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Kamla Bhasin: Feminist, Poet, Dancer And Singer, A Lifelong Friend Pays Tribute

Women's rights activist, poet and author Kamla Bhasin passed away on 25 September. She was 75. Photo courtesy Nikhil Dey/Twitter.

I met Kamla when I began working at India’s first feminist publishing house — Kaali for Women. One of its earliest books — Women and Media — was edited by  Kamla Bhasin and Bina Agarwal. It was 1985. Kamla used to work at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) at the time and was one of the leading thinkers on feminism, particularly issues of linking feminism with the experience of as many women as possible, not just the issues of one class of women. Her commitment to that was evident in the multiple ways of communication she would use to establish these linkages across classes, regions, and races. She was a poet who believed in creating the kind of poetry which would convey very complex ideas around patriarchy in very simple language. That is what I learned about Kamla when I first met her. She was an amazing, vibrant human being who would build relationships very quickly because she was very warm. She went to the heart of the matter with her poetry as well as her persona.

We were all part of the women’s movement which was very active at the time. We would be doing street-level protests around issues and there was always a lot of singing. Singing and music were a huge part of our relationship. A lot of her music was based on popular tunes, folk songs, or film songs. She would use a new set of words that would be around a feminist issue. 

I think her love for music came from Rajasthan, which has such a rich tradition. She grew up in rural Rajasthan, at least in the early years. She had a natural spirit. She had a natural rhythm in her body. She loved to dance. She understood the power of music from very early on.

She understood the power of music from very early on.

One of my favourite memories is this 8 March party (International Women’s Day). I was young, and feeling diffident around all these articulate and wonderful women. And Kamla started singing this song, “milke hum nachenge, gayenge — milke hum khushiya manayenge — zindagi hum milke sajayenye.” This was based on a Nepalese folk song. And as each of us would enter the room, she would give us a flower, take our name, and say phool khile, phool khile. It was a very sweet gesture. She included everyone who was streaming in to celebrate March 8th. She would ensure that as women, we felt this bond. I thought these little things were extremely special. It is rare for a person to be pure of heart and immediately connect to another person by singing songs. It didn’t matter if you were a successful doctor or a young student. If you were a woman who wanted to be part of the feminist movement, a simple gesture created bonds in the most beautiful way. Feminist solidarity in Delhi was built through these kinds of relationships. 

Feminist solidarity in Delhi was built through these kind of relationships.

I remember we were recording feminist songs in a studio in Dariaganj. It was a sad song in which she wanted me and another professional singer to sing. The words of the song are about how we look at home as a refuge but very often patriarchy creates homes that are not a refuge but become a prison for the woman. The song was — kaun kehta hai jannat isse, humse puccho jo ghar mein phasse karke kurbani hum mar gaye. The professional singer had a lovely high voice and I was really struggling to keep up with her. I remember that Kamla told me to sing with my heart. I thought what do I have to lose? It’s not about being perfect, but saying what you really feel. I sang and it was so highly appreciated. It was because Kamla just said the right thing to me at that time. She was empathetic. She was aware of everyone around her. In this very sensitive way, she knew how to draw out the best in people. Every now and then, she would have us over and we would sing like crazy women. She would make up the funniest words to popular film songs. It was great fun. If anyone sang, she would break into a jig. Every protest, every gender training, would almost always end with a song. She could breathe life into the deadest of rooms by sheer force of her presence.

I remember that Kamla told me to sing with my heart.

Kamla brought the famous azadi slogan from Pakistan — meri behne mange azaadi. I think feminism in the eighties was heady. There was a lot of legal reform because of the feminist agitation, and the whole idea that women’s work had to be recognized as work and also assigning economic value to women’s work. The changes in the rape law and dowry law were significant milestones in the eighties. Today, the evolving idea of feminism is that it is much more intersectional. It is not as if it was not intersectional then, but at the time, we were responding to issues that were coming up then. And, at that time, street-level protests and activism were much more effective because the media was quite supportive. Today, that has changed. A lot of gains were made at that time, one realizes today that it is two steps forward and one step back. Perhaps the international solidarities that exist today are of a different nature as they were then. At that time, feminism and peace across India’s borders were also very closely linked with each other. There were lots of exchanges between countries in the region. 

Feminism in the eighties was heady.

Patriarchy doesn’t stand dismantled even today, but I think the number of people invested in the cause of dismantling patriarchy is probably more. We all have our areas of disillusionment. The gains that one thought were made, the issues that one thought were done and dusted, keep coming back because patriarchy does not dissolve by itself. There are so many entrenched and vested interests involved. The climate of religious intolerance and other issues, which are informing today’s politics, really do have a huge impact on feminism. I think Kamla was very concerned and sad about it. There was no occasion in which she did not voice her concern in this regard.

Kamla believed that merely breaking things was not enough, one has to replace them. In her later years, she firmly believed in the power of love, spreading love, and relating to everyone with love. Even if it made intellectuals somewhat uncomfortable, she never tired of expressing that love would win in the end. Love nurtures one through the difficult times is something that she experienced in her own life. 

Kamla believed that merely breaking things was not enough, one has to replace them.

Kamla never aged. She had such childlike energy. Her hair may have grown white, but she did not slow down even for a moment. That was the amazing thing about her — whatever be the adversity, she never stopped working in a way that showed complete commitment. She continued to speak a lot more as she grew older. 

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It is her music that will ensure she is remembered by the basti women, the tribal women. Even if it was a formal boardroom meeting, she had this ability to completely lighten it up by breaking it into song. Kamla believed in the universality of music to convey feelings and ideas. 

Kamla believed in the universality of music to convey feelings and ideas.

Every now and then, she would send me a song in writing. The last one was about widows. It was about how it doesn’t matter what the world thinks because the spring still comes for you and flowers still bloom for you. She told me to come over to compose the tune for it, but then the pandemic happened so we never got around to completing it. That is my last memory. I wish we had the time to complete what we talked about. 

Kamla had a huge impact on anyone that she met. She was truly inspiring because I don’t think that I have met anyone who faced extreme adversity with such grace and courage. She was an absolute inspiration in that regard. She lost her daughter in the most tragic of circumstances. We thought she would not be able to get over it, but she worked even harder. Her other child is severely in need of attention. He can’t do anything by himself, but not for a moment did she waver in the level of care that she offered to her son. She genuinely believed that you have to be in action, and you have to continue doing the things that you believe in, no matter what life throws at you. 

I don’t think that I have met anyone who faced extreme adversity with such grace and courage.

Editor’s note: As told to Betwa Sharma.

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