Along with an illustration depicting a colourful jamboree of professions and cultural objects – much like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s lifetime – Google writes, “Today, we celebrate Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: freedom fighter, art enthusiast, social activist, actor, youth leader, and forward-thinking women’s movement organiser (and all in one lifetime!).”
Today’s Google Doodle, created by Finland-based Desi artist Parvati Pillai, is an ode to the woman who rallied for Indian women as well indigenous art forms, on the occasion of what would have been her 115th birthday.
Pictured in this doodle is Kamaladevi flanked by all the cultural symbols and practises she was determined to perpetuate - including the bhangra, the sitar, the sarangi, Karthak dance, Chhau dance, embroidery, basket weaving, and Kathaputli, according to Google.
Born in Mangalore, Kamaladevi was passionate about the Swadeshi Nationalist movement, having been raised by hyper-educated intellectuals who counted Mahadev Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and women leaders like Ramabai Ranade, and Annie Besant as their company.
Her father died when she was only seven, leaving no will behind, thus stripping them off the rights to their ancestral property, for it was inherited by his step-son by default, in accordance with the property laws of that time. Her mother stayed obstinate and raised all her children as a single mother – which is something that was instrumental in shaping Kamaladevi’s worldview.
Upon being married at 14 and widowed soon later, at 16, Kamaladevi went on to marry Harindranath Chattopadhyay, who happened to be Sarojini Naidu’s brother – with whom, she bonded over their shared love for the arts. This was revolutionary at the time, for widow remarriage was frowned upon. The couple moved to London, where Kamaladevi procured a degree in sociology, but she moved back soon after to support Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. She joined Seva Dal, run by Gandhi, for social welfare, and came to head the women’s wing there – in charge of creating “sevikas” or female volunteers. Upon meeting suffragette Margaret Cousins, she set up the All-India Women’s Conference, an organisation established to make legislative reforms. In her own lifetime, she strove to bring about social reforms and championed the cause of women’s education – by setting up a string of women-only women-run educational institutions, like the Irwin College for Home Sciences.
She is widely credited for convincing Mahatma Gandhi to invite women to march with him in the Indian Independence Movement. She was part of the seven-member team that led the Salt Satyagraha movement.
As rightly pointed out by Google, she had a “career of firsts.” For starters – she became the first Indian woman to be arrested for selling contraband salt at the Bombay Stock Exchange and spent almost a year behind bars. She even travelled the world to rally support for the Indian Independence struggle, in the aftermath of World War II.
After India attained independence, she shifted her focus to homegrown art forms and dedicated her career to keeping alive and relevant the lifeblood of Indian artisans in the face of rapid industrialisation.
“She is also credited for reinvigorating the culture of Indian handicrafts, handlooms, and theatre, and for using cooperative grassroots movements to pave the way for a higher socioeconomic standard for Indian women around the country,” states Google.
She also became “the first woman to run for Legislative office to setting up some of the first national institutions to archive, protect, and promote Indian dance, drama, art, puppetry, music, and handicrafts. She was also one of the few women of her time to propose that women’s rights, religious freedoms, environmental justice, political independence, and civil rights are all interrelated movements.”
In her lifetime, she won many prestigious awards, including the Padmabhushan, the Padma Vibhushan, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, amongst many others.
Happy 115th birthday, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay!