You might know Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay as a freedom fighter, a social reformer, or the woman who revived Indian handicrafts, handlooms, and theatre in independent India. Or you may know her for setting up the National School of Drama, Sangeet Natak Akademi or Crafts Council of India. She also wrote over 20 books, like War-time China based on what she saw on her travels through Japan and China during World War II.
I, however, knew nothing of this woman or her enormous contributions. When I say nothing, I mean nothing. I first read of her in Ramchandra Guha’s Makers of Modern India where he included an excerpt of her presidential address to the All India Women’s Conference in 1944 entitled “The Women’s Movement in Perspective”. It sent me down a long Kamaladevi binge. I felt like an explorer who had stumbled upon a glorious waterfall and was revelling in its beauty, until a native came up to me and said, “What’s the big deal… it’s just a waterfall.” Many people of my acquaintance could not understand my excitement about Kamaladevi. They had heard of her, and she was old news. To me, however, she is a personal discovery.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have been reading Kamaladevi’s memoir, Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces. She lived a rich and eventful life. But more importantly, she lived an incredibly impactful life. From her early teens till the very end of her life, she was constantly up to something – and that something was always something useful that made a lasting difference.
Her memoir had been an education in itself. Kamaladevi was a lightning rod who drew interesting and influential people to herself, giving her front row access to important moments in history. She was often an active participant in the making of said history. For a student of history, the book is an incredible primary source but, also, for just an ordinary urban Indian woman, the book shows that the ideas of Feminism that we have frequently looked West-ward to inform us, are actually part of our own modern history.
Top 3 Lessons about Women from Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
Last October, we were driving through Madhya Pradesh, but our progress was stymied by cattle who used the National Highway 44 as a sort of lounge – chewing their cud while gazing blankly at us as we weaved through them. Our slow speed allowed us to examine the villages on either side of the highway. Here I saw an unfamiliar India, where women were nearly entirely under their veils with a child on their hip. Coming from urban South India, I felt like I was a foreigner watching one of those documentaries about “exotic India”, except to me this wasn’t exotic. It felt regressive. I couldn’t imagine life like this – wearing a costume that limited my movement and vision, accepting the diktats of the men in my family, living that level of domesticity.
Later, we stopped at a Dhaba where the parathas were served to us by a big mustachio-ed Rajasthani gent. As we ate our parathas, I watched his wife, behind layers of fabric and a veil pulled over her eyes, stomp out and slap a slab of Amul butter on to the counter beside him. Then, in a low voice, she seemed to give him a crisp talking to. He listened sheepishly, nodding, and patting his arm in a self-consoling fashion. I had been wrong to underestimate the women in their veils, I realized.
As an urban educated woman, I expected ‘liberated’ women to wear jeans or practical salwar kameezzes, to read or watch the news, or have jobs. I was guilty of dismissing women dressed in traditional attire as catering to stifling custom and saw them as being less whole and complete, imagining them to be lacking in agency and independent thought.
This was all nonsense, of course. Women everywhere, in jeans or purdah, are whole beings on their own paths with their own thoughts and feelings. Kamaladevi writes of the people she met as whole people – examining them beyond their attire, manners, or socio-economic custom or even politics. Among her stories, are stories of the Indian woman at a time when India was really going through tremendous change.
1. Looking Beyond the Veil at the Real Woman
In Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces, Kamaladevi spends the early chapters giving tribute to her life in a little village in the Western Ghats where she was raised by her mother and grandmother. I treaded through those pages warily because Indian writers have a tendency to deify their parents, and this can be a little tiresome. However, she wrote of the matrons in her family with warmth and humanity. Her mother could be sour and bitter on occasion when she spoke of the low position of women in society or even her own situation after the death of her husband. While she was religious, she was also rational and expected her daughter to be well educated, troubled by the fact that her daughter seemed to prefer spending more time out of doors than in her classroom. Her grandmother, although she had many children, was detached, and would travel alone at a time when there were no cars or even trains close by. Even today, in India, we make a big deal about women traveling alone – “solo travel” we call it. But at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, women travelled alone. Maybe not all women, but some did.
She also writes of her beautiful and articulate aunt who was unfortunately widowed early in life. As a widow, she wore the obvious signs of widowhood, like a shorn head, but in private she bristled at the humiliation. Yet, she was able to shield her personality – protect herself from bitterness and cynicism. Time and time again, Kamaladevi points to these women, who carve a space for themselves within the trappings of custom and tradition, and who come to occupy a useful space in their community and society. Her mother and grandmother created little communities where women could gather and get together and share ideas. Her aunt became the person everyone looked for in the time of a crisis. She was powerful and a source of strength that the family depended on – virtues that we often associate with masculinity – strength, power, stability.
Similarly, she writes of Kasturba who had the unenviable position of being Gandhi’s partner in life. I say unenviable because Gandhi was not a romantic walk in the park if you hadn’t noticed. Kasturba had married a rather ordinary 14 year old boy who transformed himself into a Mahatma, and she had to keep up. She did keep up. Kamaladevi writes of Kasturba’s “presence” as being independently powerful. As Gandhi himself writes, Kasturba had her own clear perspectives and points of view. She stated them honestly and her personality survived the overwhelming personality of her husband’s. Yet, she played the role of the traditional woman, who at the end of the day was loyal to her husband till the end. There was no contradiction in her being.
From left to right: Ameena Tyabji, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Kasturba, circa 1930. Kasturba’s body language exudes that power that Kamaladevi describes in her book.
On several occasions Kamaladevi returns to a criticism of the modern post-Independence woman and her letting go of those aspects of her cultural identity that made her unique. Kamaladevi speaks of being in jail with various female Satyagrahis from different parts of India. She wrote of how these women’s cultural identity was evident in the manner in which they wore their simple sari, their choice of modest jewellery etc. In contrast, the modern woman has let that go because in our hurry to leave the admittedly more stifling customs, we have also let go of the good ones that perhaps ought to have been preserved.
2. The Real Challenges of being a Female Satyagrahi
In the 1920s, Kamaladevi was invited to volunteer as a Seva Dal. Seva Dal volunteers were the foot soldiers of the Congress’s non-violent movement. We have read about Satyagraha in textbooks, but we do not fully comprehend what it means to be non-violent in the face of violence.
She explains the nature of the work of a Satyagrahi as follows:
“When attacked, the natural reaction is to hit back. Here the victim had to endure untold physical pain as also mental humiliation. Here pain in a manner is invited on oneself, with no scope for relief through retaliation. Similarly in a normal fist fight a result emerges and the matter normally ends. Psychologically the struggle drags, offers no immediate satisfaction. This called for prolonged sustained stamina, firm faith in the objective which may not even be realized in the volunteer’s lifetime.”
Women wholeheartedly participated in the Seva Dal training camps but in the beginning, there was no active role for them to play in the Salt Satyagraha. Kamaladevi still in her 20s, convinced Gandhi that women, who had been working shoulder-to-shoulder with the men in the political movement, should be given a chance to join the Salt March and movement. He reluctantly agreed to issuing a public invitation and soon enough scores of women joined to support Gandhi’s campaign and court arrest.
Satyagrahis participating in Prabhat Pheris in Bombay, 1930
In the months that followed large crowds of Satyagrahis were arrested and sent to jail at the Arthur Road women’s quarters, Mumbai. Her description of life in prison really explains why Seva Dal camps were needed to prepare the Satyagrahis psychologically, because prison life was intensely difficult and humiliating.
Women were stuffed into prison cells, shoulder to shoulder with ordinary criminals. It was hot, dirty, and loud. The women demanded to be treated as political prisoners, different from the more dangerous criminals that they were being forced to share cells with. But these requests fell on deaf ears, until one woman, Perin Captain, inspired her cell mates to non-violently resist going back into their cells once their break time was over. So, hundreds of women stood on the verandas outside their cells, rooted to the ground, forcing the people in charge of the prisons to re-organize the cell allocation. Still, the physical discomfort was immense. There was not enough healthcare in prison and, after a long bout of jaundice Kamaladevi herself had set up a voluntary hospital clinic for small first aid type procedures. She sometimes would have to deal with more serious cases including childbirth and serious illnesses. She writes of a time in prison, when it was so stiflingly hot in her cell, which lacked ventilation, that every night she would faint because of the heat and lack of air and would be found unconscious in the morning by the jailer.
What moved me the most was that women prisoners were given thick and rough khadi sarees but were not allowed underwear. There isn’t a clear explanation of this omission. Depend on Kamaladevi to try and solve the issue. She wrote a memo with a list of grievances – their request for underwear being of highest priority. But the memo was received by an irate Irishman who was the jail superintendent. He simply changed Kamaladevi’s living quarters separating her from everyone else to prevent a revolt.
3, The Expanded View of Feminism
Occasionally, I get to listen or talk to adolescents on topics like feminism. Recently, when the American Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, I listened to some of them express themselves very strongly and while I was pleased to hear them articulate themselves so clearly, I also wondered at how overwhelmingly Western our Perspective on feminism is. Feminism, it felt like, had boiled down to hashtag-able issues – like #RoevWade or #metoo. Both issues are important and complex, something that quick 280 character Twitter posts cannot do justice to. In India, however, women’s issues are further complicated by economic and social issues like poverty and caste.
In India, women got the right to vote earlier and more easily than the women in Western countries. We also have several extremely powerful female leaders like Indira Gandhi, Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Sonia Gandhi, etc who are often judged more for their tolerance for corruption, autocratic ways, or poor policy decisions than for being a woman. Yet, we are also a country where the gender gap still persists and where pregnant mothers cannot find out the gender of their child during an ultrasound – a law that has saved many lives. India is complicated – far more complex than what American, white-washed feminism can grapple with.
Kamaladevi was uncomfortable with being linked to the Western definition of feminism, but in my view, she was definitely an Indian feminist. She spent much of the 1920s travelling around India on speaking tours, trying to create support for social and legal changes to give women more equal rights. Over time she chose to define her struggle in more general terms. She writes –
“As time went on, I realised we would have to move and function within a wider parameter. The demand for national freedom had already been sounded as basic for our national well-being. Thereupon followed the demand for equal opportunities for all, as obviously women were not the only victims of social and economic disabilities and discriminations, others were equally oppressed socially, and depressed economically. It was dimly growing on me that the women’s struggle had therefore to be an indivisible part of the larger political, social and economic struggle.”
Kamaladevi leading a flag procession, circa 1930
Kamaladevi’s brand of feminism has a special name now – it is called Intersectional Feminism. It acknowledges that there is difference in the discrimination faced by an upper caste, urban, educated woman and a tribal woman in an impoverished part of the country. The solution really is to raise everyone together – to create social institutions and systems that not just prevent exclusion but focus on inclusion and equality. It is an argument that no thinking and feeling person can refute, but it is very difficult to put into practice because it is very difficult to overcome prejudice and fear or discomfort with differences. That is why thousands of NGOs and millions of social and government workers are working away furiously at a job that never seems to end – the job of creating a fairer world.
After independence, Kamaladevi worked to create a marketplace for rural women and men who worked with their hands. She established cottage industries and handicraft councils to revive the arts and create an economy for the artist. Her institutions to revive the performing arts also gave a legitimate space for the artist. She worked with tribal women’s groups and artists to make sure their culture didn’t disappear but also to make sure that there was a market where their work could bring them some income. Kamaladevi was solution oriented.
Although Kamaladevi’s memoir is not a feminist treatise, it is an important book to read because it tells the story of the women’s movement in India with all its in-built complexity. She occasionally does sound a little harsh in her judgment of modern India, like an old grandmother who likes to tell her grandchildren how it was better in the olden days. As a reader, I chose to tolerate it. What is the point if you live an amazing life, if you can’t be given a free-griping pass. Old people have the right to look back at their past with rose tinted glasses – it is the reward for a life well spent.
I sourced my images from the 2 following sites and most of my information from her book, as listed below.
- A Fistful of Salt: How Women Took Charge of the Dandi March. The Wire. (n.d.). Retrieved October 28, 2022, from https://thewire.in/women/women-dandi-march-gandhi
- Pal, S. (2017, April 3). A freedom fighter with a feminist soul, this woman’s contributions to modern India are staggering! The Better India. Retrieved October 28, 2022, from https://www.thebetterindia.com/94158/kamaladevi-chattopadhyay-feminist-freedom-fighter-cooperatives-faridabad/
- Chattopadhyay, K. (2014). Inner recesses outer spaces: Memoirs. India International Centre.