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Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was a theatre and film actress as well as a campaigner for the uplift of handicraft workers. She was born in Mangalore on April 3, 1903 to a well-to-do Saraswat family. Her father was the District Collector, and her mother Girijabai, from whom she inherited an independent streak, came from one of the wealthiest families in Karnataka. The household was a progressive one and her parents’ friends included many important freedom fighters and intellectuals such as M.G. Ranade, Gopalakrishna Gokhale, and Annie Besant. Her early exposure to swadeshi thought meshed with her feminist agenda, and she became concerned at how Western methods of factory-based mass production were affecting traditional artisans, especially women. Widowed at sixteen while she was still at school, she nevertheless went on the stage, an activity quite unsuitable for women from respectable families at the time. She then married the poet-playwright Harindranath Chattopadhyay, brother of Sarojini Naidu, in 1920, and even acted in two silent films. A few months later she and Harindranath went to London, where she enrolled in Bedford College to study sociology. However, word of Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement brought them back to India in 1923, and she joined the Seva Dal, training women as sevikas across the country. In 1926 she met Margaret Cousins, and she was inspired to run for a seat in the Madras Provincial Legislative assembly. She lost by only 200 votes. In the 1930s, she was arrested for invading the Bombay Stock Exchange to sell packets of contraband salt, and spent almost a year in prison. In 1936, she became president of the Congress Socialist Party, working alongside Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and Minoo Masani. For her, feminism was inseparable from socialism, and where necessary she opposed her own colleagues when they ignored or infringed women’s rights. For instance, when Mahatma Gandhi opposed the inclusion of women in the Dandi march (claiming that Englishmen would not hurt women, just as Hindus would not harm cows), Kamaladevi spoke out against this stand. Some time in the 1920s she and Harindranath separated.

When World War II broke out she was in England, and immediately began a world tour to represent India’s situation to other countries and drum up support for Independence after the war. However, Independence brought Partition in its wake, and she threw herself into working for the refugees. Her first task was to set up the Indian Cooperative Union to help with rehabilitation. She insisted on setting up a township on cooperative lines, for which Mahatma Gandhi reluctantly assented on the condition that she did not ask for state assistance, and after much struggle the township of Faridabad on the outskirts of Delhi was founded by 30,000 Pathans from the Northwest Frontier.

In her eyes theatre was a living art that drew its energy from the people and to preserve the folk traditions in the performing arts, she set up a theatre crafts museum in Delhi. She also set up the National School of Drama in Delhi, and later headed the Sangeet Natak Akademi. She saw no difference between arts and crafts, and founded several awards for master craftsmen. The culmination of this enterprise was the setting up of the All-India Handicrafts Board. She was recognised with the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the World Crafts Council award, UNESCO recognition and the Padma Vibhushan. Sakuntala Narasimhan wrote a book on her titled, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay : The Romantic Rebel.
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