The legacy left behind by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay is little known within and outside the Indian subcontinent. Some recall her as an artist interested in theatre, drama, music and puppetry, some associate her with feminist, socialist ideologies, but most do not know her at all. This independence day, let’s delve into the life of this iconic woman and and honour all her contributions towards the history and culture of India.
From an early age, Chattopadhyay was influenced by her mother and grandmother, who were educated and enterprising women. She developed a keen interest in books, and recognised the need for women to have rights. Her maternal uncle, who was an active social reformer can be credited with her political education to some extent. She received a diploma in Sociology from Bedford College, University of London. Armed with the ideas of independence, especially for women, she became actively involved in the freedom struggle in the 1920s as a member of the Congress. She was quite influenced by Gandhi’s insistence on a nonviolent fight and ardently supported the Salt Satyagraha. However, she was opposed to Gandhi’s proposition of exclusion of women from the marches. A woman of strong values, she became the first woman in India to contest for a seat in the political office in 1926. Unfortunately, she lost in the Madras Legislative Assembly by merely 55 votes. To add more to her political profile, she was imprisoned by the British government for her active contribution towards the patriotic struggle and was alleged to have violated the salt laws.
While her domestic influence is of a great measure, Kamaladevi did not hold herself back in the global arena. She became a spokesperson not only for the rights of Indian women, but she also rose against the larger oppression of people of colour under the colonial project. In 1926, she met Margaret E. Cousins, the founder of All India Women’s Conference. This organisation came to gain national repute as a steadfastly active one under her presidential tenure, which began in 1936. She was also among the members under whose patronage Lady Irwin College was set up; it later got affiliated to the University of Delhi. Her contribution to the development and propagation of arts and culture as a part of the freedom struggle was commendable. Chattopadhyay set up the Indian National Theatre in 1944, which is now known as the prestigious National School of Drama. In addition to this, she was the author of multiple books; she wrote on a variety of subjects, including Indian handicrafts and women’s experience of the independence struggle. All these endeavours only exhibit her intellectual prowess and her grounded, nationalist values.
She remained active post independence as well, helping refugees with asylum when the country was torn with partition-induced trauma. This woman, who was arguably India’s most well-travelled, and politically and aesthetically educated woman in her times, was disheartened by the horrors of the partition and began to lose faith in the free India of her dreams. Despite this, her relentless efforts in reviving various artforms and striving to remain in the forefront of the country’s struggle for independence in a time when women were treated as substandard citizens, even more than they are today, are extremely commendable and should not go without being lauded. She became the worthy recipient of the Padma Bhushan (1955) and the Padma Vibhushan (1987). Her legacy should not be shadowed by the myriad spotlights that shine for her male counterparts, be it her clinging to the Congress flag in a scuffle, or her contributions towards the birth of what is now called Faridabad.