Shattuck Avenue East Renamed After Immigrant Activist Kala Bagai

Above: On a campus stop along the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, a guide shares Berkeley’s South Asian history with a group of listeners. Image: Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour on Facebook.

On September 15, 2020, the Berkeley City Council renamed Shattuck Avenue East to honor Kala Bagai, an Indian immigrant activist and leader who fought tirelessly against racial prejudice in early 20th century Berkeley. Her life’s work is now commemorated in Kala Bagai Way.

When Bagai came to the US with her family in 1915, she was one of only a handful of South Asian women in the country, and her arrival to Berkeley was met with hostility and racism. However, Bagai, also known as “Mother India,” remained driven and resilient in the face of adversity and built one of the earliest South Asian communities in the US.

Cal alumna, community activist, and historian Barnali Ghosh M.L.A. ’01, along with her husband, Anirvan Chatterjee, created and led the year-long public campaign for the renaming of the two-block eastern stretch of Shattuck Avenue. It was part of the couple’s continuing efforts to make Berkeley more accepting of its Asian American population and to help South Asian immigrants feel welcome in the city, as well as more connected to cultural histories of social-justice activism.

In 2012, Ghosh and Chatterjee started the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour. The walking tour gives much-needed prominence to Berkeley’s South Asian history and makes the narratives of oppressed individuals with roots in South Asia more accessible. It attracts not only the South Asian community in Berkeley, but the wider community as well; the couple never shies away from addressing systems of oppression such as casteism or heterosexism during their tours.

Comments

I grew up in Berkeley (lived there from 1939 to 1960) I worked at Roos Bros. on Shattuck Sq. and the Standard station at University and Sacramento. Graduated from Cal in 1959. I read the Berkeley Daily Gazette every day while there. I never heard of this lady or her family. I think her importance is probably badly exaggerated.
Or perhaps she was just ignored by the press, and other organs of publicity. I graduated in 1962, and never heard of her either. But I was oblivious of 99% of what was going on around me. If it wasn’t in the news or being talked about in my set, I didn’t know it existed. Great poets like William Blake and Emily Dickinson were unknown during their lifetimes, and had to be brought to the attention of the public by relatives and admirers. Retrospective history is necessary to find many of today’s heroes and role-models, and it’s an education for all of us to learn about trailblazers in racial justice, when the wider society was just waking up to the cause of Civil Rights.

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