Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya: A Feminist Interrupted

Google celebrated 115th b’day of Kamaladevi last year by emphasising on her identity as a cultural nationalist.

In this piece we look at the life and times of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, one of the towering figures of Indian national movement for independence as well as Indian women’s movement by focussing on one of the works edited by her called “The Awakening of Indian Women”. She has also written two essays in the book. But this is not just any other book review. It looks at this work by situating it within her life, work and causes that she espoused.

Her struggle that comes across is one that of upholding feminism and gender question, a particularist concern as her central focus amidst universalist notions of nation and class. The two latter categories often interrupted her gender-oriented struggles and thought.

The Awakening of Indian Women-A Situated Review

‘The Awakening of Indian Women’ is very provocative title indeed. One is drawn towards it with an inquisitiveness as to how a book, written in 1939, deals with the issues of Indian women in a manner suggestive of an “awakening”. Although the title is self explanatory, the question remains -What is it that Kamaladevi wanted for Indian women to be awakened to?

If one reads Reena Nanda’s biography on Kamaladevi, one would find indications to Kamaladevi’s tendency of being consistently inconsistent towards various ideological positions throughout various phases of her political life, ranging from a cultural nationalist to a Gandhian socialist, a Marxist nationalist, a radical socialist and also a democrat. However, with regards to this text the point of enquiry is the scope of women’s question in all these positions in not only the author’s political life but also her scholarship.

This book has been published by the Everyman’s Press in Madras in 1939. It contains two essays by Kamaladevi and one each by five other women- Sakuntala Thampi, Margaret E. Cousins, Maharani Indirabai Holkar of Indore, Shyam Kumari Nehru and Jayashriben Raiji. These were her fellow journeywomen in the field of nationalist and feminist causes.

Before we embark upon problematising the subject of this book, we must establish what the text itself proposes as its aim. The publisher’s note in the beginning of the text reads:

This book has been specially compiled for men and women in the continent of Europe and the United States who may require information on the hopes, aims and ambitions of the women of India. In this compilation, Srimati Kamaladevi Chattopadhyayya very naturally takes up a major part, for delineating the characteristics of the Women’s Movement in India, while a representative group of eminent women write about the allied verities of women’s sphere- of art and life and of the part that women played in the throes of the evolution of a nation.

What is interesting in this note is that right from the outset the book publishers claim that the book has been specially compiled for men and women in the continent of Europe and United States who may require information on the hopes, aims and ambitions of the women of India. This leads one to think that whether the book is an awakening of Indian women or, awakening of the west to these ‘awakened’ women.

The claim of having delineated the characteristics of the Women’s movement in India as well as allied verities of women’s sphere is also a tall one, one which we will venture into introspecting.

The very first essay by Kamaladevi titled ‘Women’s Movement in India’ sets out to delineate the characteristics of India’s women’s movement as it has progressed. She begins with eulogising the modern ideas of science and reason while persecuting hypocrisy and blind beliefs. Sex and gender begin to find a mention in terms of the role played in revolts and social struggle. She heavily relies on economic determinism as an argument as she writes ‘The realization of this [class struggle] is indispensable for a clear understanding of any social movement, particularly the women’s movement, which though apparently based on sex, has its real roots in the economic basis of society…’. She also adds ‘It is class that determines the fate of women, not sex’. The initial site of the subjugation of women by men remains unexplained as in case of many Marxist scholars who privilege class dominance over gender discrimination.

In fact she herself defeats her opening argument, in one of the ensuing passages where she writes ‘No class is really free from the social prejudice against women and the feeling that they are inferior. Therefore, while the toiling masses are exploited as a class by the upper class, women in their turn, even within that class, are oppressed and exploited by men’.

In one of the statements where she says ‘Wherever women have been economically dependent, morality has taken on a masculine cast’, does she imply that economically independent women do not encounter these imposed considerations of morality? Her own encounters within Congress and more widely in her political and public life had been riddled with many moral diktats especially in her disagreements with Gandhi.

In the ensuing subsections of the essay she takes on particular issues of female empowerment in India. These include enfranchisement of women, education and child marriage, purdah and prostitution, women workers’ conditions, labour and motherhood. The constant source of disappointment is that there is no mention whatsoever of the customary, religious and cultural impediments posed against women in Indian society.

The second essay titled ‘Imperialism and Class Struggle’ strangely finds itself situated in this book. Neither does it address any gender question, nor does it delve into a subjective interpretation of how imperialism translates into female exploitation to which, though unsatisfactory, at least an attempt was made in the first essay. This chapter brings out the aforementioned consistent inconsistencies in Kamaladevi’s ideological positions which sacrifices at least in this case the central argument of this book- a certain awakening of Indian women.

Margaret E. Cousins, a very close friend of Kamaladevi and one of the champions of feminist cause in India remains true to the theme of the book but her arguments are nothing enlightening or novel in any sense. Eulogies of Vedic times as a glorious past for Indian women, takes up a position much like H.T. Colebrooke in an Orientalist manner. The very basis of exploitation in such religious scriptures has not been examined and the basic site of religious oppression of women remains unanswered. The many accomplishments of All India Women’s Conference and Congress become the latter part of the essay which does not necessarily problematize conditions of common women of India in any way. A celebratory portrayal of the elite leadership in women in the essay, in no way compensates for various shortcomings in the essay in highlighting the issues of women in India.

Shakuntala Thampi’s essay must have been very close to the cultural nationalist cause that Kamaladevi had espoused throughout her life. However, it is ironical that Shakuntala in her veneration of Indian crafts goes on to describe gold jewellery and artefacts owned by people like Maharajah of Baroda, while Kamaladevi sets out in her essays to castigate the princely estates for championing the British imperialist designs. The essay remains a misfit in this book in terms of the gender question.

The short sketch of Maharani Shree Jijabai Bhonsale reiterates the age-old practice of glorifying Indian women in their traditional roles of mothers and family care givers. Written by H.H. Maharani Indirabai Holkar of Indore, the essay not only celebrates Indian women as the nurturers and carriers of traditions and customs but also eulogises the so-called gloriousness of the Hindu age of Maratha rule. The essay is ridden with communal tones and the final line of the essay ‘With God’s blessings may such great mothers adorn our Mother India’, it forces the issue much too strongly.

The next essay titled “Women’s Disabilities in Law” by Shyam Kumari has been written strongly criticizing the provisions of Indian Law during the British rule especially its access to Indian women and vice-versa.

“Indian Indigenous Industries” by Jayashriben Raiji, another member of the CSP discusses the plight of a fast extinguishing variety of Indian cottage and small scale industries at the hands of the highly mechanized British version of heavy industries. The essay makes some references to the Indian Village Industries Association and other such issues. However, the only mention of any gender issue is summed up in one line which reads ‘Our Indian women are well known for their spirit of sacrifice is too great for the freedom of our motherland’.

So right from the benefits of socialism, to eulogising the role of Indian motherhood to the great sacrificial trait and to the glories of an Indian imperialist past in terms of precious artefacts, this text has it all and yet not much on what is that, which Indian women have awakened to or are in the process of the same. The book falls short on many counts but the biggest shortcoming is that it limits itself to presenting a picture of Indian women to the western world as the publisher’s note also reads out as its central aim. There may not be any problem with taking a universalist stance at the gender question as Sarojini Naidu and other women political activists took back then, but the text makes no effort to theorize or even problematize the existing problems of Indian women in relation to religious dogmas, customs, gender specific exploitation etc.

Kamaladevi’s Life and Times

The text in entirety is nowhere a reflection of Kamaladevi’s political career which if anything is one of the strongest examples of championing of the gender cause in all fields of Indian social and political life. Right from the beginning of her life she was introduced to, on the one hand problems of child marriage, widowhood etc. and on the other hand influences of thinkers like Annie Beasant, Ramabai Ranade and Pandita Ramabai.

If one were to chart her political progress one would discern the following major phases in her life.

Her stand as a cultural nationalist was inspired by the ideas of people like Beasant whose ideal aim was a rejuvenation of the glorious Indian cultural past. However, it would be wrong to say that she adopted this ideology lock, stock and barrel. Kamaladevi was always interested in the protection and preservation of the Indian cultural heritage, not so much in terms of its customary practices (which she strongly opposed at many times) but rather in the sense of its ancient art and handicrafts right at the small scale and cottage industry level. This also reflects a socialist bias in her stance.

The next phase was the most reflective of her fluctuations in an ideological sense. Living through a tumultuous marriage with Harindranath Chattopadhyayya and his family, she constantly espoused the Gandhian socialist cause while making radical Marxist appeals (especially owing to her contact with her brother in law- Virendranath in London). Her organization Seva Dal remained a thorn in the eyes of Sarojini Naidu for a long time due to the aggressiveness of the organization. The same reason often pitted her against Gandhi who in contrast to her, idealised women of calm demeanour and non-adventurous spirit.

Due to continuing tiffs with Congress and Gandhi in particular, Kamaladevi began to be disillusioned with their politics, especially regarding the issue of Subhash Chandra Bose’s election as the Congress president in 1939. This was the time when she had entered a more radicalist phase both in terms of socialism and nationalism. Her membership in Congress Socialist Party, provided her with the platform to constantly disagree with Congress. However still she did not admit at any time any disillusionment with Gandhi (one of her political ideals but at the same time her adversary also). Having been disillusioned with politics this was the time when she left for abroad in 1939 with her son Rama. This is the year when she wrote the text referred to in this piece.

Following her return close to independence she became affiliated with a more sombre position and aligned to the cause of democratism and Gandhian socialism which by then had acquired a meaning of anti-Nehruism (which in turn stood for a centralized planning model detached from grass root level). The many tussles between her and Nehru at the point are an evidence of that antagonism.

Having struggled a lot in the political fray for a long time, also having lost elections a few time, her political career began to decline and Kamaladevi returned to her position of cultural socialism now in a reformed way. This phase is what sustained for the rest of her life and is what she is most identified with in the post independent India.

One can say that Kamaladevi’s political thought remained a victim to the overshadowing figures of people like Gandhi. The challenges of being a universalist and modernist hindered free expression in case of people like Kamaladevi who could not seek to represent the ‘difference’ perspective for women which in the ways of being a cultural nationalist she has espoused clearly. The overwhelming nature of nationalism, socialism and Marxism did not let the gender question to be addressed in its entirety in all seriousness.

A Feminist Interrupted

A proper conclusion must also take up certain defences for the text. One credible defence is how the emancipatory claims of class struggle address within their ambit issue of gender emancipation. The stance taken by Kamaladevi in her second essay can be read along these lines. However, what remains unaddressed is the institution of patriarchy which is the original site of subjugation of women. Even after abolition of class struggle there is no guarantee that the institution of patriarchy will be abolished especially because there is no mechanism in Marxist literature to counter this problem. The best reflection of this dilemma is in Kamaladevi’s iteration herself when she deems the position of women irrespective of class as marginalized and oppressed as compared to men and owing its causation to their male counterparts.

Thus what we see that some women thinkers who otherwise take a strong stance on gender issues in practical life, when it comes down to theorizing on them, lose their insight to the impulse of universalist paradigms such as materialism, capitalism and Marxism. Kamaladevi’s text is a testimony to this phenomenon.


  • The Awakening of Indian Women; Kamaladevi Chattopadhyayya and others; Everymans Press; Madras; 1939.
  • Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya: A Biography; Reena Nanda; Oxford University Press; New Delhi; 2002.
  • Feminism in India; ed. by Maitrayee Chaudhari; Kali for Women and Women Unlimited; 2006.

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