Meet Kamaladevi Chattopadhya, freedom fighter, politician, defender of women’s rights, guardian of the arts, first of her name, maybe… or just Kam-Chat, as she would probably be called these days.
Kamala was born in 1903 in Mangalore, India, at a time when her country was properly in the cold, clammy hands of England. Admittedly, her family wasn’t the poorest, but we’d all agree that growing up as a woman in a society split by cast and dominated by men, who in turn were all dominated by greedy white dudes from the other side of the planet, would be a pretty tough deal.
On top of this super cheerful setting, Kamala lost her sister and father when she was only seven. Her father, like an idiot, had not made a will before his death so all his wealth and property went to some estranged stepson instead of Kamala and her mother. Nice going, Dad!
Finding themselves homeless, Kamala and her mom moved in with her uncle. This turned out to be a pretty great thing for Kamala, as her uncle was a notable social reformer. In other words, he was trying to stir shit up and make the country a better place for his people.
Of course, a renowned agitator like himself always had many like-minded friends over at his house to discuss the philosophy and politics of shit stirring. So Kamala got to grow up in a place where conversations about how to change the world for the better were commonplace. Actually nice going, uncle!
Married at 14
But let’s not forget the rosy place women were in at that time. So, according to custom, Kamala – at the ripe old age of 14 – married an upstanding man named Krishna Rao. I couldn’t find out how old Krishna was at the time, but he couldn’t have been the youngest spring chicken because he managed to die only two years later, making Kamala a widow at 16. (Krishna, if you were actually young and died under tragic circumstances, I do apologise).
Being a widow in India at the time basically meant you were no longer a person. Which is a fantastic thing to not be when you’re 16, or any age for that matter. So her newly gained widow status would have forbidden Kamala from continuing her education, but she basically said ‘screw this’ and moved to Chennai to complete her high school degree. That’s right, high school!
Harin the Artist
At school, she made friends with a bunch of cool chicks, one of which introduced Kamala to her brother Harin – poet, playwright, actor. Swoon!
Their mutual love of the arts brought them together and they got married when Kamala was 20, despite the fact that she was still, you know, not a person.
Together with Harin the Artist, Kamala left for London to study Sociology. Now, that’s a huge deal considering her status as a disinherited girl, a woman, and a window.
India – London – India
Studying in London is a mind-opening experience, even these days. But while Kamala was making the most out of London, she learned about the new wave of nonviolent resistance against the British in India led by one of the biggest superheroes of all time, Mahatma Gandhi. You know, the guy in the white robes who led India to independence by telling the British ‘you can beat us as much as you want but we’re done doing what you say’ (paraphrasing a bit here)
Fun fact, his name was actually Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Mahatma is an honorary name, meaning Great Soul. Note this down, it’s won me many bets!
So when Kamala heard about this kick-ass non-ass-kicking revolution, she immediately packed her bags and went home to run with Gandhi and his gang.
“Women had no rights”
Once back in India she quickly found her place in the revolution in multiple organisations, in charge of empowering the women of India. In her memoirs, Kamala remembers realising that ‘women had no rights’. As in, NO rights. Whatsoever. Basically, you were your father’s daughter until you were your husband’s wife until you were your children’s mother and then your husband’s grieving widow.
So there was a lot of work to be done, but Kamala was right on top of it and went on to found a college for women in Delhi, the first of its kind.
During this time, Kamala also met another badass bitch called Margaret Cousins. Margaret had founded the All India Women’s Conference, literally the first official organisation in India which gave a shit about women, and Kamala became its Organising Secretary. During this time she got to travel through several European countries where she was inspired by similar emerging community programs. By the way, being a woman in Europe at the time wasn’t all that hot either, but better than what Kamala was facing in India.
Fighting the British with Salt
Back in India, already being in charge of fixing the situation for all women (no stress, right?), she also took on the role as one of the seven team leaders of Gandhi’s Salt March.
To set the scene, the British had told the people of India that they no longer had the right to collect their own salt, as they had been doing forever. Instead, they could pay the British huge taxes for doing so. Awesome deal! If people did try to collect sea salt themselves the British would use (a lot of) force to stop it.
In protest, Gandhi and his gang started marching to the shores to collect their own salt, without paying the taxes of course. 78 people began the march, which would end up lasting 24 days. By the end, the march inspired millions of people all over India to engage in acts of civil disobedience against the British, effectively sending out the message that they were done with this shit.
Kamala herself went to the Bombay Stock Exchange to sell packets of contraband salt for which she got arrested and spent about a year in prison. She was one of 80,000 people jailed as a result of the Salt March movement. But at that point, the Indian independence movement had already gained so much momentum that it was basically unstoppable.
Power through Art
After India’s Independence in 1947, the Independence she fought so hard for, things changed for Kamala. We don’t really know why, but probably because the society she saw emerging was not the society she had envisioned. We do know that she kept up the fight for women’s empowerment.
When Pakistan and India split (nasty bit of history; look it up!), there were so many refugees looking for a safe place to just, you know, live, that it would make the current refugee debate in many countries seem utterly pathetic.
Our girl Kamala herself saw the potential of the displaced people coming over, but even then people weren’t so keen on having them (like nothing has changed in over 60 years). So she spoke to her old buddy Gandhi and a couple of other influential folks she knew and eventually, after much arguing with the men (including Gandhi even), she set up a settlement (township) for 50,000 refugees!
Kamala’s job was to set people up with new homes and livelihoods. That was when she realised that the best way at the time to help women was to revive the skills of Indian craftsmanship that had been deteriorating under British rule.
To this day in India, her advocacy for the Indian handicrafts is what she is most remembered for. But let’s also not forget the 16-year-old non-person who went out into the world to pursue her education and came back a fighter, ready to stand up for what she believed and continued to kick ass for the women of India.