Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay ( 1903 – 1988 ) is finally being remembered with the attention and repect she deserves,after thirty years of being consigned to the edge of memory, far from the cognizance of academics, patriotic fighters for India’s freedom and against Western Imperialism,those engaged in gender studies, politicians, and even the generations of craftsmen and women of India for who she was a crucial lifeline after India attained Independence from the British. Some die-hard craft lovers and surviving colleagues hold on tenaciously to her widely distributed legacy but that has hardly been enough. For too long we have adopted the tendency to compartmentalize public activists, forgetting those who simultaneously contributed to a variety of fields, and stood on a wide range of platforms. Women in public life are particularly prone to this. In a world polluted bypatriarchal mindsets, it minimizes and marginalizes them even more. In a world of specialists, a special woman who excels in many activities is lost between the divisions. Kamaladevi was one such person. Additionally, she often became a victim of the ‘darbar’ system that operated in those days under Indira Gandhi when ‘czarinas’ ruled the cultural field and ‘favourites’ held sway. In a poignant meeting with Kamaladevi in Bangalore, some months before she passed away, she sat sadly in the fading evening light, sharing with this writer her regret that all she had built up was being destroyed around her. She should not have felt that sad.
Editors Ellen Carol Dubois and Vinay Lal, both Professors at UCLA,have put together this study with a perceptive and admiring Foreword by eminent feminist writer Gloria Steinem, who had met Kamaladevi briefly. For a person known all over the world like Steinem to write, “ Because of Kamaladevi, I also began to understand the politics of history…we often dismiss 95% of the 100,000 or so years that humans have been around, call that ‘pre-history’ and only begin our study after patriarchy, hierarchy, monotheism, colonialism, racism, caste, class and other relatively new institutions began…” shows the depth of women like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.
A Passionate Life presents a collection of Kamaladevi’s rarely available writings on various concerns, including women, their status and rights, and Democratic Socialism, often mistaken for Communism. This section includes an uncharacteristically sharp attack on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru when he sarcastically belittled the Socialists of India, calling them ‘reactionaries’ who were out of date with reality. Kamaladevi had worked closely with Nehru, Gandhi and a host of other leaders as an equal partner during the freedom movement and had established a firm place on the pedestal of freedom fighters whose significant actions have been noted in most history books. She advised them, collaborated with them on momentous occasions and pulled them up with a free and independent sense of her autonomy when she felt they were going wrong. Her wide range of interests and intellectual engagement with movements in the USA, Africa, China, Viet Nam and other Asian countries, apart from cultural and creative expressions that demonstrated India’s special genius, shows up the hollow women leaders of today who, like most of their male counterparts wallow in localized issues. To engage with the world at large while fighting for the political, social and economic liberation of her own people is repeatedly highlighted in this collection of her writings during different periods of her life. The uniqueness of her political and creative thought process is manifest in Annie Devenish’s chapter: Creativity as Freedom, Kamaladevi and the Politics of Self- Expression. She analyses Kamaladevi’s statement “Freedom is not a theory, it is an experience” by saying, ‘What she meant was that the creative engagement of individuals with the world around them, whether in the name of art or politics, was an essential way for humans to express their freedom’.
Despite her constant study of and deep concern for the condition of women, she disliked being labeled a feminist and firmly stood her ground as a Socialist, embracing the human rights of all. This valuable book makes it clear to the feminists of today ( and that day) that India must have its own understanding, rooted in its own culture and history, of the rights and capacities of women that did not ape the western depiction of feminism. The chapter on Feminism and Women in India, with a short introduction by one of the Editors, is particularly significant in today’s unnecessary stand-off between ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ intellectuals. In 1929, when there was no battle about where and when Indian civilization was great, debunking the claim that Indian women were inferior till the British came, Kamaladevi wrote,” In those beautiful days of the Vedic period of India, the glory of which still surrounds the country like a faint halo, women took part freely in the social and political life of the country, and, in the celebration of religious and cultural festivals, they had a special place of importance assigned to them.” She quotes the Rig Veda to listexamples like Viswavara, Lopamudra, Vak, Maitreyi, Gargi and Tara as great philosophers and intellectuals of their time. As a progressive, liberal, Socialist, and creative art, craft and theatre promoter, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay never pushed the ancient greatness of India aside. Maybe there is an important lesson in that.
Writings by and on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
Edited by Ellen Carol Dubois and Vinay Lal
Zubaan Publishers Pvt Ltd 2017