The gutsy freedom fighter (1903-1988)
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was a freedom fighter, an artist, social activist, not to mention, gutsy, full of life, and passionate about Indian art, heritage and culture. She was born in a Saraswat Brahmin family in Mangalore in 1903, and was the youngest child. Both her mother and her grandmother, who were rather strong ladies, were her early influencers. Her love for books was influenced by them. At her maternal uncle’s home, where she grew up, Kamaladevi came in contact with political leaders like Gopalkrishna Gokhale. Annie Besant’s speeches inspired her and she wished to get involved in the freedom movement of the country. She was frequently taken to Gandhi’s meetings. All this set the tone for her political career that began much later.
She was married at an early age, but became a widow at 15. Her father-in-law encouraged her to pursue her studies. Thus she finished her schooling in Mangalore, and went to Queen Mary’s College in Madras. There she met Harindranath Chattopadhyay, who was a poet and an actor. She fell in love with him and married him. Along with her husband, she acted in theatre and in films. She also went to London to pursue a diploma in Sociology.
In 1924 she joined the Seva Dal unit of the Congress that involved itself with the economically weaker sections of the society. In 1926, she contested in elections for the Madras Legislative Assembly. Though Kamaladevi lost, she was one of the first Indian women to contest assembly elections.
In 1927 she started the All India Women’s Organisation that worked towards education and women’s empowerment. In 1930, she was one of the women volunteers who participated in the salt satyagraha at Bombay, defying the law by boiling seawater, making salt and selling it in the market to the highest bidder to collect money for the Satyagraha movement. She was arrested several times and experienced prison at Yerawada, Belgaum, Vellore and at Arthur Road Jail. Everywhere she went, she tried bringing in reforms to the jail inmates. In Belgaum, for example, she organised a medical clinic for the inmates. She also started a weekly Kannada publication to bring about public awareness of the freedom struggle. She was offered the position of Governor for Tamil Nadu and Orissa, the ambassador for Cairo, and the coveted position of becoming the Vice President of India. She refused, and instead chose to work at grassroots campaigns.
The partition saw refugees pouring into the country. With no home to call their own they had set up tents in the city. The new government was still dealing with governance issues of the country. And this is where the feisty Kamaladevi took matter into her hands. She gave hope to some 50,000 refugees. She founded the Indian Cooperative Union for creating a township. She procured waste land outside Delhi, took permission, and encouraged them to build homes-brick by brick. Thus she managed to set up the Faridabad Industrial Township through community effort.
She was one of those rare women who made hand-spun, hand woven craft fashionable. She engaged in debates and discussions with leaders, scientists, went on world tours, participated in movements, rescued stranded children – all, wearing a saree. Not only this her love for all things Indian led her to create institutions like the Central Cottage Industries Emporia, All India Handicrafts Board etc. The National School of Drama in Delhi and the Sangeet Natak Academy were set up to encourage and support dance and drama. Kamaladevi was an author of several books and speeches that were published over a period of five decades – In war torn China, In Uncle Sam’s Empire, Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom, to name a few. She received several awards in her lifetime – Padmabhushan, Magsaysay International Award for community service, UNESCO award for her work in handicrafts, and Padmavibhushan for her writings. She died on 29 October 1988.