HIGHLIGHTS

  • In an era when great traditional crafts and artistry often are submerged by mass production of standardized products, KAMALADEVI has led in mobilizing for new generations these ancient skills.
  • The vehicle for translating this concept into reality became the Indian Cooperative Union, which she founded in 1948, initially to assist refugees uprooted by Partition who were demoralized and often destitute.
  • While many nationalist leaders have been content to coast with old causes and slogans, KAMALADEVI has had the perception and courage to discover and develop solutions to contemporary needs of her society.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her enduring creativity with handicrafts and cooperatives, as in politics, art and the theater.”

 CITATION

Among architects of modern India few have been so broadly effective as KAMALADEVI CHATTOPADHYAY in challenging orthodoxy and then giving substance to the innovation. She has shown that women from a traditional society, while winning equality of acceptance in community affairs can also build needed new social institutions, graced with their more delicate touch.

In an era when great traditional crafts and artistry often are submerged by mass production of standardized products, KAMALADEVI has led in mobilizing for new generations these ancient skills. In her view, “development of any country’s handicrafts rests primarily on the women.”

While “modern taste is restless and prepared to renew and replace articles more easily and quickly,” she has written, handicrafts “speak of an age when dignity lay in silence and beauty in subtlety.” In them “one instinctively senses the unity of all arts.” To her they are “the ensemble of flowers, fruits, birds and animals, leaves and creepers, gods and human beings.” The vehicle for translating this concept into reality became the Indian Cooperative Union, which she founded in 1948, initially to assist refugees uprooted by Partition who were demoralized and often destitute. The first cooperative, a farm, was formed at Chattarpur, some 12 miles from Delhi. The Union joined in building the new city of Faridabad to rehabilitate 30,000 refugee Pathans from the Northwest Frontier, providing tools, loans and directions in a new way of living.

With rehabilitation largely accomplished, the Union over which she presides turned to establishing consumer and handloom cooperatives which multiplied with remarkable success. The Central Cottage Industries Emporium in New Delhi developed as a marketing outlet for some 700 cooperatives, private dealers and individual producers. Through it, designs were introduced, buyers attracted, and products achieved Indian and international sale. Commercial success led to creation of credit cooperatives and other services—always buttressed by education—to meet family needs of both rural folk and urban craftsmen.

The woman who guided this enterprise was born in 1903 at Mangalore, India, into the family of a District Collector. After receiving a diploma in sociology from London University, she was among the first educated women in India to appear on the public stage, popularizing the theater arts. As an organizer of the 1930 Civil Disobedience Movement, she was arrested and jailed for five years. An accomplished writer, her interests have ranged far beyond her homeland to participation in international conferences.

While many nationalist leaders have been content to coast with old causes and slogans, KAMALADEVI has had the perception and courage to discover and develop solutions to contemporary needs of her society. Thus she has helped realize the hopes of her countrymen that independence would be more than political, allowing them that added dimension of greater freedom in total life concerns.

In electing KAMALADEVI CHATTOPADHYAY to receive the 1966 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the Board of Trustees recognizes her enduring creativity with handicrafts and cooperatives, as in politics, art and the theater.

 RESPONSE

I feel very deeply honored by the distinction conferred on me by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation. I am fully aware that it is indeed a rare privilege to be selected for this Award. In fact, when I was first told of it by a pressman, I exclaimed quite involuntarily that it could not possibly be, it must be some mistake, for it is given only to “great people.”

I am, however, glad for one reason, that the quiet, unobtrusive type of community service that fails normally to attract public attention does get recognition sometimes. I do not claim it in a personal sense. I am only too conscious that it is the job which is accomplished that calls for attention, not the individual who is but an instrument employed in the achievement.

In my opinion leadership is a burden It makes one only too community of one’s limitations and smallness. In the context of community service, it may even be somewhat of a handicap and create a barrier, a false image of a personality away from the crowd. My own conviction is that really to serve one should put oneself last among our fellow beings. What fortifies and ensures long and effective service is the capacity to win and sustain love and confidence and the ability to penetrate into the remotest crevices of the minds of those we work with. What one has to hunt for is not prestige but conquest of human hearts. Projects are nurtured into growth not through personal projections but tender affection. I consider myself but a weak aspirant, ever failing, ever trying, my failures making me ever more vigilant, my trials but intensifying my faith. Service is an obligation, not a reward, for one owes it to others to share with them what one may have and they have not or to unfold one’s own talents and gifts in communion with others, which otherwise would merely languish and perish. In Indian tradition this is defined as self realisation
because one can really find oneself only by serving one’s fellow-beings.

I cannot close this address without acknowledging my deep debt of gratitude to my great leader Gandhiji, under whose inspiration and guidance it was my rare good fortune to work. “I hate privilege and monopoly” he said. “Whatever cannot be shared with the masses is taboo to me. . . .I cannot imagine anything nobler than to identify ourselves with the masses and through them all mankind. I cannot imagine a better worship of God than that in His name I should labor for the poor even as they labor.”

Today, we are finding ourselves increasingly in the predicament of having to adjust ourselves to the rising velocity of a rocket spinning nuclear age. We seem at times to be almost overcome by a sense of defeat, a moral coarsening and a sense of being lost. Old usages and pointers fail us when old social patterns crack up and call for new values and guidelines that are related to this complex world of the present. A new creative flame needs to be lit even as Gandhiji and other seers did whenever twilight descended on this world. A new ark has to be built to save the spiritual heritage of man from the menacing flood of moral crisis threatening mankind. I will quote what Gandhiji had to offer to mankind at this zero hour: “Having flung aside the sword there is nothing but the cup of love I can offer. It is by offering that cup that I expect to draw them (fellow-beings) closer to me. I cannot think of permanent enmity between man and man. Love is the strongest force the world possesses and yet is the humblest.”

 BIOGRAPHY

KAMALADEVI CHATTOPADHYAY was born in Mangalore on April 3, 1903 to a well-to-do Saraswat family. Her father was District Collector, a high post in the Madras Civil Service, and her mother came from one of the wealthiest families in Karnatak.

In 1910, when KAMALADEVI was only seven years old, her father died without leaving a will for the disposal of his vast property. KAMALADEVI’s stepbrother, as the only son of the family, claimed the entire estate except for a small allowance to be allotted to her mother. Her mother, a strong-willed woman, refused such a pittance, and determined to bring up her daughter by herself with the help of her dowry property.

KAMALADEVI’s life-long rebellion against tradition and orthodox teachings was evident even as a child. Of those early years she has said, “Our household was organized on a very aristocratic basis, and my mother was deadly class conscious in the sense that she restricted my contacts and associations. . . . But the more I was driven into this exclusiveness, the more I disliked it and wanted to mix with the servants and the poorer people, play with their children, and understand their life.”

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)