KAMALADEVI – Tireless Promoter of the Crafts

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay is considered single handedly responsible for the great revival of Indian handloom and handicrafts in the post independence era. Jasleen Dhamija, her close associate, shares her experiences with the great pioneer.

Kamaladevi was a charismatic personality with a rich experience of political life, which began when she was still in her teens.  She had the ability not only to work hard, but also to carry others with her – an ability she honed while organising the political movement for our freedom struggle. In 1952, when she took up the Chairmanship of the All India Handicrafts Board, she took up the challenge of reaching out to craftsmen spread throughout India.  It was a vast ocean of skills, where people worked in remote areas as individuals or in workshops.  Often they lived on the fringe of society, and were the most under-privileged and discriminated against. For Kamaladevi it became an emergency.  She felt that the bureaucratic norms had to be broken if the crafts were to survive.

She began work without any information, except what could be gleaned from the gazetteers. There were no guidelines, no precedents as to how the work should be organised.   The economists and planners wanted to see an industrialized country and had no space for the Cottage Industry Sector.  However, Gandhiji’s advocacy got a place for the small scale and cottage industries and India began its 1st V year plan with a mixed economy. Jawaharlal Nehru asked Kamaladevi to head the Handicrafts and Handloom Sector and assured her of support.  She felt handicapped due to the fact that there was no data available to be used to develop a plan with facts and figures, and get the needed support.  She persuaded Mr. Ashok Mitra to carry out a Census of the Crafts, which became a massive exercise.  Everyone knew that the formal sector would only employ a fraction of the population and it is the non-formal sector that would have to be supported.  Kamaladeviji also did not see crafts only as an economic activity; she saw it as an expression of our culture, our heritage and the very inner source of our being.

Gandhiji had told her that it was only if we worked with our hands that we could enrich our lives; and Tagore said to her that man’s personality evolved through music, through rhythm.  She listened to everyone and evolved her own creed, based on her own early experiences of being born in a household where scholarship was revered, where they lived close to nature and the cyclic diurnal movement brought its own rhythms and rituals.  The celebrations of the Bhuta, Theyyam and the creation of the objects used in them were a ritual.  Their use in the performance created all forms of rasas, from fear to wonder to karuna. These were expressed with great effect through poetry, kavya, music, movement and the hypnotic rhythm of the drum, which she says in her autobiography, moved her immensely.

She understood the deep-rooted influence of the crafts on our way of life.  For her, the act of creation and the use of the objects had an important impact on our lives, for they were the very fabric of our life. She did not differentiate between one area of creative expression and another: for her all creativity was enriching. She was indeed very contemporaneous in her approach.   We are very fortunate that she had the opportunity to shape not only the craft movement, but also the performing arts as Vice President of Sangeet Natak Akademi, which she virtually organised with Nirmala Joshi as administrative support. Young Kapila Vatsayan, erudite, dynamic and passionate, worked with her as well.  When I think of her, I think of a multi-faceted person, whose contribution made our life so much richer.

She enriched us by her work in all the creative fields, and many institutions were linked to her.  Besides Sangeet Natak Akademi, she set up Bharatiya Natya Sangh through which she nurtured the theatre movement throughout the country.  The National School of Drama is rooted in its beginnings as Asian Theatre Institute, which Kamaladeviji started with UNESCO funding. The nurturing of theatre crafts and folk theatre was her contribution.  Through her work in the All India Women’s Conference, she was able to make a tremendous impact on the status of women.  It was in 1930 that she proposed the setting up of a Home Science Institute for Women, and Lady Irwin College emerged out of that.  In 1944, Kamaladevi addressed the women very sharply: she pointed out, “The women’s movement … is not a war of the sexes … it needs to be directed against faulty social institutions”: an approach that the feminist movement in the west came to understand only in the last decade of the previous century. Kamaladevi involved all her friends in her work with crafts.  Rukmani Devi Arundale began with Kamaladevi’s help to revive traditional silk saris in Kanchipuram, and she gave space in Kalakshetra to start the Vegetable Dye Research Centre. Durgabai Deshmukh set up 4 regional Craft Teachers Institutes, which created a cadre of craft teachers.  The Central Social Welfare Board began the socio-economic programme for women in 1956, much before International Organisations set up their Income Generating Programme.  These centres are still running and have contributed considerably towards upgrading skills and creating a strong base for local craft skills.

I had the good fortune to work closely with her and was her companion on many of her journeys. Each journey was a voyage of discovery and an education in the fullest sense.  We visited rural Bengal and saw Jatra performances, we saw the rod puppets at Murshidabad, Sahi Jatra at Puri, the Nautanki at Dhanbad and Meerut and much much more in our travels across the country.  Every day, every week, every month was taken as an emergency.  Yet it was a joyful journey of learning, of giving and receiving.

Kamaladevi lived very simply and was at home in a simple mud hut or a palace.  She enjoyed traditional forms of expression wherever she went, whether it was war torn China, sophisticated Japan, the Maghreb, Ethiopia, in the land of Queen Bathsheba, Scandinavia or among the multi-millionaires of USA.  She absorbed the beauty in everyday life, in the clothes that people wore, in the objects used in their homes, that which enriched their lives.  People were drawn to her like a magnet.  It was a joy to see her laughing at their jokes and drinking in their songs and stories.  Her contribution towards seeking out and nurturing our roots is remarkable.  Today we take it for granted that we can easily hear Dhrupad, Khyal, Thumri from the best musicians.  We see the finest dancers and select excellent teachers for our children; unlike in the late 30s when my father in Lahore was accused of losing his mind for making singing and dancing girls of his daughters.  Today we can walk into a shop and buy a traditional Kanjeevram, Gadwal, Poochampalli, Paithani, Jamdani, Tanchoi- you name it: 40 years ago it was not possible. We have come a long way and we owe it to Kamaladevi.

Her contribution towards creating awareness of the importance of crafts was not confined only to India, but embraced the world.  It was she who built the World Crafts Council.  She persuaded the heiress Beatrice Webb to finance the setting up of the World Crafts Council.  Through Kamaladevi’s indefatigable energy and her multiple international contacts, the Council became an international network.  Crafts persons were able to meet and share experiences, exchange ideas and learn from each other.  Today in many parts of the developing world, the Crafts Councils are the only organisations that spearhead the movement to nurture and develop craft traditions. The All India Handicrafts Board became operational in 1954, when the first market survey was conducted and the planned activities could be taken up. In less than 5 years, the work of AIHB became known internationally.  People from all over the developing world, Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Israel, many newly liberated African countries and even from Mexico, came to study our programmes.

Today we have a private sector that we can be proud of; Kamaladevi inspired many NGOs who are doing excellent work.  In the private sector, there are people like Ritu Kumar who were encouraged in their initial efforts by Kamaladevi.  Today, despite the limitations and lack of support, handicrafts and handlooms are the biggest employer, after agriculture.  Even today however, no clear picture is available of the employment: the figures for the handloom sector alone range from 12 million to 36 million.  We know that only 7 percent of the work force is in the formal sector and the rest in the non-formal sector, the largest being those involved in the Cottage Industry Sector.  This has been possible because of the pioneering work carried out by Kamaladevi and the structures that she built to support this work.

One could go on talking of her forever.  I would however like to end by talking of her as a person.  People were in such awe of her and many felt that she was lacking in humour. This was not true.  She was of course a very private person, and no one, but no one could fathom her loneliness and the anguish in her heart.  But despite everything, she had a fantastic sense of humour.  She was a superb raconteur and a devastating mimic. I have spent many an hour laughing with her, listening to her stories.  When she wanted to be charming, she could do so in a most artful manner and nobody could resist responding positively if she asked for something. It is because of this that right until her very last days she was able to get support for many an institution and help many people to realize their dreams. Today we live a life that is rich in many aspects, because of the pioneering work that was carried out by Kamaladeviji.

Jasleen Dhamija


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