playwright-actor, to her.
Kamladevi married Harindranath Chattopadhyay, despite the opposition of the society which at that time was against widow marriage. One year later, the couple had a son Ramakrishna.
Harindranath and Kamaladevi stayed together despite difficulties, and pursued their literary dreams of writing books and plays. When Harindranath went to London, Kamaladevi joined him. She enrolled at Bedford College, University of London, and received a diploma in Sociology.
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.
Forays in Films
Kamladevi also acted in films, when acting was looked down upon as a profession for women from respectable families. She acted in two silent films, one of which was the first silent film in Kannada; Mricchakatika, aka Vasantsena, based on the famous play by Shudraka; and was released in 1931.
Later she also acted in Hindi films. In 1943 film Tansen, she starred with K. L. Saigal and Khursheed. This was followed by Shankar Parvati in 1943, and Dhanna Bhagat 1945.
Participation in the Freedom Movement
In 1923, when Kamaladevi was in London, she learnt about Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. On her return to India, she joined the Seva Dal, and later became In-charge of the women’s section and was involved in recruiting and training women to become sevikas or volunteers.
Co-Founder of the All-India Women’s Conference
In 1926, she met the Margaret E. Cousins, the founder of All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), who inspired her to run for the Madras Provincial Legislative Assembly. This made her the first woman to run for a Legislative seat in India, although she lost by mere 55 votes.
In 1927, she co-founded the All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC) and became its first Organizing Secretary. AIWC developed into a big national organisation of with branches throughout the country.
She travelled widely to many European countries which inspired her to start social reform and community welfare programs, and educational institutions, for and by women. It also led to the formation of Lady Irwin College for Home Sciences in New Delhi.
Participation in Salt Satyagraha in 1930s
During the Salt Satyagraha in 1930, she was among those who led the protest to prepare salt at Bombay beach. She was the first Indian woman to be arrested when she entered the Bombay Stock Exchange to sell packets of salt and spent a year in prison.
In 1936, she became President of the Congress Socialist Party, and worked with Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and Minoo Masani. When World War II started, Kamaladevi was in England and she began a world tour to garner support for Independence of India after the war.
Post-Independence Contributions in Several Fields
Following the Partition of India after it gained independence, there was chaos, mayhem and a huge influx of refugees. She set up the Indian Cooperative Union to help with rehabilitation of refugees.
She helped set up the township of Faridabad on the outskirts of Delhi, to rehabilitate over 50,000 refugees from the Northwest Frontier. They were trained in new skills, and health facilities were provided in the new town. She was responsible for the great revival of Indian handicrafts and handloom in the post-independence era; which is her greatest legacy to modern India.
She also set up a series of crafts museums for India’s indigenous arts and crafts, which included the Theatre Crafts Museum in Delhi.
She instituted the National Awards for Master Craftsmen for promotion of arts and crafts; leading to the setting up Central Cottage Industries Emporia across India.
In 1964, she started the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography (NIKC), Bangalore, under the aegis of Bharatiya Natya Sangh affiliated to the UNESCO.
She was instrumental in setting up the All India Handicrafts Board, and was its first chairperson. Due to her efforts, The Crafts Council of India was set up and she also became the first president of the World Crafts Council, Asia Pacific Region.
She also set up the National School of Drama and also headed the Sangeet Natak Akademi.
Awards and Accolades
She has received several awards, the foremost being the second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan in 1987 by the Government of India. Earlier in 1955, she was honoured with the Padma Bhushan.
She was also a recipient of 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, in 1974.
She was honoured in 1977 by UNESCO for her contribution towards the promotion of handicrafts.
Shantiniketan University honoured her with its highest award, the Desikottama.
Books by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
She has also written a large number of books on subjects ranging from Socio-economic issues relating to women, Handicrafts of India, Carpet and Embroidery, Folk dances, Folk arts and crafts, and on many more subjects. In 1968 her autobiography, Inner Recesses and Outer Spaces: Memoir was published.
Written By: Raj Kumar Hansdah