Kamaladevi Chattopdhyay, a fellow Mangalorean, who made us proud: Recollections of a communicator

New Delhi : I was waiting at the bus stop in South Avenue in 1956, waiting for a bus to take me to Civil Lines. I had come to visit my cousin in South Avenue and was waiting for a bus to go back to Civil Lines where I was staying with my uncle. An elderly man at the bus stand said hello to me and asked me from which part of the country I was from. I told him that I was from Madras.

He got angry and told me that I should not make fun of old people and that I did not look like a Madrasi. I replied to him that I did not know him and had no intention to be rude to him. I added that I was from Mangalore which was a part of the Madras Presidency.

Suddenly, his expression changed. He burst out “I married a girl from Mangalore”, and after repeating it a few times, he told me that he believed me now and that he had married Kamaladevi from Mangalore and that his name was Harindranath Chattopadhyay. He used to stay in an apartment in South Avenue.

As young post-graduates, we knew him as the brother of Sarojini Naidu and the husband of Kamaladevi, who had played an important role in the freedom movement.

Incidentally, I had done my post graduation from Bombay and I had heard from my grandfather’s brother Kudpi Bhujanga Rao’s daughter Shashikala that he used to be the host of Kamaladevi when she visited Bombay in the forties.

Kamaladevi was a Saraswat Brahmin. Married at the age of 14, she became a mother, and became a widow at the age of 16. In her student days, she had the opportunity of meeting Gopalakrishna Gokhale, Ranade and Annie Beasant. With her second husband, Harindranath Chattopadhyay, whom she married in 1920, she performed in dramas across India and even starred in two silent films.

As a post graduate student of political science from Bombay University, I learnt that with Harindranath she went to London to attend a post graduate course in sociology. On return, she joined the Congress Seva Dal. She contested for a seat in the Madras Provincial Assembly in 1926, but lost by around 100 votes.

Kamaladevi became the president of the Congress Socialist Party in 1936 and worked alongside Jayaprakash Narayan , Ram Manohar Lohia and Minoo Masani. She was imprisoned.

After Independence, Kamaladevi did not take up any political assignment, which was offered to her like that of a Governor or Ambassador. She was keen on promoting cottage industries and improve the condition of the villagers of India. She established the National School of Drama (NSD) and played an active role in the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. She also took an active role in promoting the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

She was the recipient of the Magasaysay award and many other awards. I had the opportunity of being invited by her when she received the Padma Vibhushan. She gave me a smile when I mentioned that I was from Mangalore.

As far as Harindranath Chattopadhyay is concerned, she had a mutually agreed divorce with him before she entered politics. We remember the role he played in Bawarchi, the hero of the movie being Rajesh Khanna.

The exhibition on Kamaladevi Chattopdhyay at the India International Centre will be open till April 26. (ANI)