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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 38 September 10, 2022

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: A Woman of Several Hues | Bendre and Mistry

Friday 9 September 2022


by Chinmay Sanjay Bendre and Jayati Chetan Mistry


Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was an actor, social reformer, feminist, freedom fighter, reviver of Indian handicrafts, and a global proselytizer of Satyagraha. She was a woman who was years ahead of her time and a romantic renegade. She was possibly the first leader to involve women in the struggle for liberty. Kamaladevi promoted femininity as a common cause while representing India at the International Alliance of Women in Berlin in 1929. After India gained its freedom, she worked to rehabilitate North West Frontier refugees and lay the groundwork for Faridabad, a new township on the outskirts of Delhi. She also played a key role in founding organizations like the All India Handicrafts Board and the National School of Drama among others. The purpose of this article is to expose readers to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, whose contribution is, at best, scarcely known in India and virtually unknown elsewhere.

Keywords: Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, social reformer, feminist, freedom fighter, Satyagraha, Faridabad.

On August 15, 2022, just a few days ago, the country commemorated 75 years of independence. The fervor of ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ was visible. While the Aam Adami remembered the sacrifices made by the liberation heroes, the Mai-Baap Sarkar, however, was inclined to emphasize national achievements since independence.

From Sardar Patel to Acharya Vinoba Bhave, and Bhagwan Birsa Munda to Maharishi Aurobindo, the Prime Minister honored several liberation warriors in his speech to the nation from the Red Fort. Additionally, he thought back to the contributions made by Rani Lakshmibai, Jhalkari Bai, Durga Bhabhi, Rani Gaidinliu, Rani Chennamma, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Velu Nachiyar, and other women who exemplified the strength of Nari Shakti. [1] But there was one woman freedom fighter whose name did not feature in the Prime Minister’s address…

The purpose of this article is to expose readers to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, whose contribution is, at best, scarcely known in India and virtually unknown elsewhere.

Childhood, Theatre, Marriage, and Education:

Kamaladevi was the fourth and youngest daughter of her parents and was born on April 3, 1903, into a Saraswat Brahmin household in Mangaluru, Karnataka. [2] Her mother Girijabai was from a land-owning Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin family from coastal Karnataka, and her father, Ananthayya Dhareshwar, served as the district collector of Mangalore. Girijabai was likewise well educated, despite receiving most of her instruction at home, and Kamaladevi’s paternal grandmother was knowledgeable about the Puranas and old Indian epics. Together, they gave Kamaladevi a solid foundation and set standards for respect for her voice and intellect – two qualities for which she would later become well-known.

At the neighboring St. Ann’s Convent, Kamaladevi finished her primary school. She picked up an appreciation for traditional arts as a result of growing up in a place with a rich cultural background, particularly in the music and dance style Yakshagana. [3] She also developed a keen interest in Kerala’s ancient drama tradition – Koothiyattam from no less than ‘Natyacharya’ Padma Shri Mani Madhava Chakyar. [4] Growing up at her maternal uncle’s home following the unexpected death of her father, Kamaladevi had encounters with notable independence activists like Annie Besant, Gopalkrishna Gokhale, and Srinivas Shastri. This would shape her life in years to come.

Kamaladevi was married at the tender age of 14, as was customary at the period, and she became a widow only two years later. Unaffected by the tragedy, she enrolled in Queen Mary’s College in Madras for higher education. It was there that she would meet Sarojini Naidu’s brother, Harindranath Chattopadhyay, by then a noted poet-play writer-actor [Jyothi: 2020]. The love affair was followed by marriage. In the early 1920s, widow remarriage was rare, just as the affair had been.

In India, the duo gave plays and skits. They traveled as far as the Malabar Coast in the South and the Himalayas in the North. Kamaladevi’s love of theatre helped her land a job in the film industry. She appeared in the silent Kannada film Mricchakatika (1931) as well as numerous Hindi films, such as Tansen (1943), Shankar Parvati (1943), and Dhanna Bhagat (1945). [5]

In the interim, Kamaladevi moved to London to live with her husband Harindranath. There, she enrolled in the famous Bedford College, University of London, where she graduated with a diploma in sociology. 6 [6] Her commitment to M.K. Gandhi’s work upon her return to India was made possible by the real-world experience she received in London. Her time away from home heralds Kamaladevi’s ascent as a social reformer and a freedom fighter.

Role in the Freedom Struggle:

In 1923, Kamaladevi was still living in London when she learned about Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. She immediately left for India to join Seva Dal, a Gandhian organization dedicated to advancing social justice. She was given the responsibility of recruiting, organizing, and training women and girls of all ages to become sevikas at Seva Dal.

Kamaladevi accomplished the unheard of in 1927. She ran in the Madras Provincial Legislative Assembly elections, making history as the first woman to run for office in India. Her inspiration came from a conversation she had with suffragette Margaret Cousins, the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) founder. Kamaladevi’s campaign failed, and she lost by a narrow margin of 55 votes due to the patriarchal beliefs of the time [The Indian Express: 2018].

Following her spirited fight in the provincial elections, Kamaladevi was nonetheless named Secretary of AIWC that same year. She joined the Indian National Congress and in 1928 was elected to the All India Congress Committee. [7] Kamaladevi put in a lot of effort to advance social reforms and elevate women’s status throughout her time at AIWC. She was one of the founding members of the illustrious Lady Irwin College, which was founded in New Delhi in 1932 and offered courses in home sciences. [8]

Kamaladevi tried to advance legislative reforms in addition to her work in education. She took numerous trips throughout the 1930s, starting in Germany. She represented India as the single delegate to the Berlin-based International Alliance of Women in 1929. [9] It was here that she realized how racial and geographic distinctions can prevent women from standing together. She was made aware of Jane Addams’ and the Hull House’s activities at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom convention in Prague. She discovered a forum for talking about the issues that oppressed people face when she attended the League against Imperialism’s international session in Frankfurt.

But in March 1930, Kamaladevi experienced the single most significant turning point in her life. Under the direction of M.K. Gandhi, the country was preparing for the Salt Satyagraha. Throughout India, demonstrations were held and discriminatory laws were flouted. The obvious lack of female participation in the independence struggle, however, disturbed Kamaladevi. She approached M.K. Gandhi at Ras (village panchayat) and urged him to let women take part in the demonstration. Gandhi, though, rejected her ideas. It was inconceivable to him to ask women to disobey the law and go to jail. Unmoved by Bapu’s concerns, Kamaladevi called for the women to join the Salt Satyagraha in a resolute act of disobedience, and she became the first female to be imprisoned.

In the meantime, she proceeded to the Bombay stock exchange and put up for auction a package of salt that she had produced by breaking the salt laws, which was yet another incredibly brave deed. The auction fetched Rs. 501. [10]

The Indian National Congress and Seva Dal were outlawed by the colonial authorities shortly after the civil disobedience movement. Senior Congress party figures, including Kamaladevi, were detained. She was moved by the deplorable living conditions of convicts when she was still incarcerated. The norm of the day was a lack of hygiene. Disease and starvation were widespread. She too had contracted jaundice. The predicament was terrible. The first thing Kamaladevi did after being freed was to construct a hospital for jail inmates. [11]

Kamaladevi was inspired by her experiences inside the prison. She vowed to work towards the emancipation of the peasants and factory workers. Socialism’s commitment to justice and equality captivated her. Working alongside Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan, she was elected president of the Congress Socialist Party in 1936.
As soon as the Second World War started, Kamaladevi set out on a global tour to promote India’s plight to other nations and rally support for Independence after the war. To expose the British Empire, she traveled to China, the United States, Latin America, and Europe. She had other goals in mind than only getting people to support India’s freedom. She battled racism in America as a woman of color and formed a direct link between Martin Luther King and M.K. Gandhi.

Nico Slate captures the fascinating exchange between Kamaladevi and a train conductor in the following words:

“In the spring of 1941, Kamaladevi boarded a segregated train heading across the American South. When the train conductor ordered her to leave the ‘whites-only car, she refused. The conductor realized she was not African American and demanded to know ‘from which land she came.’ Kamaladevi replied, ‘It makes no difference. I am a colored woman obviously and it is unnecessary for you to disturb me for I have no intention of moving from here.’ The conductor muttered, ‘You are an Asian,’ but he did not bother her again.” [12]

When the colonial authorities learned of her activities in the US, orders were passed to prevent her from traveling to India [Jyothi: 2020]. Eventually, as the nation gained independence in August 1947, Kamaladevi took on a new role… that of Nation-building.

Role in Nation-building:

When Kamaladevi arrived in India, the Nehru administration offered her a position in the cabinet. She decided against joining the administration and instead chose to help the refugees who fled from the North West Frontier Province. On the outskirts of Delhi, she rehabilitated 50,000 refugees in a cooperative township. The new township became known as Faridabad. [13]

Disillusioned by the Nehru government’s growing industrial ambitions in the 1950s, Kamaladevi worried the advancements would have disastrous effects on traditional craftspeople working in unorganized sectors. In 1952, she set out to create the All India Handicrafts Board as well as a chain of Cottage Industries Emporia. [Pai: 2017]. She also founded the Crafts Museum (now: National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum) in 1956 and the Crafts Council of India in 1964. [IGNCA: 2007].

Kamaladevi was crucial in establishing the National School of Drama in 1959 under the auspices of Sangeet Natak Akademi before it became an autonomous school in 1975 to resurrect the magnificent tradition of drama and theatre. [14]

Her contribution to literature added another facet to her life. Kamaladevi has authored 18 books covering a variety of topics, including history, colonialism, tribalism, handicrafts, feminism, and even world politics. For instance: she demonstrates her understanding of Vietnam’s colonial history in ‘The Struggle of Vietnam against French Imperialism.’ On the other hand, ‘At the Crossroads’ issues a cautionary note regarding Japan’s forceful attempts to assert itself across Asia.

Kamaladevi, a laureate of the UNESCO Award, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Padma Bhushan, and the Padma Vibhushan, was a pioneer. She was probably the most influential Indian woman of the 20th century. Her struggles must go down in the annals of history, and her successes must be cherished in our hearts. When she passed away on October 29, 1988, then President R. Venkataraman grievously observed, “It is difficult to prefix the word ‘late’ to Kamaladevi’s name, because hers was, and will be a palpable presence.” [Pai: 2017].

(Authors: Mr. Chinmay Sanjay Bendre is a Research Associate at the MIT School of Government, at MIT World Peace University, Pune. Email: csbendre123[at]; Ms. Jayati Chetan Mistry is a 2nd-year student of the Master’s Program in Government and Leadership (MPG) at the MIT School of Government, at MIT World Peace University, Pune. Email: jayaticmistry96[at]

[1Prime Minister’s Office. (2022, August 15, para. 2). English Rendering of Prime Minister’s address from the ramparts of Red Fort on 76th Independence Day. Press Information Bureau.

[2Who was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay? The Indian Express (2018, April 3).

[3Jyothi (2020, October 28). Kamaladevi: How could we forget! Deccan Herald.

[4Bhargavinilayam, Das (1999). Das Bhargavinilayam, Mani Madhaveeyam. Biography of Mani Madhava Chakyar, Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala. p. 272. ISBN 81-86365-78-8.

[5Remembering Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the unsung feminist freedom fighter (2018, October 29). India Today.

[6Making Britain: Discover how South Asians helped the nation, 1870-1950. The Open University.

[7Unsung Heroes Detail: Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Ministry of Culture, Government of India.

[8Kumar, Radha (1997). The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India 1800-1990. New Delhi: Zubaan. pp. 68–69. ISBN 9788185107769.

[9Lal, Vinay (2018, November 8). Always a World Citizen: On Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s writings. The Hindu.

[10Pai, Sanchari (2017, April 3). A Freedom Fighter with a Feminist soul, This Woman’s contributions to Modern India are staggering! The Better India.

[11Fernandes, Brian (2019, February 23). Legend from K’taka: Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay; extraordinary women; extraordinary life. News Karnataka.

[12Slate, Nico (2019, February 25). The Other Kamala: Kamala Harris and the History of South Asian America. South Asian American Digital Archive.

[13IGNCA (2007, July 7). Kamaladevi – the romantic rebel.

[14Gopalakrishnan, Amulya (2004, January 16). Woman with a mission. Frontline.

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