The last century saw dynamic changes not only in India, but the world over in terms of the geo-political and economic environment, as well as an upheaval of socio-cultural moorings of societies. The struggle for freedom of the colonized half of the world and their emergence as sovereign nations, led to the emergence of new leadership, new concepts and ideas. It also gave greater power to women to participate in all aspects of life, to enrich their lives as well as contribute to the enrichment of society as a whole. Women emerged from the shadows finally.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was one such person, who emerged as an active participant in the political, socio-economic and cultural life of India. Hers is a story of courage to live in the world, to participate in it fully to take up every challenge and meet it boldly.
Yet she paid a price for it; loneliness, frustrations when she saw many of the institutions she built crumbling. I worked very closely with her from 1954 when she was Chairman of the All India Handicrafts Board (AIHB). I was one of the few persons, who could keep pace with her. Kamaladevi worked day and night, in her single minded effort to revive the cultural traditions, be it in the areas of crafts, of performing arts, of theatre or women's rights and bring them into the contemporary context. She studied the old way of life recording many aspects, which were being lost. She was passionately involved in the movement for legislating equal rights for women, so that they could be equal partners in socio-economic and political spheres. She had the ability to inspire people and though her own example changed their lives. I was one amongst a legion of people she inspired, shaped and who had a much richer life because of their association with her.
Till the very end Kamaladevi was writing petitions, listening to the woes of those who had no one to turn to. Behind the expressionless face, which people often thought was humorless and unfeeling, was a passionate woman, a perceptive person, who felt things with great intensity but had learnt early in life to not demonstrate any emotion. It was she who rescued the large number of young Sikh boys, languishing in person without trial by filing a writ petition. It was she who took up causes, which were not in the public eyes. It was she who financed a number of people when they faced problems, from her meagre resources. Everywhere one goes one hears: "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 questioning, without sermonizing. There are cases of young boys whose school fees she continued to pay for years. The Secretary of Orissa branch of Bharatiya Natya Sangh, whose salary she paid for a number of years. She paid for the medical treatment of a number of masters of music, of crafts, thus saving their lives.
She shared her knowledge, her experience with innumerable persons and helped them achieve their goals. Those of use who came in contact with her were fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from her experience and her faith in her beliefs.
I still remember her ringing me and telling me that her companion, her support, Shri U.S. Malliah had died suddenly. When I wanted to go to her, she said, "No don't come. I will send for you." When I saw her the next day she was at work burying her grief in a spate of activity and not allowing anyone to talk of him. Mr. Malliah had been her close associate for many years, whom she had come to know while organizing the cadre of the Congress Party in Mangalore. She belonged to the upper caste Saraswat community of Mangalore, the Chitrapur Brahmins, who were mostly professional, highly educated and refined. Mr. Malliah, came from the Tullu speaking Bunts of lower caste. She was already a veteran of the freedom movement, when she met him and became his mentor and introduced him into the political field supporting him until he built his own political base, first in Karnataka and then in the entire Southern India. After Independence he became very useful to the UP dominated Congress party in mustering support and keeping the Central Committee informed of the situation in Southern India. He was known as the kingmaker for he was involved in distribution of tickets, of masterminding the appointments of ministers and creating changes in the state politics to maintain the interests of the Congress Party. His bluff jocular manner, his unstinting support of his friends endeared him to many. He as most protective of Kamaladevi and they had a warm and very tender relationship.
Many have written about Kamaladevi and many more will research and write about her. Many will eulogise her, while others will criticize her. In the world of today when everything is changing and society is in a state of constant flux, when nothing remains static, situations will change and new insights will emerge and new ideas will evolve. Those who criticize her do not realize that she was a pioneer. She had no previous examples on which to build her experience. It was the first that a new nation liberated from colonialism was working towards the creation of a society of divergent peoples who had to learn to live harmoniously and to build a democratic society. The creative field not only was varied and dispersed and was a source of income for a large majority of the people at the lowest economic and social rung of society, but it also was closely linked with the ethos of the nation. She had to develop a philosophy, a concept and a plan of work, which could get support and this she did when nothing existed. It required great conviction and courage to develop programmes, evolve policies when there was no cogent past experiences as point of reference. To act and not be afraid of making mistakes and learn from them also required great courage.
I always thoughts that the Charles Eames Award to Kamaladevi for being the one single person in India who contributed the most to enrich the quality of life in India, was a fitting tribute to her. However, when I started my research for writing her biography I felt that his was only one aspect of her multifaceted personality. She was a remarkable person, whose life can be an example to many. Her indomitable will to follow the path that her belief dictated, was a true expression of her strength. She truly believed in the equality of all human beings and the right to live a life of dignity irrespective of caste, creed, status and gender and she lived her own life by those beliefs.
She never accepted other people's evaluation of a situation, she had to see for herself, to learn, to know and to act. In the earlier stages it was her strength, but later when the arena grew, when a number of people became involved, the inability to delegate authority and allow those who were responsible to take full responsibility, was her undoing and led to a number of her strong supporters to drift away from her.
This concise biography of one of the most important woman leaders of the twentieth century India who contributed both during the pre-independence and post-independence periods, brings to light the life and times of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Written by an author who worked closely with her, the book traces the political, social, creative and above all, the human aspects of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay while placing her pioneering role during and after the freedom struggle in a proper perspective. The biography fulfils long felt need to have an authentic documentation of the life and achievement of this inspiring personality bringing out her contribution to the freedom movement, women's rights, human rights, living cultural tradition and performing arts.
Jasleen Dhamija is internationally renowned expert in the fields of Living Cultural Traditions and History of Textiles and Costumes. She worked in the development of Handicrafts in India during the crucial phase in 1950s and has been working on international level since 1970. Awarded Hill Professorship at the University of Minnesota, she has also been a Visiting Faculty to three universities in Australia. She has been organising major exhibitions latest being Textiles of the Commonwealth' for the Commonwealth Games, Melbourne, 2006. Closely associated with the UNESCO, she was commissioned to evaluate their work I the field of Crafts. Having written and published extensively, Ms. Dhamija is editing one volume of World Encyclopedia of Dress and Adornment.
Your email address will not be published *
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend