By Vaidehi Nathan
Kamaladevi was one of those women who were ahead of time, but revered and respected by their peers, both male and female. The struggle for Independence in India threw up many such women. Kamaladevi was among the tallest of them all. According to an episode narrated in a biography on her (by Dr Shakuntala Narasimhan), Kamaladevi barged into the high court premises in Madras and held up a packet of salt made from sea-water, as part of the salt satyagraha and dared the magistrate to ?buy the salt freedom?. This, after she had auctioned small packets of salt in the market place.
When India won her freedom, Kamaladevi did not rest on the laurels she had earned. She was besieged with offers to take up official government responsi-bilities?minister, governor or the head of an institution. But Kamaladevi refused. She preferred to represent the cause of artistes, women and craftspersons. If alive, she would have turned a hundred this year.
The British influence on the cultural life of India was so great that the traditional symbols had been abandoned in homes. Women shunned cotton material as it was ?native? and they avoided cultural symbols at home and outside. At a time like that, Kamaladevi took to wearing hand-woven cotton sarees with traditional Indian motifs. Terracotta assumed new meaning under her aesthetic eyes. She wore traditional jewellery and flowers?both have been centuries-old traditions among Indian women.
She set out in search of all arts and crafts that had suffered under decades of foreign rule. She resurrected them by helping the artistes set up their looms and pick up their family arts. She got the government to institute national awards for artistes. Revival of traditional theatre form was yet another of her contributions. These theatres had served as mass communication facilities, travelling from village to village, carrying spiritual and religious messages.
Kamaladevi also set up a chain of cottage emporiums that showcased and sold the native art products. She set up the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
All her work was not government-dependent or State sponsored. She sold her property in Mangalore to set up a museum of theatre crafts.
One of the incidents that have passed down the generations about Kamaladevi as a legend, is the way she handled 50,000 refugees who came from Pakistan, after the Partition. The government was at a loss as to what to do. As though overnight, Kamaladevi acquired land for them, helped them build houses, set up their kitchen with them and initiated the process of giving them vocational training. In no time at all, the entire refugee community became a part of the economic setup of independent India?what is known as Faridabad today owes its beginning to her. This experience was later replicated by the government at several places.
Kamaladevi was not one of those who would wring her hands in thought. She got into the thick of action and beat every man in it. For a woman who came from a traditional Sarswat Brahmin household in Karnataka, this was not a mean achievement.
Many posts were offered to her but she declined to accept them. They include Vice President and ambassadorship to Moscow. She was conferred the Padma Vibhushan. She was also given the Ramon Magsaysay award for community work and UNESCO recognised her services in crafts promotion.