A comic by Shebani Rao highlights a tremendously inspiring feminist whose life and work embodied intersectionality more than half a century before it became a word. Rao’s Kamaladevi: The Hero We Need, illustrates the life of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903-1988) who fought for women’s rights, workers’ rights and freedom from British rule — struggles that she recognized as being interrelated.
Kamaladevi accomplished and contributed so much across so many fields, it’s mind-blowing. In addition to being the first woman to run for a legislative seat in India, this freedom fighter and social activist acted in films, earned a diploma in sociology in London, worked as a women’s movement organizer, became president of the Congress Socialist Party, participated in the Salt Satyagraha, and spoke out against Gandhi when he opposed women’s participation in protests. She also went on a world tour during WWII to encourage support for Indian independence, including travel through the Jim Crow/segregation-era U.S. in 1940-1941, before going on to work on behalf of traditional and indigenous arts in her post-independence career.
Check out The Aerogram’s mini-chat below with illustrator and writer Shebani Rao to find out more about her thoughts on creating the comic, and keep heading down after that to view the first five pages! Rao is working on turning the comic into a full-length graphic novel. Follow her work on Instagram at @shebanimal.
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How did you first learn about Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay?
I first learned about Kamaladevi through Nico Slate‘s amazing book, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India. It opened me up to a fascinating history that I was shocked to know so little about.
Why did you make a comic about her?
I wanted to create a comic that brings Kamaladevi’s work to life and gives South Asian kids a badass, desi feminist hero to look up to. I hope that sharing her story will inspire a new generation of desi activists in the U.S.
Are there any other historical figures you’d like to make a comic about? If so, who?
I’m working on turning this piece into a graphic novel about Kamaladevi — I could only capture a fraction of her brilliance in these five pages. I’d also like to make a comic about Kartar Singh Sarabha, a freedom fighter and key member of the Ghadar Party in San Francisco. He was executed at the age of 19.
If somehow you could meet Kamaladevi in person, what would you ask her?
I would ask her for tips on radicalizing desi youth and building solidarity among South Asians and other communities of color.
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