Monday, 15 July, 2024, Reg No- 06
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The Art of Freedom

Reviewed by Urvashi Butalia

Published : Saturday, 6 July, 2024 at 12:00 AM  Count : 555

The Art of Freedom

The Art of Freedom

This biography of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a woman who imagined a future for her country, is a story that is both old and new…

Nico Slates biography of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay brings her vividly and elegantly to life. Empathetic, non-judgmental, admiring, carefully critical and at times almost breathless in trying to keep up with the speed and intensity of Kamaladevis life, Slate weaves together a story that is both old and new. In doing so, he reopens interesting key questions about biography writing.

I approached Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: The Art of Freedom with curiosity. Despite the fact that mainstream history, and indeed mainstream historians are, by and large, yet to recognise Kamaladevis many contributions to what one might call the making of modern India, she has been much written about, and indeed she herself was a prolific writer. So, the archive that is available to the biographer is rich, and variously populated. There are her own writings, a number of biographies of her, collections of her papers edited by eminent scholars; then theres the other archive, of official papers and documents, or letters, records. There are photos of her travels, the institutions she set up, the speeches she gave, newspaper reports at home and abroad, and there is a vast circle of people, many still with us, who knew her and worked with her. With much of this in the public domain, the reader may well ask: what more is there to say?

The question though, as Slates biography demonstrates, is not so much about what more there is to say, or even what is there to say that is new (although there is some of that in this story), but really what you choose to tell, and how you tell it.

A city for the displaced
I was delighted that Slate begins his story with one of my favourite incidents in Kamaladevis life, the setting up, despite considerable opposition, of a planned city to house the thousands of displaced Partition refugees who flooded Delhi. The city of Faridabad was a daring and visionary experiment led by a woman (and her team) that testified to being able to think, in a moment of complete upheaval, of what is needed for rehabilitation in the long term.

Indeed, this is what also marks Slates narrative as distinct. Even as he describes Kamaladevis intense involvement in issues of the time, whether it is Gandhis campaigns, or the pull of politics, or her many writings, her travels in India and abroad, her strong views on inequality and racial discrimination, or her commitment to art, culture, theatre, craft, there is always something that lifts the involvement in the here and now and informs it with a vision of the future. Here was a woman who, for all her faults and weaknesses, which the author gives us a good dose of, did not hesitate to imagine a future for the country whose battle for freedom she was so integrally a part of.

Multi-faceted personality
Another of Slates particular contributions to the writing of this life is his attempt to define what freedom meant to her: not just the freeing of India from the shackles of the British, but the freeing of India from itself, from the many hierarchies it carried within, from the inequalities that were rife, from the patriarchies that were deep.

The Kamaladevi whose portrait Slate draws, emerges as a many faceted, complex and often contradictory person who engaged with all of these. Born to privilege, she developed a critique of class and caste discrimination in Indian society early on, which stayed with her as she transformed into a socialist and a nationalist. Fiercely private, politically committed, strongly nationalist and yet with an acute sense of the need to address class, caste and gender discrimination within India, Kamaladevi also remained outspoken (sometimes at considerable cost to herself) and true to her beliefs. This, and so much more, made her one of the most unusual women of our time.

Minor quibble
Perhaps the one - minor - quibble I have is when Slate offers a gentle critique, or seems to be mystified by, Kamaladevi suggesting that women take up embroidery. He seems somewhat surprised that this confident, outgoing woman, with such a rich history of arguing for the rights of women (and others) is exhorting women to take up this homely task. Would it not be just as interesting to speculate that embroidery can be both creative and subversive for those who don have many avenues for self-expression?

But this is a quibble, and doesn take away from the value of this book. And Im willing to let it go for the many other details Slate includes - the tearing up of saris to make the flag, the invading of the Bombay stock exchange to sell salt, making a home in which her husbands ex-lover lives alongside her - and so much more in the public domain that made Kamaladevi the woman she was.

Personal, political
Much of what Slate tells us is well-known. Indeed, Kamaladevis own writings - there is a charming detail about her carrying her typewriter with her wherever she went so that every spare moment could be used to write - tell us a great deal about the causes she owned. But in Slates telling, the personal is never too far from the political and the public, so that the reader never loses sight of the woman behind the public persona - a woman who is sensitive, who makes deep friendships, whose love for home and family makes her subject to the same pull and push that so many women have to deal with.

Also particular to this biography is the authors appreciation, and occasionally critique, of Kamaladevi as an institution builder. Historical exploration has paid virtually no attention to the role of women as builders of institutions in the years leading up to independence, and this is a welcome change.

Courtesy: THE HINDU

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