Remembering Kamaladevi



THE last century saw dynamic changes not only in India, but the world over in terms of the geopolitical and economic environment, as well as an upheaval of the socio-cultural moorings of society. The struggle for freedom of the colonized half of the world and the emergence of sovereign nations, led to new leadership, concepts and ideas. It gave more power to women to actively participate in all aspects of life and better their lot, thereby enriching society. Women emerged from the shadows. Kamala-devi Chattopadhyay was one such person who participated in the political, socio-economic and cultural life of India.  Hers is a story of courage, taking on every challenge that came her way.

I worked closely with Kamaladevi from 1954, when she was Chairman of the All India Handicrafts Board (AIHB) and thereon. I was one of the few who could keep pace with her. She worked day and night, in her single-minded resolve to revive our cultural traditions, be it in the area of craft, in the performing arts, theatre, and importantly in the area of women’s rights, all in an effort to put them into a contemporary context. She was passionately involved in the movement to draft legislation for women to ensure equal partnership in all economic spheres. Kamaladevi had the ability to inspire people and through her own example, change their lives. I was one among a legion of people she inspired, moulded and shaped to have a much richer life.

She is remembered the world over for being a pioneer in the world of crafts, and for encouraging artists and artisans irrespective of cast, creed or nation. She fought for the rights of the young and old to live with dignity. She espoused the cause of the have-nots, the neglected, the forgotten and those who languished in prison for want of someone to fight for their right for justice.

Till the very end she was busy writing petitions, listening to the woes of those who had no one to turn to. Behind her expressionless face, which people often thought was humourless and unfeeling, was a passionate woman, a perceptive person, who felt with great intensity but had learned early in life to not reveal her emotions. It was she who rescued the large number of young Sikh boys, languishing in prison without trial, by filing a writ petition for them. It was she who took up causes, which were not in the eye of the public. It was she who financed a number of people when they faced problems, from her meagre resources. One always heard the refrain: ‘She changed my life, she helped me when I had no support from any quarter.’ She helped a number of battered women, abandoned wives and widows, without question.



Kamaladevi shared her knowledge and her experience with all. Those who came in contact with her were fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from her experience. Many have written about Kamaladevi and many more will research and write about her. Many will eulogize her, while others may criticize. In the world of today everything is changing, and society is in a state of constant flux. Nothing remains static and it is only with change that new insights will emerge, and new ideas evolve. Those who criticize her do not realize that she was a pioneer. It should not be forgotten that she had no previous examples as models for her programmes. It was the first time that a nation, liberated from colonialism, was working to create a society where divergent peoples would have to learn to live harmoniously within a democratic framework.

The creative field was not only varied and dispersed but a primary source of income for a large majority of people at the lowest economic and social rung of society. It was also closely linked to the ethos of India. Kamaladevi had to develop a philosophy, a concept and a plan,  which would get the support of the  new government. It required great conviction and courage to develop innovative programmes, construct policies on a clean slate with no past points of reference. To act and not be afraid of making mistakes required great courage.

Kamaladevi was a real adventurer travelling the world and learning at every step. She met all the great leaders of her time who were attracted by her charismatic persona. She met both the rulers as well as the opposition.  She talked of meeting Haile Selassie and thereafter, having coffee with a rebel Erythrean. She described walking down a large hall to shake hands with the King of Morocco, her Chamba sandals squeaking all the way, to discuss strategies of resistance and encourage them in their struggle against the French colonialists. She was very supportive of the in exile Tunisian freedom struggle that functioned from an office in Delhi. She travelled not only across Europe and the US, but also to Japan and China.



Despite British attempts to prevent her from landing in Hong Kong, she resisted their machinations and succeeded. Mme Sun Yat Sen looked after her. She met with Generalissimo and Mme. Chang. Later, she travelled to Japan and was celebrated, receiving almost a hundred letters a day from people who had only read about her in the newspapers. She saw Noh and Kabuki plays, as well as the puppet theatre at a time when few people outside of the country knew about Japan’s traditional theatre forms.
She provided an image of Japanese women that was different from what was generally projected. She elaborated that of the five million industrial workers, two million were women and 30 per cent of them were working in the services. This truth was quite different from the impression  of the Japanese women being subservient and housebound. Her love for traveling remained with her right till her last days.

Besides her contribution to the development of crafts the world over, and additionally the performing arts in India, she made a tremendous contribution to the struggle for equal rights for women. Despite the statement made by Sarojini Naidu, ‘I am no feminist’, which was echoed by Kamaladevi too, it was these dynamic women who fought for women’s participation in the political arena as equal partners. Their active role in the freedom struggle was closely linked to women’s rights and thus they were able to garner support, often grudgingly, given to womens’ causes. Gandhiji was the one political leader who gave his full support to the cause of equalityfor women. Kamaladevi emerged not only as a forerunner in the fight for Independence and an important part of the youth movement but was also an active participant in the Socialist movement within the Congress party that challenged the old guard.



I worked closely with Kamaladevi and she often talked of the women who had exerted tremendous influence on her. Her early mentor was Pandita Ramabai, the great Sanskrit scholar, whose father had been driven out of his community as he had taught Sanskrit to his wife and later to his daughter, which was forbidden by Brahmanical traditions. Ramabai started the Mahila Samaj and worked for the education and upliftment of women. She was the first woman to become a full-fledged member of the Indian National Congress.

Annie Besant was Kamala-devi’s ‘guiding star’ whom her mother held out as an example to her. She was the first woman to be President of the Indian National Congress in 1917.

Margaret Cousins, known as Gretta, was her true mentor who worked with a number of women to push for women’s political rights when they petitioned the British Secretary of State for women’s franchise in 1917. Women in Britain had not been granted franchise and therefore, the colonial rulers found it difficult to accept giving the right to vote to Indian women. In 1920, the Madras State Provincial Legislature opened its membership to women and Gretta persuaded Kamaladevi to stand for elections to the legislature. They crafted a novel way of promoting their cause. Harindranath Chattopadhya encouraged Kamaladevi in this endeavour. He developed plays, composed songs and actively participated in the campaign. Though Kamaladevi lost by a narrow margin, she was the first woman to fight an election to the legislature.

In 1938 the All India Congress Committee set up a National Planning Committee (NPC) for planning the development of India, and a committee to discuss the role of women in the planned economy was set up on 16 June 1939. ‘It was to deal with the place of women in the planned economy… ranging from family life, employment, education and social customs that prevent women’s participation in the economy.’ Devaki Jain in her paper, ‘Women’s Contribution to Political Economy Then and Now’, summarizes the key recommendation of the committee and points out that many of the recommendations were taken up once again in 1997.

Devaki Jain in her paper writes, ‘Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was perhaps the most effective, exemplary, constructive worker that was “thrown up” by the pre-independence decades.  It is conventional to suggest that she was influenced by Gandhi. The Gandhian touch or Gandhian political economy was certainly the model of the era; but she was not one of those who directly took the mantra or initiation from Gandhi. Hers was the strength of personal struggle and of course the “inheritance” of spirit of revolution and rebellion that her mother inculcated into her.’

Kamaladevi’s interest in the area of crafts was nurtured in her childhood when she participated in the creation of objects for the innumerable rituals that were linked to the diurnal rhythms of life. The act of creation always fascinated her, and she was aware that creative people were among the most impoverished and underprivileged.



Gandhiji’s espousal of the cause of the indigo workers of Champaran had drawn her to the freedom movement, as she felt that the real issues, directly related to the people, were being addressed. She was aware that Gandhiji’s interest in swadeshi was multifaceted. It was not only a way of creating an economic policy to reach millions of rural persons who worked in cottage industries as a means of employment but also to create a platform for uniting the smaller manufacturers of the non-formal sector. In addition, it had a deeper meaning which was that it expressed the cultural ethos of a people.

Kamaladevi was greatly moved by Gandhiji’s use of khadi as a political symbol to unify a divergent people. He used it not only to cut across caste, class and creed, but conveyed other messages as well. By making spinning an essential part of the discipline of the Congress worker, he emphasized a deep respect for working with the hands. He inculcated a respect for the act of creation and an understanding of the repetitive act of spinning as a form of meditation, a time for concentration and inner quietitude. In the midst of the turmoil of our fight for freedom, hundreds of leaders and common people, who believed in the Mahatma’s approach to the freedom struggle, sat quietly spinning every day. The simple Gandhi cap which he devised, became a symbol of the unification of a people who shed their separate identities by wearing it.

Gandhi’s insistence on ‘small is beautiful’ as a creed that began in the 1920s, was followed by E.F. Schumacher who popularized it only in the 1970s. Kamaladevi, in her book Inner Recesses Outer Spaces – Memoirs, writes, ‘It was only after I met Gandhiji that I came to understand the deep relationship of handicrafts with our daily life.’How enormously beneficial it was for ‘us to live with them and make them an integral part of our everyday existence.’ To quote him: ‘The pleasurable sensation I enjoyed by the mere feel of the object and the tender sensitivity it breathed into the air, were experiences I valued and I still cherish like harmonious tones of music that echo in one’s being even after the sound itself has died away.’



Kamaladevi describes one of her earliest visits to Gandhiji, when she found him in deep conversation with Dr James Cousins, the noted Irish poet and theosophist. A few handicraft objects were lying in front of them and Gandhiji expounded, ‘what was then considered one of his weird philosophies but now proved scientifically’, about the need to use our hands, which were one of our chief mediums for creative expression and also had therapeutic and meditative qualities. He talked of the imperative need to preserve this heritage that had enriched every aspect of our way of life. She goes on to quote from Gandhi: ‘Association is the essence of relationship which endears articles of everyday use to the user. This endearment finds a way of enhancing the aesthetic values in these articles, just as we love to dress up our loved ones, so we love to embellish our homes. Here, the craftsman employs his ingenuity through creative imagination. We are mostly carried away by a finished product, may be excited by watching the process, but remain unmindful of the deep chords within us that are stimulated when we create something with our own hands. Therefore, in the Indian tradition, creation does not mean making novel and exotic articles to please one’s fancy but endowing everything we use in our daily life with beauty. Therefore, nothing is created without a purpose.’

Gandhiji was deeply committed to the use of crafts in basic education. Unfortunately, we have only given lip service to this concept and the introduction of crafts in basic education has remained a tokenism which we in India specialize in.

Kamaladevi was a true disciple of Gandhiji, and she added another dimension to his vision. She saw crafts, not in isolation but as a part of the rich fabric of our life involving all the creative expressions of a people. They were a part of the rhythm of life and creativity at all levels. For her, crafts became her life and she worked selflessly for the cause of artisans, for the performing arts and for nurturing inherent creativity.

Kamaladevi’s work to revive the languishing arts and crafts by travelling to the remotest parts of the country, reaching out to the largest segment of people who sustained our traditions, our skills, using the local materials continues till today. Nearly  30 million are still sustained by the cottage industries of India.

She wrote with great sensitivity in UNESCO’s publication, The Arts and Man (Paris, 1969), of how she saw crafts. ‘Craft has always been a basic activity in human society, in fact it is considered more cohesive and permeating in human relationships than even language, for it can penetrate many barriers to communication.’ This is particularly true of older societies in Asia, South and Central America, Africa and countries like Greece or Spain, where aspects of the ancient cultures continue to produce powerful impressions that are ageless.

Kamaladevi’s inspiration resulted in the creation of the World Crafts Council in affiliation with UNESCO and it encompassed the world. The Crafts Councils became an instrument for governments to reach out to masters of traditions.

People began to understand that the growth of crafts in society was a sign of the cultivation of sensitivity and the stirring and mellowing of humanism. It defined human endeavour to bring elegance and grace into an otherwise harsh and drab existence. Ritual objects created by the masters gave sanctity to the act of worship, which in turn ensured high standards in the continuous outflow of creativeness.



In one of her speeches, Kamaladevi examined the socio-economic and political role of cottage industries and made an important observation – that the continued existence of cottage industries meant to an appreciable extent, the decentralization of social and economic power and the creation of an institutional plurality which effectively stood between the ordinary citizen and a powerful state by providing employment and economic security to the rural folk. It played an important role in the process of the decentralization of economic power.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s work was applauded when the Charles Eames Award was conferred on her as the one individual who had contributed to the quality of life in India in this era. For many of us she continues to inspire even today.