Culture's Curator

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

By Jasleen Dhamija

Handicrafts, music, theatre-her contributions in these areas were as rich as her own personality

I remember Romesh Thapar telling me in the mid-'80s, "My dear the high-power committee to choose the one individual of our era who has contributed the most to 'The Quality of Life' has unanimously selected Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, even with her arch enemy chairing the committee." This was the Charles Eames Award. It was wonderful news for those of us who had worked with her and shared her dreams.

Kamaladevi's life reflected a remarkable era in India's history. It was a heady time when Mahatma Gandhi gave a call for freedom not only from colonialism but also our own differences. He called upon women to fight side by side with men. Kamaladevi became an active organiser of the women and youth wing of the Congress. She was instrumental in the emergence of the changing face of the Indian woman.

Her own life reflected the problems faced by women. She lost her father at a young age and saw her mother losing her rightful inheritances. She was a child widow and had to face the scorn of an orthodox society. But this beautiful girl from Mangalore had remarkable women in her family. Her grandmother was a Sanskrit scholar. Her mother was a spirited woman who wanted her daughter to be educated at all cost. When Harindranath Chattopadhyay, a dashing poet, pursued Kamaladevi, the mother agreed to the marriage, on the condition that she continued with her education.

Kamaladevi sang well and acting was a passion. But she was denied that pursuit as it was a man's domain. It was only after she married Harindranath that she could take to acting. They were a golden couple, handsome, talented. He wrote plays, poetry and songs and they both enacted them.

When I once travelled with her during the mid-1950s, people came up to her and reminded her of her earlier visits. They talked to me of her beauty and fiery spirit. She dismissed it saying, "Ah, it was the times which brought out the best in all of us. But you don't know what I suffered in the hands of gossiping women. The most devastating was my sister-in-law Sarojini Naidu. I could have told a few stories about her, but then looking at her, who would believe me?"

Kamaladevi had quite a sharp tongue. When Harindranath visited her with young Chandralekha, she wryly commented, "What a pity he is taken up with this limited, scheming Gujarati girl. He thinks he will make her into a great dancer, even though her movements are so wooden."

Kamaladevi's contribution to contemporary life has been at so many levels -- as vice-chairman of the Sangeet Natak Academy, as the woman behind the Bharatiya Natya Sangh and the Asian Theatre Institute, which later became the National School of Drama. Her work on the revival of handicrafts is monumental. Under her the All-India Handicrafts Board set up training, production units; a marketing organisation, the Central Cottage Industries Association, was also organised.

But in her mid-50s, things began to go wrong. Pupul Jayakar became adviser to Mrs Gandhi and Kamaladevi was removed from practically all government organisations. She began to loose that sparkle in her personality. Only those who knew her well could bring out the wonderful raconteur in her. Or charming men whose company she loved. In Iran once, a sudden illness confined her to bed. The visit of a Persian architect had her recovering miraculously. When he offered her a glass of Persian wine, she who frowned on alcohol, graciously accepted saying, "Ah, I must taste Persian wine as I listen to you recite Hafis and Sadi to me!"

Jasleen Dhamija was secretary to Kamaladevi. She has been an adviser to UNDP for textiles, and has authored books on the subject.



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