Her name responds with images. Of her. O.P. Sharma has a lovely photograph of her. A ‘late’ Kamaladevi, picture-daters would say. She is seated at a table, her hands stretched across it. The round face is lined with scars of battle. The salt march of 1930, for instance. A thousand footsteps on the sand are etched on that face. And a smile washes over them, like the waves at Dandi might do. As you look at the picture more closely, you see a chin of extraordinary determination and eyes of a rare penetration.
But it is the hands that grip you. Strong-veined and profusely, almost ostentatiously, bangled. Who says courage and beauty do not go together, she seems to ask. They cannot but. I am proud to be a woman and I celebrate the beauty of womanhood, the whole frame can be heard saying. Let no one, absolutely no one, take beauty to suggest weakness, no fear! And to proclaim womankind’s strength, I will assert its feminity, not ape men. My working, writing, creating hands will proclaim them.
Then there is the black and white footage of her fanning a pot of boiling saltwater. The quirk of 8 mm speed-filming gives her hands, bangled again, an extra verve. With each vapour goes a wisp of imperial hubris. Each sedimented salt-crystal makes swaraj tactile. Kamaladevi is in that frame the satyagrahi incarnate. But she is not to be typecast! Not in that scene, not anywhere else.
In Mangalore, where she was born on 3 April 1903, father, mother, elder sister and Kamaladevi comprised a rather small family, for those days. It was there, in the verdant garden home of her Saraswat parents – Ananthiah Dhareshwar and Girijabai – that Kamaladevi first saw, touched and began to move the multi-coloured beads on the abacus of her sensibility. Her memoirs (Inner Recesses Outer Spaces, Navrang, 1986) tell us that the twinkling of the mrigasirsha star which heralds rain, the onset of showers in the month ofsravana and the worship of the tulasi plant became a continuum for her, signalling the reassurance, if any was needed in that fecund part of our western ghats, of the creative principle of life. Kamaladevi’s narration of her childhood is no idle amble down a memory footlane. I had not heard it explained anywhere until I read her autobiography that mrigasirsha is so named because the rains it heralds are such as make the mriga (deer) bend its sirsha (head) down under the torrent.
For Ananthiah, a district collector, nationalist politics was taboo. But even in her teens, Kamaladevi made her own decisions. Nobody was to give her taboos. In this, she was clearly influenced by her mother, ‘a feminist with a very strong consciousness about women’s rights.’ In 1910, when Kamala was seven, Ananthiah died, leaving no will. Her step-brother claimed the entire estate and offered a subsistence allowance to Girijabai. This the self-respecting widow declined to accept and decided to support her daughters by herself.
For those times, this was no ordinary resolve. It steeled the young girl in adversity and resoluteness. But certain customs Girijabai could not resist. By the custom of the times, Kamala was given in marriage while in her early teens – and not surprisingly, was widowed not long thereafter. What could that ‘status’ have meant to a child? In a less enlightened home, it could have meant an irreversible eclipse. But Girijabai’s home was different. Kamaladevi studied, passed her Senior Cambridge and was encouraged to pursue her interests which were clearly taking her towards the arts and theatre. She moved to the intellectual and capital of the South – Madras.
Around that time her path met that of Harindranath Chattopadhyay. A musical genius, the young Bengali had poetic and histrionic talents that could only have been matched by those of his sister, the Bulbul-e-Hind, Sarojini Naidu. Kamaladevi and Harindranath found they had shared interests and decided to marry, affronting the orthodox not just because this was, in her case, a remarriage but by its cross-regional nature. Spurred by a joint vision, this did not deflect them. ‘When poet-musician Harindranath and I teamed up it was for a sharing of dreams and ambitions to devote ourselves to create a new theatre in India,’ she writes in her memoirs.
But the real theatre of the times was not under arclights or on stage. It was being played out under the sharp daylight of non-cooperation. Kamaladevi was but sixteen when she happened to be in Bombay and attended a mammoth meeting addressed by Mahatma Gandhi. Chowpatty was ‘a sea of heads,’ she recalls, and being there she felt the power of the Mahatma’s appeal. She was enlisted into politics that day, I should imagine.
What drew Kamaladevi into that vortex was more than the self-evident political compulsion of the cause. It was the strange mix that Gandhi was offering of political regeneration and constructive renewal. Kamaladevi and Harindranath met the Mahatma and Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan. ‘Tagore felt that personality can be built up through music,’ she records. Whereas Gandhi said it was ‘to be built up through craft – the use of hands.’ Harindranath, restless by temperament and peripatetic by choice, wanted to go to England and savour its world of letters and theatre. Kamaladevi joined him there and enrolled in Bedford College, London, to read sociology and economics.
But after a brief spell there she returned home. Not because she would not have made a success of an academic course in London but because her mind was in India. She enrolled in 1924 for volunteer work – no simple badge-pinning work, let us remember, but everything that needs to be done at a mammoth gathering – at the Belgaum Congress. The session was a historic one, presided over by Gandhi himself. The Mahatma had been a volunteer in earlier Congresses himself, when still relatively unknown. Nothing was too menial or too ‘high’ for a volunteer. Kamaladevi’s presence did not go unnoticed. How could a Sakuntala have gone unnoticed! And especially when her Dushyanta, Harindranath, was as prone to short-term memory loss as the hero of Kalidasa’s epic. A drama troupe started by the two had been most successful, with ‘Abu Hasan’, the play Harindranath wrote when he was eighteen, showing to packed halls in Bombay. Another, ‘Discovery of India’ showing the progress of Indian civilization from 5000 B.C. to contemporary times had also captured popular imagination. Their son Ram had a role in that production. So here was a stage heroine boarding the nationalist train.
Within two years Kamaladevi was in the thick of mainstream politics. In 1926, elections had been called to the Madras Provincial Legislature and just on the eve of polling it was announced that women too could contest. Margaret Cousins, educationist wife of the Irish poet and playwright James Cousins, prevailed upon Kamaladevi to do so. She decided to file her nomination as an Independent, as Congress had already closed its lists. With no time available, and no resources of any kind, her debut was foredoomed. And fail it did but with the astonishingly small margin of 51 votes! Her ‘defeat’ was in fact a victory and was hailed as such. She had made a point – that in the man’s world of elections a woman could take men on as their equal.
The Congress invited Kamaladevi to become a member of the party the very next year and organise a volunteer corps in Madras, which she did with the kind of ‘to-the-manor-born’ ease she was to become celebrated for in public life. In 1927-28, Kamaladevi was elected to the All India Congress Committee, the citadel of political participation. But the citadel was not so pleasing! Not to her, anyway. She found the status of women needed to be safeguarded even there, in the very core of the freedom movement.
As batches of volunteers began to be identified for the salt satyagraha in 1930, she learnt that women were to be excluded from the enacting of that historical moment. Never awed, she went to the Mahatma. ‘The significance of a non-violent struggle,’ she put in, ‘is that the weakest can take an equal part with the strongest and share in the triumph.’ The point was conceded. Kamaladevi was one of the first to break the salt law. ‘Even as I lit my little fire to boil the salt water, I saw thousands of fires aflame dancing in the wind. The copper pans sizzled in laughter while their bosoms traced the white grains of salt and the heat lapped up the last drop of water.’
I do not think Sarojini Naidu could have improved upon her sister-in-law’s description. ‘Hail Deliverer!’ are the words which the Nightingale of India had uttered, as the Mahatma bent to pick up his fistful of salt at Dandi. Kamaladevi was at that time making a double point. The salt law needed to be broken and it needed to be broken by the sons and daughters of India, together.
Even as Gandhi was arrested, so was Kamaladevi along with hosts of others, the magistrate saying she had been responsible for more people breaking the law than anybody else! She was incarcerated at Yeravada, Poona, in the first of her many jailings which were to extend to a period of five years during different periods of the struggle. Five years are, today, thought of exclusively in terms of Lok Sabha terms and governorships. She clocked a different kind of quiennale.
In the 1932 Civil Disobedience movement, she shone as a star. By now Harindranath and Kamaladevi were pulling in different directions. He was a musical bee, humming his winged way in a garden of many flowers. She was the sole lotus in the garden pond – sublime when she was closed for him, sensational when not, as in the plays they did together. But the lotus’ decision to bloom or remain inaccessible was the lotus’s. The bee had no part in it. They parted. He, to explore other harbours and manorial hothouses. She, to remain firmly rooted in her deepening concerns. Harindranath performed and performed brilliantly. Kamaladevi just was.
There was something naturally anti-pomp in Kamaladevi. Anti-pelf and shall I say, anti-chandeliers. Her charisma glowed from a simple oil-wick in an earthen lamp. And strangely the wick remained sootfree. Naturally, she was drawn to the socialist ideal, going counter to ‘insider’ sentiment in the Congress. Becoming a founder-member of the Congress Socialist Party in 1934, she was elected President of the CSP at its Meerut session in 1936. Elections took place in 1937 to the provincial legislatures and Congress won 8 out of 11 provinces, notably in Madras where Kamaladevi had done so much work in. Rajaji was to be premier of Madras. Many illustrious Congressmen were for the first time inducted into office.
I have recently come across a fascinating letter written on 5 April 1937 from the Mahatma to Jawaharlal Nehru, then President of the Congress, on the subject of women in the higher reaches of the Congress of the times. I excerpt it:
‘…Kamaladevi was travelling with us from Wardha to Madras. She was coming from Delhi. She came to my compartment twice and had long chats. At last she wanted to know why Sarojini Devi was excluded (from the Congress Working Committee), why Rukmini Lakshmipati was being kept away by Rajaji (from the Madras Ministry), why Anasuyabai was excluded, and so on. I then told her of my part in her exclusion, and told her almost all that I could remember of the note I wrote for you on that silent Monday. Of course I told her I had no hand in Sarojini’s exclusion at first or inclusion after. I told her also that Rajaji so far as I knew, had nothing to do with L’s exclusion. I thought you should know this.’
Now that was Kamaladevi at her typically determined and assertive best. Nobody was allowed to ignore womankind. Not when womankind was not ignoring the struggle. And if that meant boarding the Mahatma’s compartment between Wardha and Madras, and obtaining from him a point by point clarification, which then had to be shared with the Congress President, so be it. World War II broke out two years later and Kamaladevi addressed the Mahatma another letter, which must rank among the most important in India’s political discourse on the war. Quoting it in extenso, Gandhi wrote an article on her intervention in the Harijan of 9 October 1939. One part of that letter of Kamaladevi’s is memorable. ‘…if England and France have the right to rule over large tracts and big nations, then Germany and Italy have an equal right. There is as little moral justification in the former countries crying halt to Hitler as there is in his what he calls his rightful claims.
‘That there is a third view the world hardly seems to think, for it rarely hears it. And it is so essential that it should find expression: the voice of the people who are mere pawns in the game. Neither Danzig nor the Polish corridor are the issue. The issue is the principle on which the whole of this present Western civilization is based; the right of the strong to rule and exploit the weak.’ Kamaladevi was telling Gandhi, not very gently, that in his opposition to the Hitlerian aggression, he and the Congress were letting Britain get away too easily.
Gandhi commented in his article: ‘I agree with Kamaladevi’s analysis of the motives of the parties to the war. Both are fighting for their existence and for the furtherance of their policies. There is, however, this great difference between the two: however incomplete or equivocal the declaration of the Allies are, the world has interpreted them to mean that they are fighting for saving democracy. Herr Hitler is fighting for the extension of the German boundaries, although he was told that he should allow his claims to be submitted to an impartial tribunal for examination. He contemptuously rejected the way of peace or persuasion and chose that of the sword. Hence my sympathy for the cause of the Allies.’
In 1941 she toured the USA, making a deep impression on the Roosevelts and numerous others by her candid countering of British propaganda against the Indian national movement. She also visited China and Japan, and while in Japan roundly criticised the Japanese aggression on China.
Sanctimoniousness was something she had no time for. Words devoid of sincerity were verbiage, action which was not genuine hypocrisy. So if the Congress could not contain her, nor could the mantra of socialism. It had to prove itself in the actuality of daily life. Having been in the forefront of the Quit India movement in 1942, she became a member of the Congress Working Committee in 1946. Anyone would have expected her to gravitate from there to the Constituent Assembly. Kamaladevi declined. She had not taken to politics as a vocation! She was to turn down other offers. Saying ‘no’ came almost as an aesthetic exercise to her. She had said that most effectively to an aesthete of aesthetes after all – Harindranath himself.
Kamaladevi’s signature, incidentally, became a wonder to behold. Few signatures have its elegance. Though separated from Harindranath she had retained his surname. But the ‘C’ in capitals and the following ‘h’ in her signature intersect, making a cross, a crossing-out. I find that flourish of her carefully-held pen deeply symbolic. She did nothing without thought. A ministership of state, came her way very early on after independence. ‘If Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, very rightly, should be of cabinet rank, should I…?’ Only this time, she did not seek to interrupt the prime minister’s train journeys. The modes of leaders’ travel had also changed! Kamaraj, then chief minister of Madras, wanted her to be governor of his state and sounded Nehru. ‘Ask her,’ the PM told the CM, ‘If you can persuade her, what can be better!’ Nehru knew, Kamaraj understood, that Kamaladevi’s ambitions were not for office.
After 1947, Kamaladevi turned her attention increasingly to crafts, to the use of hands, the natural passion which had been whetted in her by Gandhi and by a valued friend, G. Venkatachalam. Setting up the Central Cottage Industries Emporium and heading the All India Handicrafts Board for a number of years, Kamaladevi became a synonym for crafts. But not for the acquiring and flaunting of objects made by hand. That she left to the ‘cultivated’ classes of Delhi.
She meant by crafts the makers of those objects, their needs and the nurturing of their genius. For her, handcrafted objects were not an elite interest, though that too she did not exclude as a natural aspect. For her crafts meant a continuum between the maker and the user of those objects, not unlike that between mrigasirsha, sravana and tulasi.
Kamaladevi came to know innumerable craftspersons intimately. And she discovered talent among city-breds in the matter of crafts-promotion. L.C. Jain, whose acquaintance she had made earlier in the matter of refugee rehabilitation, brought his formidable talents of marketing and distribution to her cause. Craftspersons thanked her for her assistance, of course. But more, they thanked her for her understanding. The World Crafts Council sought her out. And she travelled the world, meeting artists – her natural constituency – and writers, thinkers.
Kamaladevi probably had more friends in the outside world among its true ‘greats’ than anyone not in high office in India. The Roosevelts, De Valera, Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek and his wife, Chou-en-Lai, Oppenheimer – all came to know and respect her personally. Kamaladevi told me once of how an All Important Person had looked right through her at the CIE in New Delhi, only to be told within days by a visiting prime minister that she wanted ‘to see Kamaladevi more than anyone else in Delhi’ – and then being invited by the same Mightiness to a meal in honour of the visitor and being hugged ostentatiously!
She visited Sri Lanka, as Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, when I was working there, in 1978. Her visit was regarded in that country as that of an Indian stateswoman. She was better known there than many then or later in high office in India. She had first visited the island in 1931 with the Nehrus – Jawaharlal, Kamala and young Indira. Apocrypha grow like mildew around the famous. I was told by Minnette De Silva that the Kandy of 1931 was agog with rumours of Kamala Nehru strongly disapproving of her husband’s taking the other ‘lotus’ a-rowing in Kandy lake! And Kamaladevi was also remembered in Sri Lanka for her later visit in the early 1940s to help the Lanka Sama Samaj Party ‘build up’.
In her 1978 visit, she did not stop with visiting the high and positioned. Her hosts, High Commissioner Thomas Abraham and Meera Abraham had drawn up a fine itinerary for her. But she found time to include in it visits to the homes and huts of little-known mat-weavers, potters, painters and writers travelling in a bumpy jeep I was able to offer her. ‘Do you know if Manjusri is still alive?’ she asked me. I had not even heard of Manjusri at that time. Enquiries were made and the great artist of Sri Lanka’s temple paintings and decorations was traced and brought, in an ecstasy of joy, to meet Kamaladevi. Years later, when I was back in Sri Lanka, Manjusri’s son, now an acknowledged artist himself, remembered that meeting of his late father and Kamaladevi. And Chitrasena, the Lankan dancer recalled her as ‘the greatest Indian name after Gandhi and Nehru.’
All this is not to say that Kamaladevi was a beloved goddess always and everywhere. She was not. There were many who found her hard, difficult, impossible to persuade or correct when she was in error. In the iciness of her relations with the remarkable Aruna Asaf Ali, the ‘fault’ was not that of the heroine of 1942 alone, surely. And in the later lack of warm understanding between the creative and much misunderstood Pupul Jayakar too, Kamaladevi’s reserve amounting to coolness certainly played a part. Especially when it came to judging people, she was human enough to make mistakes, serious ones, of assessment. She could be taken for a ride. And many tried to do just that.
As the years advanced, and Delhi’s long shadows of indifference crept over her evenings at India International Centre, she became easy prey to the passer-by’s idle curiosity and even naughtiness. She could be made to play favourites – easy and disastrous in the world of the performing arts over which she reigned as Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Never dizzied by applause or dismayed by its absence, she was nonetheless susceptible to the insidious effects of Delhi-bile. She saw through games soon enough. But only after they had caused her distress and her causes, harm.
Kamaladevi was human enough to be greatly pleased when she was asked if she would accept the Padma Vibhushan. ‘I am getting it for my contribution to Letters!’ she said with barely concealed joy. Some years later when the President of the day most appropriately conferred the Bharat Ratna to Aruna Asaf Ali, Kamaladevi was not alive. If she had been, the Gods of Equity would have been displeased. It would have been like conferring that highest award to Latabai Mangeshkar before Subbulakshmi.
Kamaladevi had said no to office and power, but not to public life. Her interest in causes such as those of the tribal communities of India, of refugees and of children, was great. But great as it was, her interest in these had to be subordinated to her care for individuals. When towards the end of her days she came across the case of two boys, one of who happened to be a Hindu and the other a Sikh who were picking berries somewhere near the Punjab border between India and Pakistan and strayed absently into the ‘wrong’ side of the border and were locked up, she took up the matter with President Zia ul Haq. Her letter worked and within a few days the boys were back home. But not before they came to her personally to say thanks. Everyone else had just seen the reports in the papers and turned the page, perhaps with a tch, tch.
I remember about the same time seeing Kamaladevi in tears. ‘This girl,’ she said, ‘Anshu Saxena, has had acid thrown on her face and on her torso by a bunch of hoodlums in Meerut.’ I did not know quite how to respond. ‘You cannot imagine what that can mean to a girl.’ And then tears were replaced with rage and resolve. ‘Those men have to be given the hardest punishment there is for such an offence. But more than that I want to raise enough money to see that the girl gets the best reconstructive surgery there is. Will you help me, Gopal?’ Many people helped, not because they would have ‘even otherwise’ but because after she had spoken to them they saw the ‘case’ as a human being’s traumatic experience. Among them was the then President of India, R. Venkataraman who wrote out a handsome cheque and sent it to her with the spontaneous seriousness of something due from a diligent Roman to Caesar. Truth is a big word. So misused. And made so common. But if there is one word I would associate with Kamaladevi, it is that word.
Decades earlier, Kamaladevi’s mother had told her about truth: ‘Taste the tiny drop of its essence and you will continue to linger on it…’ Kamaladevi did that. She lingered on what seemed to her to be true and just. Its tiny drops, one by one. Be it Sarojini’s exclusion, the ordeal of two berry-pickers, Anshu Saxena’s torment. Or the dry and howling cataract of our neglect – India’s and particularly male India’s neglect – of those who ought not to be counted as ‘weak’ but are. To all these she extended her hand – the use of her hand – as Gandhi had told her. A strong-veined and bangled hand which seemed to say ‘you know, these bangles… they have been made by a remarkable couple I know in the deep of Madhya Pradesh…’
In Kamaladevi’s equation with Gandhi there was space for candour, with Nehru for firmness, with Jayaprakash for compassionate understanding. Her nationalism had room for a global outreach, her socialism for individual expression. Her work for women came from within. It came from her as the sravana breaks over Mangalore, spontaneously and torrentially. It is my conviction that had she lived some more years Kamaladevi would have organised a nationwide movement in support of women’s issues and become something of a national lodestar once again, even as Jayaprakash Narayan did in the late ’70s. And perhaps with the same disillusionment?
Gopal Gandhi was the governor of West Bengal serving from 2004 through 2009. This essay was first published in Seminar 540.