Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was a freedom fighter, actor, social activist, art enthusiast, politician and feminist.
Born on 3 April 1903 in a Saraswat Brahmin community of Mangalore, Kamaladevi was greatly inspired by Gandhian ideas and the concept of non-violence.
She got married in 1917 at the age of 14, but was widowed two years later. Later, when she was twenty years old, she married Harindranath Chattopadhyay (younger brother of Sarojini Naidu), much to the opposition of the orthodox society of the times.
In 1926, she met the suffragette Margaret E. Cousins, who inspired her to run for the Madras Provincial Legislative Assembly. Thus she became the first woman to run for a legislative seat in India.
In 1927, she founded the All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC) and became its first Organizing Secretary.
She was a part of the seven member lead team, announced by Mahatma Gandhi, in the famous Salt Satyagraha (1930), to prepare Salt at the Bombay beachfront. The only other woman volunteer of the team was Avantikabai Gokhale.
Later in a remarkable move, Kamaladevi went up to a nearby High Court, and asked a magistrate present there whether he would be interested in buying the “Freedom Salt” she had just prepared.
She set up the Indian National Theatre (INT) in 1944, today known as National School of Drama.
During partition, she plunged into rehabilitation of the refugees. She set up the Indian Cooperative Union to help with rehabilitation, and through the Union she made plans for a township on cooperative lines.
Due to her efforts, the township of Faridabad was set up on the outskirts of Delhi, rehabilitating over 50,000 refugees from the Northwest Frontier.
She is considered singlehandedly responsible for the great revival of Indian handicrafts and handloom, her greatest legacy to modern India.
In 1964 she started the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography (NIKC), Bangalore, under the aegis of Bharatiya Natya Sangh, affiliated to the UNESCO.
She was a great author, her first writings on the rights of women in India date to 1929. One of her last books, Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom, was published in 1982.
She was conferred with Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan by GoI in 1955 and 1987 respectively. She was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1966 for Community Leadership.
She died on 29 October 1988 in Bombay, aged 85.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s left a massive mark in Indian culture and yet her contributions are little remembered and is virtually unknown outside India.
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