Kamaladevi Chattopadhaya-Reminiscences

Art History/Craft History

Kamaladevi Chattopadhaya-Reminiscences

Nanda, Gulshan



What I am going to talk about today may sound like a fairy tale.  It is however the story of a beautiful lady, with a soft voice, a sweet smile and determination of steel. Yes indeed, I am talking about Smt. Kamladevi Chattopadhaya.  

IN 1988 when Kamladeviji passed away, as a homage to her, the Crafts Council of India quite appropriately wrote:  “She belonged to a generation of greats who created history by dedicating their lives for the betterment of the nation without craving for personal glory or power……..Setting up the Cottage Industries Emporium and heading the All India Handicrafts Board for years Kamladevi was indeed the ‘Grande dame’ of Indian handicrafts and folk art, her name being synonymous with craft.”

My association with her began in 1952 within the context of her efforts to bring livelihood and prestige to artisans and Indian handcrafts.  In my talk today I will recount the story of the birth of India’s premier Handicrafts Enterprise, Central Cottage Industries Emporium.   I will talk about my experience of working with Kamladeviji as well as the many others who were part of this journey as we set up Cottage Industries Emporium. 

Since the story began following India’s partition, I have had to recall details from six decades ago and for this I would like to acknowledge my colleague from that time, Mr K B Johar, with whom I have had several discussions to create this talk.

 1947, the year India attained independence, brought in its wake a division of the country, riots, massacres and destruction of property. This turmoil led to the world’s largest movement of population, and took many years of work towards rehabilitation of its refugees.  The Government of India set up a special Ministry of Rehabilitation for this purpose.

At the time of Partition there were 565 small and large states, which were integrated into our Republic. Amongst the many consequences of this terrible debacle, was also a loss of patronage to artists, crafts persons and other professionals who thrived on the generosity of the erstwhile Princely states of the country.

Our first Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru was greatly perturbed by this and directed the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to start a retail outlet, for the sale of products made by craftspeople particularly those affected by the aftermath of independence. 

This retail outlet was the genesis of the Central Cottage Industries Emporium (CCIE). In 1948 the Central Cottage Industries Emporium was opened on Queensway, now Janpath New Delhi, in old army barracks .  For 4 years the Ministry ran this outlet with a  maximum sale of Rs. 2.50 lacs  The Govt incurred a loss of 40 to 60 lacs in four years for  running this outlet.

Simultaneously, The Indian Cooperative Union was set up in December 1948 under the leadership of  Kamladevijee. Shri. LC Jain, whose work Kamladevijee had seen in the Kingsway Refugee Camps, was  chosen the General Secretary of the ICU.

The women in the refugee camps were encouraged to take up stitching and embroidery to be able to earn an income.  Sardar Patel (our then Home Minister) brought in truckloads of fabric on a regular basis from Gujarat, for this purpose.  The Fabrics were separated for stitching or embroidery.  Mrs. Rajesh Nandini and Mrs. Teji Vir Singh who were working in the camps helped in this endeavour.

These embroidered goods were initially sold through Pandit Brothers and then later through the Refugee Handicrafts ,a shop run by the Indian Cooperative Union on Barakhamba Road,New Delhi

The success of the Refugee Handicrafts prompted Pt. Nehru to invite Kamladevijee to take over the management of the  Emporium.  This made her very happy as craftspersons, weavers and refugees could be helped at a national level by the Indian Cooperative Union. With this she started the Craft Movement in the country.

On the 1st of November 1952, the Refugee Handicrafts shop, merged with the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, under the umbrella of ICU.

At the same time the Ministry of Commerce and Industry set up the All India Handicrafts Board, also with Kamladevijee as Chairperson, Shri. LC Jain, Lakshmi, to all of us as Member Secretary.  The Board was responsible for  formulating  policies and making guidelines for implementation in the Handicraft Sector.

Having accepted the challenge, the ICU did everything in its power to strengthen the role of providing, effective marketing support to  the artisans and weavers, who had to be dissuaded from abandoning their trades.  Assisting the ICU team were luminaries from different walks of life- Shri. U Srinivas Malliah, Smt. Kitty Siva Rao, Shri. ML Sodhani, Shri. PN Mathai and Shri Dharampal to name a few.

Relentless activity started from this moment at all levels.  A survey team led by Prof. Raj Krishna, Professor of Economics, travelled all over the country to study the problems of production  and marketing of crafts. A detailed study was made of cooperatives, public and private marketing set ups, foreign trade, quality control, design, research training and financial organisation.  Its report formed the policies and guidelines for the crafts sector at the national level.

The Emporium was given a dynamic autonomous management to help place it on a sound footing. ICU invited people like Mrs. Fori Nehru, Mrs. Prem Bery, Mrs. Kitty Siva Rao, Shri NN Datta, and Shri Bharat Sahay to participate in the venture.  Mrs. Teji Vir Singh, who was associated first with the Refugee Camps, as well as Refugee Handicrafts shop took over as the first  Manager of the Emporium.,

Mr. Cyrus S H Jhabwala, a distinguished architect, was assigned the renovation of the Emporium.   Magically he opened up seemingly cramped spaces making “an eight-counter sales corridor with  a  large room at the end”into a vast open space housing all sorts of handicraft and textiles.

A group of would be buyers led by Mrs. Teji Vir Singh travelled through the whole country in 1954.  Their agenda was to acquaint themselves with artisans, placing orders for the emporium, assuring them of regular and continuous work, thus giving the craftspeople the much needed confidence and stability.

Kamladevijee as AIHB Chairperson was also travelling extensively. Walking from village to village with a handful of assistants, she unearthed some of the most unusual things.  It was during one such trip to a potter’s hut in Bankura, West Bengal, she found the fascinating  horse with detachable ears, which  was adopted  as the logo for the  Cottage.

Before long Cottage had brand new merchandise pouring in from all over the country, even some of the remotest areas, the likes of which Delhi had never laid eyes on before.  Footfalls increased, so did the sales.  From a mere 2.50 lacs in 1952 they touched 80. lacs in 1964.  

The Emporium became a Living Museum, which could be used as a ready reference for importers as well as exporters.

Buyers were trained to procure the best merchandise for which they visited producers at frequent intervals.They were also responsible for feedback to the producers on  prices ,modifications and  improvements.They also helped the artisans with costing their items.  They were also trained to assist producers in modifying their designs towards saleable items Merchandising was an activity,wherein buyers were  trained to take charge of overall supply  and replacements on the counters.The buyers would watch the sales,by being on the  counters off and on .the knowledge thus gained would be carried back to the producers by them.Buying staff was given targets for their respective departments ,to ensure that they would not run out of saleable stocks,

The Emporium also started a Production Centre of its own to help absorb the initial risk of producing items with new designs. If an artisan brought in an item that was not saleable, the buyers were expected to help them make items, which were saleable.

To enable this we set up a Planning and Promotion department with leading designers. They were always at hand to suggest how best the skills of craftspeople could be used for making contemporary marketable items.

The salary structure of the staff was geared towards cooperative principles wherein the minimum salary was 100 and the maximum 500.

In order to run the Cottage on the same lines as big department stores in the USA, Mrs Jane Liu was invited to reorganise the merchandise into departments.

 The source was represented by a sub head, to enable sales staff as well as other staff to know where the item came from, with a tag on every item indicating the department, the source, the age of stocks and the price. This was a feat in the 50s as it was all manual.  Today computers can work wonders.

Cottage was proud to be a fixed price shop  This gave customers confidence in the credibility of Cottage. 

Mr. S.J Fosdik, a Consultant from USA was specially invited to impress upon us the relevance of Market Research and sound commercial practices.  A special cell was created to analyse, collect data and highlight the fast selling items, as well as allocate resources for them in future planning.

Except big producer groups, who were paid within 15 to 30 days, the artisans were paid the same day. Certain percentage of the profit was kept aside for the welfare of such artisans-be it their medical needs or small advances to buy raw materials. This brought into our fold a large number of home based workers.

Meanwhile a number of new features were added.  Bankura the cafe was a great success. Rachna the book and music  store, Mallika the flower shop, Kunika the art gallery and framing section drew in a different group of customers.  A ticket counter sold tickets for cultural shows, a Gift Wrapping counter was set up with a staff member specially trained in Japan, a Private Order counter which catered to special customised orders. A Production Center where Tailors Cooperatives ,produced  in addition, garments and accessories for the sales counters also.

In time the place was buzzing.  Our advertisements created by Mr. Som Benegal with  ingenuity were a great draw.  The display was changed constantly for exhibitions or new arrivals.  Mrs. Ratna Fabri and later Mrs. Sina Kaul with a team of young display artists created the most amazing ambience.  One almost felt like buying a whole window instead of one or two disp

By this time, thousands of showrooms began to spring up all over the country on routes to monuments, near hotels etc. stocking handicrafts. This fulfilled the purpose of popularising crafts and making the hand-made crafts commercially viable.  

Every VIP who visited Delhi, was brought to Cottage, generally on their way back from Rajghat, to give them exposure to our heritage under one roof. That was the kind of status enjoyed by Cottage

The visits of some of these were events that would be remembered always.  The Queens visit, the visit of Jackie Kennedy and that of the Shah and Shahbano of Iran.  Ahead of the visit of the Queen of  England, Pandit Nehru walked in early in the morning into the showroom, on the way back from Bal Bhavan. Jaya was dusting the brass when she heard a voice asking ” Dukan khul gaya”. Without turning around she answered, “abhi khula nahin” 

Suddenly she recognised the voice and did not know what to do.  By then Panditji was at the other end of the hall.  Lakshmi asked me, to get a bunch of roses to give to the PM. I ran to Mallika the florist picked up the first bunch of mixed color roses and handed them over to Panditji.  After he had left Lakshmi called me. “Don’t you know he likes red roses?”  My immediate reply, “if I had started picking up the red roses, Panditji would have reached Teen Murti.”  He really walked so fast.

When the Queen of England visited Cottage, she bought a reversible Dupion silk coat. She wore it to the President’s banquet that night.The next morning it was front page news.The Queen’s wardrobe is fixed,an exception had been made in this case.  

Kamladevijee did not visit the emporium regularly. Her special brand of leadership was in selecting a team of dedicated enthusiasts, as I would like to call them.  They followed her dreams and her cause to the minutest possible detail.

I would like to read here  a quote from Anjalie Ela Menon from  a recently published book Delhi The First City. I read

“Panditji and his young daughter Indira were closely watched by Delhiites in matters of style, both sartorial and otherwise. Fortunately for Delhi, and incidentally for India, there was a small band of dedicated women who took it upon themselves to preserve and develop handicrafts and the handloom industry, without any remuneration. Among them were Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Shona Ray, Kitty Shivarao, Forrie Nehru and the indefatigable Prem Bery who ran the Cottage Industries Emporium for several decades. ‘Cottage’, as it was affectionately called, was not just a place to shop and hangout in, but became the arbiter of good taste and certainly dictated the lifestyle flavour of the times.”

Kamaladevijee’s passion for handicrafts influenced the elite society ladies, who mostly wore French Chiffons into purchasing Kanjeevarams and Benares sarees, which they then wore with great pride.  The interiors of homes, suddenly changed from chandeliers and crystals to bronzes, stone carvings, and antique wooden art objects.  

Her everlasting legacy has been to change the mindset of the customers, thus ensuring a permanent place for hand made products. This gave the artisans confidence, dignity and pride. Today this sector ranks second only to Agriculture in India’s economy

Kamaladevi ji also gave the same sense of importance to musicians, dancers, classical and folk singers, who suddenly were elevated to the stature of artists. They performed for the general public, who learnt to appreciate their art –this appreciation thus went beyond the guests of Prince and Nawabs.

In 1964, at the peak of its glory the Central Cottage Industries Emporium was handed back to the Government.

The Indian Cooperative Union had fulfilled Kamladeviji’s dream.

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