The Forgotten Indian Handicrafts Revivalist: Remembering Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Nestled in the picturesque state of Andhra Pradesh lie two remarkable towns: Srikalahasti, a humble pilgrimage hub, and Masulipatnam, a bustling port city. But these places hold more than meets the eye. They harbour a hidden gem known as Kalamkari, an ancient textile art that brings handpainted fabrics to life through resist-dyeing. 

Initially blossomed in the environs of the temple, these fabrics mainly existed as temple cloths and temple backdrops depicting the gaiety of Hindu mythology. What sets Kalamkari apart is the exquisite craftsmanship infused with soulful lines and the use of natural dyes, along with indigenous tools. During the 16th century, Kalamkari's allure reached its pinnacle as the Deccan Sultanate of Golconda thrived, fostering a vibrant export trade to Persia, Turkey, China, Thailand, Indonesia, and even the European markets of the British, Portuguese, and Dutch. This cosmopolitan era saw the fusion of Hindu, Islamic, and European influences, resulting in remarkable handpainted and block-painted designs that captivated hearts across continents. 

However, the winds of change blew with the advent of the 18th century, as the European cotton industry began to thrive. The Kalamkari chintz industry, which had once flourished, faced its demise. The colonial era cast a shadow on the local artists, with dwindling patronage and fierce competition from thriving European markets. Struggling to sustain their livelihoods, these artisans reluctantly sacrificed their creativity and traditionalism, bending to the whims of buyers. Consequently, many skilled craftsmen perished, taking with them the cherished trade secrets of this traditional handicraft.

Yet, a glimmer of hope emerged from the shadows of adversity in 1952. A beacon of revival shone upon not only the Kalamkari of Masulipatnam and Srikalahasti but also all traditional and folk arts across the vast tapestry of India. This renaissance was orchestrated by the visionary Indian social reformer Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay through her founding organization, the All India Handicrafts Board. 


Who was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay? 

 

The Forgotten Indian Handicrafts Revivalist: Remembering Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

 

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a remarkable but often overlooked figure in the Indian freedom struggle, stood among the courageous women who paved the way for independence. Her life was a testament to her independent spirit, intellectual prowess, and unwavering dedication to her principles. During the Indian freedom struggle, she fearlessly faced imprisonment and fervently advocated for women's rights. Kamaladevi was multifaceted, embodying the roles of a crafts revivalist, feminist, social activist, freedom fighter, and even an actor. Each facet reflects a different aspect of her diverse and extraordinary personality. For her contribution to reviving the diminishing Indian handicrafts industry, she is affectionately remembered as Hathkargha Maa or the Handicrafts Mother of India. 


From Freedom Fighter to Hathkargha Maa

Following India's independence, the traditional and folk arts of the country suffered a significant decline, impacted by the unstable economic and political climate. The partition-induced violence resulted in the displacement of craftspeople, leaving them as refugees and torn away from their homes and livelihoods. During this time, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay had grown increasingly concerned about the potential impact of Nehru's vision of industrialized mass production, heavily influenced by Western methods, on traditional artisans, particularly the women working in unorganized sectors. Recognizing the intrinsic value of home-based arts and crafts and the often overlooked contributions of women's domestic labour, Kamaladevi emphasized the importance of integrating these aspects into policy and law-making processes. She firmly believed that working with one's hands had the power to decentralize socio-economic structures from industry-centric states and foster a plural cultural environment. 

The government soon acknowledged the urgency to protect India's cultural heritage and sustain skilled artisans. Thus, they set up the Central Cottage Industries Emporium in 1952, five years after independence. But this initiative served a dual purpose: cultural preservation and capitalist endeavours. It aimed to safeguard the artisans, the second-largest demographic group after agriculturists, by providing sustainable livelihoods and boosting the export of handicrafts. However, it continuously suffered losses and was handed over to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. 

 

The Forgotten Indian Handicrafts Revivalist: Remembering Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
Image Source: Delhi Crafts Council

 

Soon, the government-run department store of handicrafts transformed into a cultural movement. And driving this cultural revival bandwagon was Kamaladevi, who committed herself to the revival of declining handicrafts. She understood that their growth was crucial for India's economic prosperity and the creation of meaningful employment opportunities. When Gandhi picked the charkha, or spinning wheel, as his nonviolent weapon, he did not understand what it truly entailed or how to revive the struggling cottage industries of handicrafts. This is where Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay stepped in. She mobilized extensive networks of home weavers, igniting the Swadeshi movement and enabling the widespread adoption of domestically produced textiles instead of imported goods.

 

The Forgotten Indian Handicrafts Revivalist: Remembering Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
Image Source: Delhi Crafts Council

 

Her tireless efforts resulted in the renaissance of several traditional textiles and art like the Srikalahasti Kalamkari, Poochampalli Ikat, Jaipur Blue Pottery, Nandra Buti in Indigo, Toda Embroidery, Stone Sculpture of Mahabalipuram and many more. She also founded the Crafts Council of India and the All India Handicrafts Board to preserve the rich history of Indian crafts. 


The Renaissance of Kalamkari 

In 1956, Kamaladevi and her dedicated team embarked on a journey to Andhra Pradesh to persuade the last surviving master of Kalamkari art, Jonnalagadda Lakshamajah, to impart his invaluable knowledge to a new generation of students. Their mission was clear: to revive the fading craft and ensure its continuity. In their initiative to revive the art, they established training courses and schools for Kalamkari workers, tapping into the expertise of the few remaining artisans. The collaborative efforts of the Srikalahasti Kalamkari Kala Karula Sangham, Dastkar Andhra, and the Crafts Council of India played a significant role in this endeavour, bringing forth innovation and revitalization. They introduced a more vibrant colour palette and crafted fresh narratives that resonated with contemporary times, breathing new life into the ancient art form.

 

Jonnalagadda Lakshamajah
Image Source: The Hindu

The Legacy of Kamaladevi

 

The Forgotten Indian Handicrafts Revivalist: Remembering Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
Artist Parvati Pillai's Doodle pays tribute to Rukmini Devi Chattopadhyay, surrounded by the cultural treasures she championed.

 

Throughout her lifetime, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay took the helm of numerous art organizations, spearheading progressive movements far ahead of their time in Indian law, arts, and the freedom struggle. Her visionary leadership was evident in initiatives such as establishing the Indian National Theatre in 1944, which paved the way for the renowned National School of Drama we know today. Kamaladevi's unwavering belief in the power of handicrafts and her deep appreciation for dance, drama, theatre, music, and puppetry drove her to establish various institutions that played pivotal roles in shaping India's cultural journey post-Independence.

Her enduring legacy has left an indelible mark, evident in the widespread awareness and accessibility of craft products throughout the country today. She was a true revivalist, yet sadly, her invaluable contributions remain largely overlooked in the history of modern India.



References:

  1. Thakur, Richa. “Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: The Feminist Who Revived Indian Handicrafts” Feminism in India, July 2021, https://feminisminindia.com/2017/03/21/kamaladevi-chattopadhyay-essay/
  2. Sharma, Komal. “Craft in India: The Cottage Emporium.” Maharam, www.maharam.com/stories/sharma_craft-in-india-the-cottage-emporium
  3. Abraham, David. “The Revivalist Woman Behind All India Handicrafts Board and Central Cottage Industries Emporia.” India Today, 16 Sept. 2017, www.indiatoday.in/magazine/news-makers/story/20170925-post-independence-kamaladevi-chattopadhyay-handicrafts-dance-drama-theatre-1044571-2017-09-16.
  4. Jain, Aastha and Sakshi Mundada. “Journey of Kalamkari : From a storytelling art to a global textile” Qalam – Textiel Factorij. https://textielfactorij.org/qalam/

References

2 comments

  • Smita: September 13, 2023
    Author image

    Excellent article on such a visionary and incredible lady. Great work team.

  • viren shahu: September 06, 2023
    Author image

    By reading this comment learn a lot about kamladevi such a great artist she was

Leave a comment

MEDIA COVERAGE