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#SundayReading – A feminist’s friendship with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

A Singular Woman


IN 1939, at the age of 36, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay began a journey that took her around the world. Scheduled to attend a conference about women’s rights in Denmark, she travelled right into the beginning of the Second World War, and took nearly two years to return to India. She spent about 18 months of this period in the United States and in Canada, raising support for India’s nationalist movement. “Woman Tells India’s Hopes,” ran a glowing Los Angeles Times headline from 1940, which seems to be typical of the coverage. She travelled the length and breadth of the United States, speaking and writing for American publications, making friends with the country’s feminists and African-American civil rights activists.

“You are fighting the patriarchy,” she told her audiences in the US; “we are fighting imperialism.” She tried to show them how the two were related, and how wrong feminists from this global north were to marginalise or ignore critiques of the imperial mode. Many of the things she said were forgotten for the better part of the century that followed, but her ideas are coming around again.

I had no idea about any of this when I landed in the United States in 1958. I was 25 years old, knew nothing of Kamaladevi, and espoused no particular ideology. Excitingly for me, I had been invited to a leadership seminar at Harvard, and from there, I set out for the American South, which I wished to see very much, which I wished to see very much, and to learn more about the civil rights movement. Although I kept no diary of my time and took no photographs, my visits to Georgia and South Carolina are etched in my mind. There, and in other parts of the South, I met activists, spoke about Gandhi and India, and made contact with people with whom I was put in touch by my Afirican-American acquaintances in Delhi. These people arranged a dinner for me to which they, incredibly to me, invited Rosa Parks. She told me her story and invited me to meet and listen to others with whom she worked. When I went back up to New York, I had the good fortune of walking with activists of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on a march in Harlem. It was only a very long time later that I discovered that Kamaladevi had made this journey 20 years before me. My heart skipped a beat. I wish I had known, I berated myself; I wish I had been able to talk to her about this once I came to know her.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was a national icon long before I met her—a leader of India’s independence movement, a spirited activist and a sophisticated political thinker, an artiste and a patron of the arts, doyenne of the crafts movements, and one of the most important figures in moulding our new country’s approach to culture. She was also fundamental to the women’s movement that grew alongside the nationalist parties’ struggle for independence. She was part of an extraordinary generation who envisioned women as equal participants in the struggle to free India and Indian society, put themselves at the forefront of the fight, went to prison for their beliefs, and worked tirelessly to spread their message.

Yet it overwhelms me that I knew so little of the woman I later came to think of, variously, as my friend, my mentor, and a second mother. When I met her, my own feminist awakening was only beginning. The three decades of our friendship occurred in particularly tumultuous times—for me, but also for India’s women’s movement. The feminist wave that gathered force in the 1960s and 1970s had little time for the work of women who fell outside of the revolutionary categories it adhered to. I am afraid Kamaladevi was considered old-fashioned, if not outright disdained, by my feminist colleagues, particularly those in the left-leaning Women’s Studies movement, who saw deep diides between what was considered revolutionary, as opposed to merely reformist, and deemed the ideas of a previous generation of women’s rights activists reformist. As I went about realising my own feminist framework, I came up against this attitude more than once. If anything, this makes it a matter of greater regret to me that my deeply personal relationship with Kamaladevi allowed me to overlook her truly remarkable political and feminist worldview. It might have made our feminism—a melding of philosophies that shaped both our lives—richer and deeper than even I could imagine.

IN JANUARY 1976, the Economic and Political Weekly dropped a minor bombshell on me, in the form of a book review by the feminist scholar Jashodhara Bagchi. Ratna, as I called her, had been my class fellow and friend at Oxford at the beginning of the 1960s. We had stayed together for some time in the same digs, she a scholar of English literature while I studied economics at St Ann’s College—a far less glamorous thing to do at the time. We both left university in 1962, and she had since come into her own as a scholar of gender studies.

Her EPW article, called “Killed With Kindness,” was a blistering critique of a number of books, including Towards Equality, the celebrated report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India; and a volume of essays called Indian Women, brought out by the publications division of the ministry of information and broadcasting. Ratna began by pointing out that the country, as a whole, suffered from critical lack of data and concrete information about women’s political and economic participation in national life. Perhaps this, she said, accounted for the “breezy superiority” in the tone of the editor of Indian Women. I was that editor.

Indian Women accompanied me on my headlong charge into the women’s movement in 1975. I had begun working on the book two years previously; its contributors were largely people I knew through Delhi University, where I had worked in the 1960s as a lecturer of economics at Miranda House. My chief guide, however, was the singular Kamaladevi, much older and farther-seeing than any of us. My husband, Lakshmi Jain, had worked with her for many years, having made common cause at the moment of India’s independence, when they both worked in refugee rehabilitation following Partition. “Look, why don’t you ask Kamaladevi?” he said when he heard my plan for the book.

She loved the idea and took the project to heart, writing an essay for the book and designing its contents. She introduced me to some of the most thrilling contributors we had, from Lakshmi Menon, then India’s foreign minister, to the great novelist Qurratulain Hyder. In the book’s introduction, I called her my “wise counsellor,” and wrote that “she indicated the areas which needed investigation and guided me to persons who were interested in the subject.”

Ratna duly singled out Kamaladevi’s own essay. “Kamaladevi Chattophadyay (mentioned as the ‘wise counsellor’ in the volume) indicates that all has not gone well with the image-building of women in India today,” she wrote in her review. “But it is not enough to mourn the lack of ‘missionary drive,’ of ‘voluntary effort and organisation’: and it is indeed evasion to blame everything on the faceless peril of ‘politics, its idiom, technique, values,’ as if politics was not an element in Gandhiji’s mobilisation of Indian women in the nationalist struggle for Independence!”

In my introduction to the volume, I wrote: “In the first decade after Independence, when India was seeking to re-establish an identity, every aspect of its life needed to be explored, considered, recognised. Some of the images that had been formed while it was a colony had to be effaced and more authentic ones offered.”

“How easy it all sounds,” Ratna remarked, witheringly, “the transition from one of the most systematically exploited colonies in the world to an Independent state, a mere scissors-and-paste affair of replacing old images with new!”

In preparation for Indian Women, Kamaladevi and I had talked endlessly, and found common ground in our attitudes: we did not want to be like men, and we wanted women to be able to define their progress on their own terms. I thought, and still think, of our worldview as radical and feminist. I don’t, even now, think that book was worthless. Its writers presented a series of cameos that represented and analysed a broad range of Indian women’s experiences. I admit that what it did not have was a framework—feminist or capitalist, or, in the spirit of the time, Marxist. Some of these things I would come to grapple with as I found myself immersed in the women’s movement. But, along with everybody else, I also failed to look to Kamaladevi herself for answers.

IN THE 1960S AND 1970S, as gender-focused activism lit up the world, Delhi’s feminist scene became a marvellously stimulating and exciting place. But through my early years as a feminist, it also demanded a prolonged, and often painful, period of adjustment. The Women’s Studies movement, pre-eminent in the modern feminist history in India, was dominated by Marxists (some of whom, including Veena Das, had written essays for Indian Women.) Many of the great feminists around me, women such as Aruna Asaf Ali and Phulrenu Guha, Lotika Sarkar and Vina Mazumdar, were staunchly leftist in their views. Theirs was not an ideology I subscribed to. I had defined myself as a Gandhian, a term that was a red rag to some on the left.

Kamaladevi stood entirely at odds with this era. By the time we met, her disinterest in what she thought of as the Western paradigms of women’s liberation was manifest. In her memoirs, she wrote that she could not think of herself as “feminist” in the way she understood the European and North American use of the term. But Kamaladevi had swum against the current in more than one era of her lifetime—indeed, her whole life had consisted of her doing things that were unheard of for a woman in her position.

She was born into a privileged family in coastal Karnataka in 1903, and in the custom of the day, was married as a child. Her family included women of exceptional strength and wisdom: both her grandmother and mother were passionate about books and learning, and her mother was a champion of women’s education. Both Kamala and her mother were attracted to the Congress Party, whose activities in the Mangalore area matched their own liberal social philosophy, as well as their growing political consciousness. In later years, when Kamala went to jail for her participation in the Congress’s civil disobedience movement, her mother went picketing herself.

Widowed as a teenager from her first marriage, Kamala broke out of traditional constraints and married again at the age of 16. She took her last name from her second husband, Harindranath Chattopadhyay, whom she divorced in 1933. The proceeding was the first such legal separation granted by the courts of India. (She freely admitted that she and Sarojini Naidu, Harindranath’s elder sister, made better companions as fellow political prisoners in Yerwada Women’s Prison than as sisters-in-law.)

Her upbringing and inclinations made her sensitive to beauty and art; with Harindranath, she ran a theatre company which travelled around the country. At a time when respectable women shrank from the thought of exposing themselves in the performing arts, she appeared in a Bombay film, made in 1931 by Mohan Bhavnani, based on the story of Vasantasena. In 1935, she acted in another called Bikhre Moti.

Like many young and talented Indians of her time, she was galvanised by Mohandas Gandhi and the Congress. Their new philosophy seemed to her to be the route to political freedom as well as a social transformation. A great many women came to believe in this, of course. It helped that the Congress had the support of indomitable activists and thinkers, such as Annie Besant whom Kamala’s mother admired deeply; or Margaret Cousins, the suffragette who helped create the All India Women’s Conference, and became Kamala’s friend and backer. Looking through Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces, Kamala’s memoir, it seems as though Kamala marched to the frontlines of every important battle fought during the days of civil disobedience. She organised the women of her region through of the Congress’s grassroots organisation, the Seva Dal. She stood for elections to the Madras Legislative Council, became secretary of the AIWC, and did so much more.

By the early 1920s, the powerful Motilal Nehru took to calling her “a dangerous woman” in his colleagues’ hearing, because she had impressed him so thoroughly on their first encounter. She, lobbying for the passage of the Prevention of Child Marriage Act in the central assembly, had paid him a visit to ask for Congress support for the bill, and may have pressed him a little too intently for his liking. In her book, she writes that he thundered, “‘Are you trying to instruct me and my colleagues how to vote, you chit of a girl?’ Far from wilting, I stood up to say, ‘If your objection is to my age, I will bring a batch of old women to seek your vote.’ With that I turned on my heels and almost ran out of the room, as he shook with loud laughter.”

She stood her ground in discussions with Jawaharlal Nehru, and even argued with Gandhi, her idol, when he had to be persuaded that women could do all the tasks reserved for them in the course of satyagraha as well as participate in direct action. When the Socialist Party was formed in the early 1930s, under the aegis of the Congress, she lent her support to it. She became, in this way, a liberal in a conservative society, and a radical among liberal politicians: in every setting, she stood out.

I FIRST SET MY EYES ON KAMALADEVI in the late 1950s, although we were not introduced until much later. Kamaladevi intrigued me for a long time before we were acquainted. The first few times I saw her, I was a research assistant for the rural development wing of the Indian Co-operative Union, an organisation she founded after independence, and presided over. She was, of course, immeasurably distant at the time to us young researchers and analysts. Because our bus from work took us to Connaught Place, my colleagues and I usually met for coffee at the Central Cottage Industries Emporium—an enterprise developed and managed by the Indian Co-operative Union. On some days, at 6 or 6.30 in the evening, as we sat there, dusty and dirty from a day of field work, someone or the other would whisper, “Kamaladevi is coming.” We would all watch as she came downstairs, from the cottage industries offices—a bejewelled, regal-looking woman with a somewhat dumpy figure, followed by a rather servile woman assistant. There would be others, too, sometimes three or four people, hovering the way an entourage does around a minister. A big car would draw up at the entrance, and she would enter and be driven away.

She lingered in my mind as this queenly creature, and only grew in importance to me when I became friends with Lakshmi, who worked with her on the All-India Handicrafts Board—another institution she helped build—and was devoted to her. In the early 1960s, he often acted as a sort of all-purpose assistant to her, going to see her morning and evening, picking her up from the airport when she returned from her trips, and so on. My curiosity about her only grew; and so, when I said, “Let me see her,” Lakshmi suggested I come to a meeting of the Handicrafts Board, hide myself away and watch. He smuggled me in with the help of a secretary. Having now been to many board meetings myself, it is stunning to think of the wonderful casualness and air of creativity of that one. It was entirely democratic; full of women. It ran without formality or stiffness. The board conversed and looked at crafts; occasionally, Kamaladevi herself would hold up an object or a puppet, and talk about it.

I had my third encounter with her on 15 July 1966, the day I walked out of my father’s house in Mysore over his objections to my marriage to Lakshmi. I arrived at 4 that afternoon at Delhi airport, where Lakshmi was waiting for me. Together, we went to the opening of Super Bazaar, a retail co-operative that was his brainchild. We went home, and he told me he had invited Kamaladevi to come see us. She arrived, betraying no particular surprise over my presence—she must have known who I was already. We were introduced; she smiled at me and gave me a sari. That was all—but we never looked back after that.

The question of why I loved her instantly is one I am never able to answer to my satisfaction. Had I known of the radical spirit that animated her unlikely body, I might have been overwhelmed. Instead of an ideological similarity, though, a cultural similarity may have drawn us together. Perhaps that was what attracted her to me. I think, now, that she may have seen me as a Karnataka girl, like herself, who retained something of the region about her. Her friends and colleagues were mostly north Indians; our Delhi circles of the time did not include quite so many “Madrasis”—as we were called—as they might do now. I, on the other hand, wore my hair long, with jasmine flowers in it. My nose-pin was traditional. When she came to visit, I cooked south Indian food. We did not usually speak to each other in Kannada, but now and again a phrase would slip in. Perhaps she found these affinities refreshing.

The early years of our friendship unfolded just as I was leaving behind what Gloria Steinem, an old friend, identified as a kind of “Queen Bee” syndrome—enjoying the attention paid to a lone woman who held her own among men. In my early teaching years, when I entered the Miranda House staff room, I tended to find my colleagues knitting and talking about babies. As a young, unmarried person, it did not appeal to me in the slightest. On the other hand, if you went to the coffee shop of the Delhi School of Economics in those days, you were likely to find Amartya Sen or Sukhamoy Chakraborty with their students gathered around them, and I much preferred being able to talk with Amartya about Pareto optimality to hanging around my own staff room. The distinction I drew between these two spaces was rather mean, I admit, but it was an indication of how my eyes were yet to open fully to feminism.

In 1967 or 1968, Raj and Romesh Thapar decided to bring out a special issue of their magazine, Seminar, on the subject of the Indian woman. The historian Romila Thapar persuaded me to write something for the issue, so I wrote about the old blessing that my mother used when she gave her daughters an oil bath, the panchakanya chiranjeevi, that called on the classical models of womanly virtue in the Hindu tradition – Ahalya, Tara, Sita, Draupadi and Mandodari, all women revered for submitting to their men and to patriarchy. I called for a new panchakanya, replacing the virtuous with more rebellious women from the tradition. I had never written about gender before, and doing so for the first time caused something in me to shift. It so happened that my writing was read by Sheila Dhar, the singer and writer who was then the director of the Publications Division. She asked me, in 1973, if I would work on a book profiling Indian women, as a publication for the first world conference on women in Mexico. That book became Indian Women, and the path on which the project set me kept me breathlessly busy for the next 30 or 40 years.

IT HURT ME SOMETIMES THAT Kamaladevi seemed to appreciate almost nothing I did as a researcher and feminist. Our connection was so intensely personal that it seems strange, in retrospect, that we both misunderstood each other’s calling. I certainly mischaracterised hers, by thinking of her solely as a kind of diva engaged  in her pursuit of arts, craft and theatre. I don’t think there has been another modern Indian with as formidable an influence over these areas of our cultural life. She was the moving spirit behind Delhi’s Sangeet Natak Akademi; she founded the city’s Theatre Craft Museum; she was the chairperson of the National Centre for Cultural Resources and Training, the Children’s Book Trust, and the Dolls Museum—and these formed only a small part of her résumé.

For her part, Kamaladevi never thought much of my research or activities. In my early years as a feminist, I studied and wrote extensively about women as workers, delving deep into economic research. My own experiences and thinking led me into an inquiry of whether there could be a Gandhian feminism, and how it might be practiced. I first became aware of the Gandhian ethic as a young student in Bangalore, where I met two young Gandhian activists at a seminar. Something in me thrilled to how acutely simple they were in their clothing and manners, and how passionate in their quest of justice and equality.  Later, I went walking with the Gandhian veteran Vinoba Bhave on his journeys for the Bhoodan and Gramdan movements, which urged communities and individuals to give some of their lands to the landless.

None of this seemed to strike a chord with Kamaladevi. She even criticised me, affectionately, for doing so much research and not focusing more on bringing about change in the field. Still, she occasionally supported me as only she could. In the late 1970s, I had begun an Institute of Social Studies Trust, to research and bring out papers on women and their work. I ran it out of our three-bedroom flat, but as we published more, the literature began to overwhelm our living space. When I told Kamaladevi about this, she offered me the mezzanine floor of one of her most cherished spaces—the Srinivas Malliah Memorial Theatre Craft Museum, which she had built and named after her long-time friend and partner. She called the informal library I had collected “Jigyasa,” or knowledge. So our address became “Institute of Social Studies Trust, Jigyasa, SMM Theatre Crafts Building”—a beautiful one, I thought.

Gandhian philosophy was a cornerstone of the way I thought about rural development and economic equality, and my work, as well as our lifestyle, proceeded along those lines. In a very fundamental way, Gandhi also affirmed Kamaladevi’s life and attitudes. Like him, she had a certain moral severity, and was impatient with cant and hypocrisy. Her ideas, dismissed as hopelessly retrograde by academic feminists of my generation, are worth re-examining in light of what we think of as new challenges and crises. She hoped to imbue the practice of the arts with the dignity of labour, unbound from caste and social stratification, something we now understand as crucial to the Indian handicrafts industry.

She wrote, in a book on handicrafts, that our backyards had become “littered with the debris of alien manufacture,” something that will sound familiar to critics of globalisation. Today, we debate skilling, and the preservation of natural skills, in a vocabulary that she did not possess. Yet there is more than a ring of familiarity to her thoughts on these matters. The arts, crafts and textiles she loved represented an essentially Indian way of life to her, and she believed—as did many others in the early years after independence—that Indians would be happiest, and proudest, with the work of their own hands and culture.

What a fire it must have been that welded her political and economic thinking with her commitment to women’s rights. As a young activist, it seemed impossible to her, at times, that freedom would come in her lifetime. Still, every act of civil disobedience, every moment of Gandhian inspiration, brought it closer. In 1930, she was arrested for breaking the Salt Laws in Bombay presidency. Her little son, Rama, was seven years old. Until she was released, in late 1933, she lived in terrible conditions in prison, contracting severe jaundice and living on sago congee for months on end. Yet we know, both from her memoir and other writing about her, that she went to work with zeal in jail, just like she did outside. I believe she looked dazzling while she did so, too. Mira Behn, one of the Mahatma’s closest aides, who was in prison at the same time as Kamaladevi, remembered that she entered jail looking “the picture of artistic beauty.”

Prison life only helped to entrench her convictions. I am struck by a passage in her book, where she writes of her intense curiosity about the lives and stories of the other women with whom she was locked away. “Quietly over the long evenings they told me stories,” she wrote. “Since Gandhiji’s call reached them, they had become aware of their own inadequacies, that they did not live as humans, in dignity, in self-respect. Their concepts of what they wanted was not just mere food, better houses, proper clothes etc. Yes, they needed these but it was more than that, they explained. They wanted freedom, not only for them, but all who were today in bondage like themselves.”

In  1939, Kamaladevi left for the women’s conference in Europe that became just one stop in an unfolding world tour. She had, by this time, been marked out by India’s British rulers as a truly dangerous woman. Her movements within the country were watched, and she was repeatedly refused a passport, although she received one just in time to make her trip. When I think of her, hopping on and off the great ships that took her from port to port, serene in her saris and with flowers in her hair, I can’t help but remember that the world was trembling on the brink of the Second World War. Yet my intrepid friend took the scenic route. She visited Egypt and England, before going on to her conference in Norway.

Then, because the Atlantic passage back to Asia, around Africa, had become too volatile, she crossed over to the United States. Here, she was granted a two-month transit visa, which would allow her to take passage back to Asia across the Pacific. By the time she returned, she had sailed around the world. She had been received at scores of meetings, and spoken at dozens of them. She had met Huda el-Sharaawi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. (Roosevelt may have been the reason she found her visa for the United States extended.)

A few years after this journey, Vijayalakshmi Pandit travelled to the United States on an advocacy tour, during which she dazzled American leaders and the public on behalf of the Indian nationalist cause. Her debates with British sympathisers electrified listeners across the country, and earned her lasting fame, as well as the respectful sobriquet of “Madame Pandit,” by which she was known through her later career in the United Nations. It is not so well-known that she was preceded, if in less spectacular fashion, by Kamaladevi. One of the meetings Kamaladevi attended featured an address by the British politician Duff Cooper, also visiting the United States. After he was finished with a talk on British values—and what made them suitable for British custody of the world—she got up to address his argument. Her memoirs indicate, subtly, that Cooper had to be sneaked out of the back door by the time Kamaladevi was done wiping the floor with his remarks.

In the United States, she found “colour consciousness,” as she called it, pervasive. She discovered Native American culture, in whose arts, crafts and way of life she was thrilled to find echoes of the cultures of India’s own tribal people. She learned that some Indian Muslims had crossed over to help black activists interested in the emancipatory possibilities of their religion—their new mission was called the Nation of Islam. But she also discovered how harsh racial divides were, especially for African-Americans, whose community life, she wrote, had been destroyed by oppression, “a society which had crashed like a piece of china.” In the American South, public officials and ticket inspectors on trains were liable to look on her with suspicion; black friends, escorting her to a train, would stop somewhere out of sight of the station because it would be better for her not to be seen with them.
It is this American episode that most amazes me as I now mull over all the things I had never bothered to ask her. She describes much of this, with characteristic restraint, in Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces. Yet, when the book came out in 1986, just a year before she died, I did little more than glance at the copy Lakshmi brought home. She had long left Delhi, moving first to Bengaluru, then to Mumbai. The last decade of her life had been difficult, personally and otherwise. She had retained her courage and vibrancy, but the institutions that she had spent so many years nurturing had not. I think she was disappointed by the turn India had taken, 40 years after independence—and disappointed by how totally her principles, and perhaps that of the Gandhian ethos in general, had been twisted, marginalised and forgotten.

When she died, in October 1988, her body was flown to Delhi for the funeral rites. Weeping, I did what her assistant asked of me, and put dry rice and water into her mouth. I did not accompany her mourners to the crematorium.

In the end, it was the book that brought me back to her. It was re-published last year by the India International Centre—another Delhi institution that owes much to her leadership—having fallen out of print years earlier. I sat down to read it properly when I was asked to speak at a celebration of the new edition, and was instantly overcome with emotion: grief, regret, and a determination to find a way to connect her extraordinary life with the questions young feminists in India, and elsewhere, are confronted with today.

It also reminded me of the very last time I saw her alive. In mid 1988, she asked me to meet her in Mumbai and accompany her to Pune on a very special visit. The All India Women’s Conference, the institution set up by her friend Margaret Cousins, was celebrating its golden jubilee, and she was, of course, to be chief guest—the most perfect candidate for the job. We travelled together to Pune; at the function, she wore a sari I had brought her as a gift.

The AIWC received her with due pomp at the venue, and tried to escort her to the front of the hall where the celebration was being held. The chief minister of Maharashtra was waiting on the dais. Kamaladevi took a seat in the last row of the hall, and said she preferred not to take a seat on a raised platform, which connoted hierarchy and distance. The organisers nervously brought the ceremonial lamp, and all its accompanying dignitaries, down from the stage. Kamaladevi lit the lamp from her place at the back of the hall. Her revolutionary spirit had led us all, once again.

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