Always a world citizen: on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s writings

Prime Minister Morarji Desi presenting the National UNESCO Award for 1977 to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay for rendering distinguished services to the cause of promotion of the objects and activities of UNESCO in India, in New Delhi on December 18, 1977. Photos: The Hindu Archives/Staff   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives/Staff

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay has long been recognised in India as the person chiefly responsible, after Independence, for the revival of the country’s variegated crafts traditions and for drawing critical attention to ‘tribal art’. She is generally viewed as an authority on Indian handicrafts, but Chattopadhyay played no less a role in nurturing craftspersons and shaping the cultural institutions that in independent India would be charged with promoting dance, drama, theatre crafts, music, puppetry, pottery and textiles.

However, as Chattopadhyay’s Inner Recesses Outer Spaces: Memoirs makes clear, she was also a principal figure in the nationalist movement, destined for high office following Independence. Though she had enormous respect for Gandhi, she also displayed, whenever the occasion demanded, a spirit of defiance to his pronouncements. Chattopadhyay was one of the founders of the Congress Socialist Party but in the aftermath of Partition, she felt disillusioned, and disavowed the political life. She was one of the earliest proponents of women’s rights in India, even as she anticipated some of the critiques that are now familiar of ‘white feminism’, just as she zeroed in on the necessity of arguing for what we may call a feminism on the ground.

Forging networks

I would add another critical dimension to Chattopadhyay’s life. Though the term ‘Global South’ is nowhere to be found in her writings, it is incipient in her work. Chattopadhyay’s international travels commenced from around the late 1920s. She attended the International Alliance of Women in Berlin in 1929, only to become aware of how race and national boundaries might become obstacles to the solidarity of women. At the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom meeting at Prague, she was brought to an awareness of the work of Jane Addams and the Hull House. At the International Session of the League against Imperialism in Frankfurt, she found a platform to discuss the common problems of subjugated people.


All of this transpired within the space of less than a year; yet Chattopadhyay continued to forge such networks over the course of three decades, facilitating India’s emergence as one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement and the crafting of the Bandung Declaration of 1955 which was a clarion call for a fundamental reordering of the world order. However, if her invisible hand can be discerned in India’s attempts to create a third space in the political global arena when the Cold War was pushing every country to declare its loyalty to either camp, it was her abiding interest in creating solidarity among the colonised people which makes her an especially inspirational figure.

One of the most deleterious consequences of colonialism was that, among colonised people, even the memories of their cultural, economic, and social exchanges with each other were eviscerated over a period of time. The West became the reference point for all intellectual exchanges; today, the situation remains substantially unaltered. The educated among Asians, Africans and the Arabs know something of their own culture and of the West but almost nothing of each other.

Conviction in the dignity of all people

Chattopadhyay’s writings on Asia, Africa and the Global South in the 1940s point to different facets of her interest in the people of Asia and Africa and their histories. ‘The Struggle of Viet Nam against French Imperialism’ (1947, Modern Review) shows her grasp over the history of colonialism in Vietnam. Chattopadhyay was never seduced by the idea that the European Left stood for progressive policies with respect to the question of empire, and her piece is clear in its critique of the failure of the Left in France to ally itself with Vietnamese nationalists agitating for independence. But she was equally unsparing towards the Japanese. ‘The Awakening of Asia’ (1947, At the Crossroads) warns against Japan’s attempts to position itself as the vanguard of pan-Asianism.


Chattopadhyay’s work throughout offers a display of her wit, panache, and insurgent spirit. In the three decades following Independence, she continued not only to represent India as an emissary but also offered a prescient articulation of the idea of the Global South. Her book, In War-torn China (1942), relays her experience of China as it struggled against Japanese aggression. I suspect that had she been alive today, she would have been sensitive to the achievements of Chinese civilisation and understood the motive force of humiliation in history, yet she would have been critical of the self-aggrandisement that has characterised Chinese conduct in Asia and Africa. Chattopadhyay seems to be one of those rare persons of whom one can use the designation ‘world citizen’ without having to sneer. It is her unshakeable conviction in the dignity of all people that impresses the most.

Vinay Lal is Professor of History at UCLA

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 20, 2021 9:18:37 AM |

Next Story