Kamaladevi Chattopa-dhyay is among that rare breed of women who dominate the man'sworld without losing their femininity. She played an immense role in conserving, reviving and nurturing the art and craft of India at a time when the crafts seemed to be under the threat of being drowned in modernisation and industrialisation of India. What goes now in the name of ethnic owes a lot to her.
It is on this aspect of Kamaladevi that Jasleen Dhamija has focused in her biography on the great lady, published under the Biography series of the National Book Trust. The fact that Kamaladevi'slife was littered with tragedy and yet she did not lose courage and did not become a cynic and exhibited all her life the affection and devotion to artisans and their welfare has been brought to focus by Dhamija, who had an interactive and working relationship with her.
Kamaladevi was born in an orthodox Chitarpur Brahmin family in Mangalore, Karnataka. Pet child of her father, to whom
her mother was the second wife, Kamaladevi'searly childhood was wrapped in the love and care of her father, who taught her to be both traditional and yet unshackled. Both her mother and grandmother were wise and strong women. Their personalities left a deep and live impression on the young child. She lost her father when she was only 12. He had sent her to a school rather than having a home tutor. In keeping with the tradition she was engaged to be married at the age of 11. After
her father'sdeath, she was married to the man, a boy really, who died a year later. Her remarriage to Harindranath Chattopadhyay came a few years later followed by a son and then the divorce.
But Kamaladevi'slife story lies beyond and outside this. The milestones in her life were
political and social?her first meeting with Gandhiji in 1917, her first encounter with Annie Besant, whom her mother had presented to her as a role model, her introduction to Mrs. Margaret Cousins in the early 1920s, which she says changed the course of her life, her election as the President of the Youth Congress session in 1929 (she was 26 then), her interactions with the leaders of the freedom struggle and the role she played in the Socialist party.
Before she entered politics, Kamaladevi had been engrossed in theatre, promoting the traditional forms of performances in new themes. In this she had found her husband, renowned poet, a great soul mate. During her political engagements, she had totally snapped from her social commitments and around the time of partition she realised that she was not cut out for politics and turned to her first love?theatre and handicrafts. Throughout all this she constantly was campaigning for the betterment of women, especially widows, whom she saw as suffering from the hellfire.
Kamaladevi'slove for the artisans and their wealth of knowledge and skill brought out the best in her. When millions of people had been put up in camps in India after partition, she prepared and presented a blue print that would help them stand on their feet in the long run, long after the government dole stopped coming. What she started as small cooperatives shaped into cohesive groups and the Cottage Emporium of India today are her brainchild.
Kamaladevi suffered her share of rumour mongering, like all single women daring to step out of their homes. Stories about her proximity to Nehru left a bitter taste in Indira Gandhi towards her for life. When she came to power, she used Pupul Jayakar to undo a lot of good work done by Kamaladevi and especially to remove her name from any organisation for which she had toiled. The proud woman that Kamaladevi was, never explained herself to anyone, nor did she seek to dispel the misunderstanding in Indira Gandhi'smind. When Kamaladevi died at the age of 86, in 1989, she must have had the satisfaction of leading a life fulfilling. It is said that when she was in her early 80s, a young interviewer asked her how she spent her time, she replied ?where is the time dear girl to spend? I work.?
(National Book Trust, A-5, Green Park, New Delhi-110 016.)