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A Tribute to a Firebrand | Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

‘[T]he most august woman on the Indian scene who was firmly Indian and therefore universal…’ –is how Raja Rao, a great writer of sensitivity and insight and a close friend of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, described her in the preface to Inner Recesses Outer Spaces.

Kapila Vatsyayan, another close associate, perhaps belonging to the next generation by her own admission, remembers fondly, Kamaladevi’s immaculate attire and gracious presence. What always impressed her was the unassuming ease with which Kamaladevi could converse with the villagers, the craftsman, social workers as well as the politicians, and also scientists.

Born on 3 April 1903 in Mangaluru, Kamaladevi was the fourth and youngest daughter of her parents. Kamaladevi’s early childhood was dotted by a succession of tragedies having lost both her sister and father at a tender age. Her father had left no will and as a result, the ownership of all his properties went to his son from his first marriage. So, Kamaladevi grew up at the home of her maternal uncle, a notable social reformer who was often visited by political luminaries and public figures. Her interactions with these eminent personalities sowed the seeds of political consciousness in her mind when she was still a young girl.

Although widowed at the age of 14, she remarried soon after, despite much opposition from the orthodox society (as Kamaladevi was a widow). Her husband Harindranath Chattopadhyay, brother of Sarojini Naidu, was a poet, playwright, and actor. Kamaladevi, along with her husband, experimented with folk theatre and regional drama, and even acted in silent films.

In her memoir, she writes, ‘And now, at last, I was going to taste the fulfillment of my ambition to act on a real stage. I felt almost shaken by a new passion. I threw myself wholeheartedly into the theatre vortex. Harindranath wrote simple plays, both on current life as well as on stories from the epics and the lives of saints. Since he himself composed the music, directed and acted we were able to produce something new and vibrant.’ In 1930, Kamaladevi participated enthusiastically in Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha Movement and was sentenced to a prison term for violation of the salt laws. But what brought her to the nation’s attention was when in a scuffle over the Indian flag, she clung to it tenaciously to protect it from the British troops. Her visibility as a participant and her forthright assertiveness helped draw hundreds of women as volunteers. In 1936, she became president of the Congress Socialist Party.

After Independence, Kamaladevi was offered the posts of Ambassador, Union Minister, Governor and even Vice President. She refused only to devote herself to humanitarian service. She said, ‘I left the highway of politics to step into the side lane of constructive work.’


One of Kamaladevi’s first initiatives was rehabilitating tens of thousands of post-Partition refugees mainly from West Punjab.She played a phenomenal role in reviving indigenous art and craft traditions in India during the post-Independence era. She was instrumental in setting up a series of national institutions such as the National School of Drama, the All India Handicrafts Board, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Central Cottage Industries Emporia.

It was during the pre-independence era that Kamladevi came in touch with the cross-section of social reformers, thinkers, scholars and scientists. She was at one time associated with Mridula Sarabhai, sister of Vikram Sarabhai, during the Salt Satyagraha Movement. She thus became acquainted with Homi J. Bhaba and Vikram Sarabhai. The series on the scientists, Rocket Boys, is on the network recently and is well acclaimed. The common platform of taking cognizance of the interest of girls in education and social emancipation and through the formation of the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) also brought Kamaladevi close to Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, who was the first Indian member of the WIA.

In Kamaladevi’s memoir, Kapila Vatsyayan relates in her foreword, the ease with which she asked Einstein how he felt when the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima and when unflinchingly how she wrote to Zia-ul-Haq to return the innocent boy who had unknowingly strayed into Pakistani territory.

Recipient of the Padma Bhushan in 1955 and later Padma Vibhushan in 1987, Kamaladevi was conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1966. A rare woman, whose vision gifted India so many of its iconic cultural institutions, Kamaladevi passed away on 29 October 1988, at the age of 85.

In her memoir, Kamaladevi’s closing lines were, ‘As I lean back and close my eyes to relax and let my memories run back the long aisles of time, to know what are the things I wanted most and discover, the same yearning remains most poignant in me still. It is the little things—an unhurried life of leisure to dream, to suck in the slow notes of music, to savour of the gifts of nature, the play of light and shadow so reminiscent of life with its joys and sorrows. For I am very human and it is very human to want the trifles that we usually brush and throw away.In the ultimate an individual is a lovely soul, away and apart holding on these little things of life while all else has faded away.’

Niyogi Books proudly presents Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s memoir

978-93-83098-39-2 * Hardback with dust jacket * 424 pages * INR 795

The book is available at:

Avik Goswami | 03-Apr-2022