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.
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
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.
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.
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?"
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."
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
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!"
was secretary to Kamaladevi. She has been an adviser
to UNDP for textiles, and has authored books on the