Chattopadhyaya, Kamaladevi (1903–1988)

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Chattopadhyaya, Kamaladevi (1903–1988)

Indian independence leader, feminist and eloquent advocate of Indian cultural and artistic autonomy. Name variations: Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay. Born into a wealthy family in Mangalore, a city in the southern Indian province of Karnataka, in 1903; died in Bombay, India, on October 29, 1988; educated locally at St. Mary's College before attending Bedford College, London, and the London School of Economics; married Harindranath Chattopadhyay (a poet and dramatist), in 1919.

Joined the independence movement at an early age and was imprisoned many times; elected to All-India Congress (1927), becoming organizing secretary and president of All-India Women's Conference; imprisoned (1930, 1932, 1934, 1942); after achievement of Indian freedom (1947), continued to call for social justice; founded the Indian Cooperative Union (1948) to assist refugees uprooted by the partition; established the first co-operative at Chattarpur, near Delhi; helped build the city of Faridabad (or Fari Debad); leader of many craft organizations in India and internationally; developed the Cottage Industries Emporium; became chair of All-India Handicrafts, Ltd. (1952); helped found the World Crafts Council of which she was senior vice-president; served as president of the Centre of India.

Typical of virtually all of the leaders of India's independence movement, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya came from a wealthy upper-caste family. She was born in 1903 in Mangalore, a city in the southern Indian province of Karnataka. Her father was an upper-echelon official in the Madras Civil Service and one of her uncles was a leading lawyer in the region. Her family believed that women should receive the best possible education, which in Kamaladevi's case meant a Roman Catholic convent and then St. Mary's College in Mangalore. Her higher education took place at the London School of Economics. Married young to a much older man of her family's choice, she became a widow within a few years. Exhibiting the strong independence that would mark her life, she next married Harin Chattopadhyay, a man of her own choice. Kamaladevi and her husband spent the next few years traveling widely in Europe, visiting museums, studying various aspects of theatrical production, and meeting many of the leading directors and artists of the day.

On her return to India, Chattopadhyaya began producing and staging plays. She pioneered in the Indian theater and also performed in a number of leading roles. Unable to remain indifferent to the political and social turmoil that gripped India in the years after World War I, the sophisticated and confident Chattopadhyaya also became an active member of Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi's Congress Party, passionately supporting its goal of Indian independence from Great Britain. Her eloquence and courage quickly made her one of the leading women of the national movement, and she counted among her close friends such leaders as Mahatma and Kasturba Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sarojini Naidu . Kamaladevi was imprisoned many times for varying terms of incarceration in the infamous prisons of Terawada, Belgaum and Vellore. In later years, as one of India's best-known political prisoners, she proudly noted that she had spent a total of five years of her life in British jails.

By the early 1930s, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya had become an inspiring leader and repository of both practical advice and elevated philosophical truths, particularly among the young women and men of Karnataka. Her talents as both a journalist and an orator spread the nationalist message to the most remote villages and impoverished city slums. As a leader of the Salt March in Bombay in 1930, she became an internationally recognized leader of resistance to imperialism. Her organizational talents found an outlet when she organized the movement's Women's Volunteer Wing. At the same time, she became a key figure in the All-India Women's Conference. While devoting most of her energy to organizing the struggle against British rule, Chattopadhyaya also investigated the root causes of her nation's poverty and lack of development. Even before the achievement of Indian independence in August 1947, she had concluded that political freedom alone would not bring about a national renaissance of her country; only a profound social and cultural transformation, she reasoned, would bring about this desired goal.

The achievement of Indian independence in 1947 brought with it a great human tragedy, the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent into the sovereign and hostile states of India and Pakistan—the former mostly Hindu, the latter almost exclusively Muslim. Communal violence resulted in the massacres of hundreds of thousands and the creation of millions of destitute refugees who had to be absorbed by the hard-pressed fledgling nation of India. Chattopadhyaya's response to these tragic events was to found in 1948 the Indian Cooperative Union, the stated purpose of which was to create livelihoods for the refugees whose lives had been shattered by partition. The first cooperative was founded at Chattarpur near Delhi. After the basic idea had been shown to work, the national organization played a leading role in building the new city of Faridabad to rehabilitate not just individuals but entire families and communities.

In addition to providing moral support, the Cooperative Union offered desperately needed tools, seeds and loans to thousands of displaced persons whose fear and despair began to be replaced by hope and faith in a better future. As soon as a reasonable degree of rehabilitation had been achieved, consumer and handloom cooperatives were established. By the early 1950s, a central Cottage Industries Emporium located in New Delhi had been developed as an outlet for the products of over 700 cooperatives. Often directly inspired and encouraged by Chattopadhyaya, new designs for craft products were first seen here. Once a significant flow of production began to reach the market, increasingly attractive products could be offered to wholesalers for distribution not only throughout India but abroad as well.

Not satisfied with the achievements of the Indian Cooperative Union, Chattopadhyaya divided her time between the never-ending tasks of guiding India's cooperative movement to new achievements and a disciplined writing agenda that would produce more than a dozen books and countless articles over her lifetime. Convinced that the Congress Party, which had spearheaded Indian independence, was now incapable of leading a national social rebirth, she joined the Congress Socialist Party in 1948, declaring, "Socialism is not a mere negative pretext against Poverty…. It is much more, the positive passion for happy human relations." Her non-Marxist definition of Socialism allowed Chattopadhyaya to see the social problems of India as moral issues that could be solved through leadership from above and energy from below. Although remaining in many ways an upper-caste intellectual, she strongly sympathized with the struggles of the working masses, particularly the village women who continued to bear so many of the burdens and injustices of traditional Indian society. Traveling throughout the country, she spread the message of the All-India Women's Conference, namely that the women's movement "is essentially a social movement…. It is in the nature of our so ciety which is at fault and our drive has to be directed against faulty social institutions."

Remaining in almost constant touch with thousands of people from the 1940s until her death in 1988, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya had an extraordinary capacity to remember and file away information, data that would then emerge years or even decades later in her books on such diverse subjects as tribal cultures and carpets. Although extremely well-read, she derived much of her knowledge from observation and conversation. By the 1950s, although retaining her passionate interest in politics and social reform, she had reallocated much of her time and energy into what she clearly regarded as a crusade for a cultural revival in India. Following Gandhi's teachings, she believed that immense cultural strengths resided in the subcontinent's thousands of villages. From her earliest years, she believed that the essence of true culture was the pursuit of beauty, and she noted proudly, "our tradition is to make utility items, indeed decorated as richly as one would want them to be." She also pointed out with considerable delight that the Hindi language had only one word—shilpa—for both art and craft, and that this covered the range from a plain reproduction to an artifact universally regarded as a masterpiece of artistic inspiration.

Emphasizing a holistic view of arts, crafts, social change and justice, Chattopadhyaya fused her trained intellect and her love of beautiful objects to point out to her sophisticated audiences, both in India and abroad, that urban women and men who complacently regard themselves as advanced have much to learn from so-called primitive peoples. In the preface to her 1978 study of tribalism in India, she pointed out the essentially religious roots of the traditions of craft excellence in tribal societies:

In line with this tradition of the tribal is their insistence on excellence in work. No matter how humble the object, it is exquisitely wrought, the makers taking real pride in their performance and achievement. Unfortunately, we are fast losing this pride in work and a sense of reward in the excellence put into the job itself, for now the commercial element has come in to distort natural elements. An awareness of an undeclared kinship with these communities, who still preserve and cherish some of the elements and values that have faded out of our lives, should reorient our policy towards the process of rapid detribalization. It should see that the tested and tried values are sought to be saved so that some of the ancient wisdom is retrieved and preserved.

Despite advancing years, Chattopadhyaya spent the last decades of her busy life writing books, lecturing, traveling and meeting with the young and old to both teach and learn. She served long terms as the vice president of the World Crafts Council and was the highly regarded chair of the All-India Handicrafts Board. She also provided valuable advice as a member of the Crafts Council of India, the All-India Design Center, the National Theater Center, and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Her autobiography, Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces, was published to rave reviews in 1986 and won her the 1988 Padma Vibushan Prize for literary excellence in the English language. In this volume, she expressed not only strong views on matters of society and culture but also a poignant nostalgia for the fleeting events of human existence, "the trifles we usually brush or throw away." In 1987, she received one of her most cherished awards, the Charles Eames Award of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad; surrounded by colleagues and friends, she was honored "for laying the foundations of a genuine Indian design movement."

Born to a life of privilege, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya decided while still in her youth that she would live a life of service to her nation. Her knack for combining idealism, practicality, and persuasion led her to the realization of this goal. Indefatigable and optimistic to the end of her days, she died fully in harness in Bombay on October 29, 1988, while visiting that metropolis to inaugurate a craft exhibition. With her passing, one of the very last leaders of an extraordinary generation of Indian intellectuals left the scene. Though the women of India lost one of their most remarkable pioneers, the craft movement she had helped inaugurate a half century earlier continued to thrive in the villages and artisan workshops of her nation.


Chattopadhyaya, Kamaladevi. Carpets and Floor Coverings of India. Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala Sons, 1969.

——. Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces—Memoirs. New Delhi: Navarang, 1986.

——. Tribalism in India. New Delhi: Vikas, 1978.

Kalapesi, Roshan. "Obituaries," in American Craft. Vol. 49, no. 3. June–July 1989, p. 66.

Murthy, H.V. Srinivasa, "Chattopadhyaya, Kamaladevi (1903—)," in S.P. Sen, ed., Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 1. Calcutta: Institute of Historical Studies, 1972, pp. 277–278.

O'Neill, Lois, ed. The Women's Book of World Records and Achievements. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia