IN 1939, at the age of 36, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay began a journey that took her around the world. Scheduled to attend a conference about women’s rights in Denmark, she travelled right into the beginning of the Second World War, and took nearly two years to return to India. She spent about 18 months of this period in the United States and in Canada, raising support for India’s nationalist movement. “Woman Tells India’s Hopes,” ran a glowing Los Angeles Times headline from 1940, which seems to be typical of the coverage. She travelled the length and breadth of the United States, speaking and writing for American publications, making friends with the country’s feminists and African-American civil rights activists.
“You are fighting the patriarchy,” she told her audiences in the US; “we are fighting imperialism.” She tried to show them how the two were related, and how wrong feminists from this global north were to marginalise or ignore critiques of the imperial mode. Many of the things she said were forgotten for the better part of the century that followed, but her ideas are coming around again.
I had no idea about any of this when I landed in the United States in 1958. I was 25 years old, knew nothing of Kamaladevi, and espoused no particular ideology. Excitingly for me, I had been invited to a leadership seminar at Harvard, and from there, I set out for the American South, which I wished to see very much, and to learn more about the civil rights movement. Although I kept no diary of my time and took no photographs, my visits to Georgia and South Carolina are etched in my mind. There, and in other parts of the South, I met activists, spoke about Gandhi and India, and made contact with people with whom I was put in touch by my African-American acquaintances in Delhi. These people arranged a dinner for me to which they, incredibly to me, invited Rosa Parks. She told me her story and invited me to meet and listen to others with whom she worked. When I went back up to New York, I had the good fortune of walking with activists of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on a march in Harlem. It was only a very long time later that I discovered that Kamaladevi had made this journey 20 years before me. My heart skipped a beat. I wish I had known, I berated myself; I wish I had been able to talk to her about this once I came to know her.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was a national icon long before I met her—a leader of India’s independence movement, a spirited activist and a sophisticated political thinker, an artiste and a patron of the arts, doyenne of the crafts movements, and one of the most important figures in moulding our new country’s approach to culture. She was also fundamental to the women’s movement that grew alongside the nationalist parties’ struggle for independence. She was part of an extraordinary generation who envisioned women as equal participants in the struggle to free India and Indian society, put themselves at the forefront of the fight, went to prison for their beliefs, and worked tirelessly to spread their message.
Devaki Jain is a researcher in gender studies and a feminist writer.