Freedom activist and social reformer known for her participation in the Indian independence movement and women’s empowerment, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay is considered central to the revival of theatre and handicrafts in India.
Born in Mangalore, Karnataka, Chattopadhyay was the youngest of four siblings, and pursued her higher education from Queen Mary’s College, Chennai. Following her father’s death, she lived with her maternal uncle, who was a social reformer and informed much of her own politics. While Chattopadhyay had been married in 1917, at the age of fourteen, and widowed two years later, she went on to remarry in 1923, at a time when widow remarriage was taboo.
Chattopadhyay and her husband, writer and actor Harindranath Chattopadhyay, travelled across India writing and performing folk theatre, regional dramas and silent films. The couple left for London in 1921, where Chattopadhyay enrolled at Bedford College for a diploma in social work. In 1923, following their separation — the first legal divorce granted by an Indian court — Chattopadhyay returned to India and joined MK Gandhi’s Seva Dal and the Indian National Congress, where she was responsible for recruiting and training women volunteers in the Non-Cooperation Movement. She was an active member of Gandhi’s salt satyagraha as well as the All-India Women’s Conference, working on gender equality and women’s empowerment issues such as education, right to inherit property, equal pay for equal work, the Child Marriage Restraint Amendment Bill and the Age of Consent Bill. In 1936, she became president of the Congress Socialist Party and, over the next two years, travelled across North America to raise support for India’s nationalist movement.
After independence, Chattopadhyay declined high-ranking political positions and dedicated her life to community service and social work, such as the rehabilitation of refugees from the Partition and the founding of the Indian Cooperative Union. In 1952, she was appointed chair of the All India Handicrafts Board. In this role, she contributed to reviving traditional textiles and tribal arts, particularly kalamkari, and worked to provide artisans with access to sustainable livelihoods. To this end, she set up numerous art and culture institutions, such as the National School of Drama, the Crafts Museum and the Sangeet Natak Akademi, and worked actively to promote theatre, dance, music, puppetry, textiles and craft. She is especially credited with the revival of art and craft forms such as kalamkari, the Pochampally saree, Jaipur blue pottery and Toda embroidery.
A prolific writer, Chattopadhyay wrote over twenty books, including In War-Torn China (1942), The Awakening of Indian Women (1939), Tribalism in India (1978) and Indian Woman’s Battle for Freedom (1983). Her memoir, Inner Recesses Outer Spaces, was published in 1986. She received the Padma Bhushan in 1955 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1987, as well as the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1974. In 2000, the Crafts Council of India set up the Kamala Awards in Chattopadhyay’s memory to recognise contributions to traditional craft forms in India.
Chattopadhyay died in 1988 in Mumbai.
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