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Inner Recesses 

Outer Spaces

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
Delhi, 1986

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was a true Renaissance person, if ever there was one. Born to a noted Chitrapur Saraswat family (nee Dhareshwar) of Mangalore at the turn of the 20th century, she overcame many personal adversities to work over amazingly diverse areas of activity in colonial and post colonial India that was increasingly swept into what was perhaps the most momentous and non-violent Independence Movement in the history of Mankind. Young Kamaladevi quickly grasped the true import of Independence - not just physical, but also mental. She realized what a whole new perspective it had opened out before a poor and struggling colonial economy and polity - she realized how many sacrifices would have to be made by such a diverse country and how much its leaders and peoples would have to work to get the colonial masters to concede Independence to India.

Wherever there was action in the political field, she was there: she was the first woman in India to contest (and lose by a narrow margin) an assembly election in Madras Presidency; she was the only woman who took up cudgels with Mahatma Gandhi to include women in the Salt Satyagraha; when the Satyagrahis marched to make salt at Chowpaty (Bombay) in the 1930s, she was in its forefront. She was imprisoned for many years by the British, but her spirit only burnt brighter for the cause of Freedom . Along with another Aamchi, Umabai Kundapur (more about here here) she helped create Mahila Dal (women volunteers) of the Indian National Congress and served along with Sarojini Naidu and Aruna Asaf Ali to mobilize women in the National movement. She helped shape the All India Women`s Conference to take up the cause of what is today a 'trending' movement - gender equality.

Her travels to countries as diverse as the US and Egypt, Ethiopia and (pre Communist) China sensitized the world to India's freedom struggle. Partition in 1947 disappointed her, but she threw herself headlong into the task of rehabilitation in traumatic times, an equally daunting task - to give livelihood and self respect back to a displaced people, far more in number than in today's Iraq, Syria or Libya. She virtually singlehandedly laid the foundations for the revival of handicraft and cottage industries in India, helping create jobs for vast numbers.

In her own words:
"post 1947, I stepped off the highway of politics into the side lanes of development".

Not just that, she helped revive Theatre, Folk Arts, built up institutions like the National School of Drama, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, and the India International Centre, to attract the best talent of the land. The Bankura horse (today a symbol of cottage handicrafts in India) was her 'discovery, as was the revival of Ikat and chic khadi garments.

True to her life and her mission, her Memoirs are written (in 1986, 2 years before she passed on) in a most unassuming, matter of fact style, with least emphasis on importance of her catalysing role in so many national ventures. To this day, they remain a true testament of her faith in the people of India. is privileged to bring her Memoirs back to the community that gave birth to her, in the hope that her example will serve as a role model not only to generations of youngsters (of today, tomorrow and the days after) within the community, but in fact to anyone, anywhere in the world who reads her extraordinary account. We are also happy that, courtesy her family members, we have been able to source many of her family photographs, not in public view earlier. 

Photo Gallery


Crafting Insitutions

As this tribute to Kamaladevi is written,Independent India (for the political realisation of which she strove all her life), has marked seventy one years of national existence. It is an apt time to recall Kamaladevi`s role in building institutions that strengthened our infant nation at many levels. She was perhaps the most effective and exemplary constructive worker "thrown up" in the pre Independence decades. It is natural to think she was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. The Gandhian political economy was certainly the (then) norm, but she was not one of those who directly took the mantra from Gandhi. Here was the strength of a personal struggle and an acute perception of the needs at ground level that impelled her thoughts and actions, and of course the inheritance of the spirit of revolution and rebellion her mother inculcated in her. She realized very early that for building a strong future, the country needed grass roots institutions that would not only help bind the social and cultural ethos of the people, but also create livelihoods, and create hope for the future. Post Partition of the subcontinent, economic deprivation was as large, perhaps larger than political trauma in the lives of ordinary people. While gainful employment for men was not so difficult, she thought of revival of handicrafts, handmade textiles as good avenues to revive not only the economy but also the morale of the displaced and others. With her contacts in the highest echelons of the government, and her selfless organizing skills, new organizations such as the Chhatarpur Agricultural Cooperative in Delhi and the Small Industrial Cooperatives set up in the new township of Faridabad were of immense assistance to the displaced persons. At the same time, the women found an outlet for their skills in programs of the All India Handicrafts Board, whose activities flowered all over India under the keen eye and constructive ideas of Kamaladevi. Travelling tirelessly, literally from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and Gujarat to the North Eastern regions, she guided the craftspeople, the trainers and general public about the need to preserve and develop the unique handicrafts of India. Many may not know that she "discovered" the Bankura Horse that is tody the mascot of Cottage Industries in India. Besides, textile weaves such as the Chanderi, the Patan Patola, the Ikat, the Patachitra of Odisha, the Kalamkari designs and the whole range of exquisitely embroidered "roomals" (scarves) of North India owe their existence to her groundwork in encouraging artisans not to give up their hoary skills, and providing them market platforms for sustenance.

Similarly to revive theatre crafts, she set up a theatre crafts museum (the Srinivasa Malliah Theatre Crafts Museum) in Delhi; to encourage dramatics and music, the Sangeet Natak Akademi was formed; the National School of Drama focused on creating and encouraging home grown talent and the Indian National Theatre made strides under her encouragement. Similarly, puppetry and allied arts, masked and other folk dances - from Ghoomar of Rajasthan to Bommalata of Andhra to Chhau of Bengal, Bhuta and Yakshagana from Karnataka to the Pavaikathakali glove puppets) of Kerala -  all got her equal attention and support.

Her efforts both in the financial field and that of ideas resulted in the Japanese government coming together with the Indian in the 1960s to create the India International Centre in Delhi, the first homegrown nursery for freewheeling intellectual activity, a resource centre for research in social sciences, and a focus for national and international cultural activities. Between the '50s and `80s of the last century, Kamaladevi would have created and fostered the crafting of at least 15 to 20 institutions in the areas of handicrafts, the arts and social sciences. Her staggering achievements doubtless had something to do with idealism and nation building fervor in Independent India. No wonder then, that a former President of India remarked "Flower buds seemed to blossom at her touch, whether they be flower buds of human beings or institutions ... she made people more humane and sensitive to deeper impulses of society"

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