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  • Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: A Biography
  • Geraldine Forbes
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: A Biography. By Reena Nanda. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was an actress, social worker, freedom fighter, youth leader, socialist, women’s movement organizer, and chair of post-independence India’s craft council. Because it is in this last role that most people remember her, Reena Nanda’s biography, published in a new series on builders of modern India for the non-specialist reader, focuses primarily on Kamaladevi’s life before 1947.

Nanda, who met Kamaladevi and interviewed her son and others who knew her, found this a difficult project because Kamaladevi left no private papers or letters, avoided interviews, and was a distant figure in her son’s life. Nanda has portrayed Kamaladevi as a woman who loved politics and art equally and devoted her life to both. Nanda contends that before independence, scandal hampered the political career of this talented and ambitious woman who after independence gained prominence and personal satisfaction from her work with India’s arts and crafts.

Although there is very little personal information available, Nanda has written about Kamaladevi’s turbulent private life as a child widow who married the dashing Harindranath Chattopadhyay, acted on the stage, and later divorced her husband. This section provides the reader with a very general summary of the social reform movements that promoted female education and public roles for women. For example, Harindranath and Kamaladevi were married under the 1872 Marriage Act that legalized unions between individuals of different castes and communities, set a minimum age for marriage, and made marriage with widows possible. Belonging to this progressive circle, Kamaladevi became involved with politics in the 1920s. When Madras presidency first allowed women to stand for election, in 1926, Kamaladevi, with the solid backing of her family, ran as an independent candidate. She lost but the act was symbolic of her boldness in the public arena. Always close to Margaret Cousins, the Irish theosophist feminist, Kamaladevi was involved with the first meeting of the All India Women’s Conference in 1927 and became the Organizing Secretary of the AIWC’s Standing Committee. At this crucial moment in history Kamaladevi had the experience and energy to become a nationalist leader. The best chapters in this book are those on Kamaladevi’s political work. Here Nanda references archival materials, newspaper accounts, speeches, memoirs, and the records of Congress Committees to explore Kamaladevi’s role as a leader of the Congress Socialist Party and of the no-tax campaign in North Canera. The author is haunted by the question of why Kamaladevi never became a key player in Congress decisions. Nanda argues that her political career was hurt by the “triangular relationship” between Gandhi, Nehru, and the socialists, and by her divorce from Harindranath and gossip about her relationships with men.

In the last chapter Nanda traces Kamaladevi’s role in the revival, development and marketing of Indian handicrafts. Appointed chair of the All-India handicrafts board in 1952, Kamaladevi was determined to save Indian arts and secure state support for them. Nanda credits her with the development of traditional industries and the infrastructure to support them, but blames entrepreneurs, more interested in making money from Indian handicrafts than saving the arts, for subverting Kamaladevi’s dreams. Throughout this biography, Nanda takes great pains to point out where “feminist” interpretations of Indian women leaders are wrong. She critiques “historians of feminist studies” (53) for misinterpreting the views of Indian women, generalizing about context and motive, and focusing on feminist issues rather than nationalism. Nanda takes issue with my emphasis on the importance of “respectability” for women in freedom movement politics, but at the same time paints Kamaladevi as a strong and brave feminist whose career and effectiveness were undermined by conventional notions of female chastity. The author refers to other historians who have missed the point but does not use footnotes so it is difficult to guess which article or book she is refuting. Greater attention to Kamaladevi’s writing would have been useful in the discussion of feminist interpretations of her life. Well-educated and well read, Kamaladevi wrote a great deal. Her essays on social issues...

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