Image: V Chalam, Wikipedia/Jpoonnolly

Controversies continue to bog the actual history of the Indian National Flag. The Tiranga Jhanda as we see it today was a result of hard work and efforts made by a freedom fighter from Andhra, Pingali Venkaiah about whose life and times, very less is known and documented.

Venkaiah was born on 2nd August 1878 in Peddakallepalli village of Krishna district in Andhra Pradesh to Hanumantha Rayudu and Venkatarathnamma. He was their first child among half a dozen others. He spent the first five years of his life in the house of his maternal grandparents Tehsildar Chalapathi Rao and Seethamma.

After his grandfather got transferred to Bhatlapenumarru, a small village forty kilometers away from Vijaywada, Venkaiah was admitted to a local school for his primary education. For his high schooling, he was sent to ‘Hindu High School’, thirty-five kilometers away in Machilipatnam, then a big center for fishing and textiles. In Machilipatnam, Venkaiah spent his teenage and mastered among many things, the art of cultivating good cotton. This knowledge was to come of use later in his life. Inspired by Subhash Chandra Bose’s call for an Indian Army, Venkaiah left for Bombay when he was nineteen to join the military services.

After training at the academy, he was sent on duty to Africa where he participated in the Boer War (1899 -1902). It was during his stay in Africa that he first met Mahatma Gandhi and came under the influence of his ideology. After his return from Africa, he became a member of the secret revolutionary units fighting against the British Raj and spent time in Eluru. His interest in farming and cultivating cotton consumed his time. He began experimenting in the area of agriculture. His academic interests took him to Lahore to study Sanskrit, Urdu and Japanese in the Anglo Vedic School.

Many years later in 1913, he was to give a full length speech in Japanese in Bapatla that made him famous as ‘Japan Venkaiah’. The 1906, the 22nd session of the Indian National Congress took place in Calcutta, presided by Dadabhai Naroji. Four famous resolutions of Swadeshi, Boycott, National Education and Swaraj were passed in this session. Venkaiah was present and took inspiration from this in his own style. Seeing his earlier work, a highly impressed Congress appointed him as a member of the executive meeting. In that meeting his patriotic sentiments were deeply hurt watching the Union Jack being hoisted. He decided he would do something about it.

Back home in Eluru, he worked hard and developed an indigenous hybrid variety of cottonseeds. Importing the Cambodian variety from America and mixing them with Indian seeds, he created his own type. He acquired a piece of land in the nearby Chellapalli village and planted these seeds. A fine variety of cotton grew from these, which came to the notice of the local British officers during an agricultural exhibition in 1909. The Royal Agricultural Society of London offered him an honorary membership. He became famous as ‘Patti (cotton) Venkaiah’ to everyone around.

He joined the railway services as a guard and took posting in Bangalore and Bellary. Madras in those years was reeling under the plague epidemic. Seeing the plight of those suffering, he quit his job and went there to work as an inspector of the Plague Disease Eradication Organization briefly. He returned to his home and began working on designing a flag for India. In 1916 he published a book titled ‘A National Flag for India’ which carried thirty designs of the flag. Between 1918 and 1921, in every session of the Congress, Venkaiah raised the issue of having an own flag. He was working as a lecturer in the Andhra National College in Machilipatnam in those years.  

Pingali Venkiah and wife Rukminiamma 

On his visit to Vijayawada in April 1921 for a meeting of Indian National CongressVenkaiah met Mahatma once again and showed him his publication with the various designs of the flag. This time Gandhi showed additional interest and asked him to make a fresh design that would be inspiring for every time and generation. Overnight Venkaiah designed the flag, which was formally approved by Gandhi in the National Congress Conference.

Expressing his views on Venkaiah’s hard work in an article titled ‘Our National Flag’ in Gandhi’s own paper ‘Young India’, he wrote: “We should be prepared to sacrifice our lives for the sake of our National Flag. Pingali Venkaiah who is working in Andhra National College Machilipatnam, has published a book, describing the flags of the countries and has designed many models for our own National Flag. I appreciate his hard struggle during the sessions of Indian National Congress for the approval of Indian National Flag. When I visited Vijaywada, I asked Mr Venkaiah to prepare a two coloured flag with red and green colours along with a Chakra symbol and obtained it within three hours from him. Later we had decided to include the white colour, also the colour that reminds of truth and non violence”. This shot Venkaiah to fame overnight and he was called ‘Jhanda Venkaiah’.

After 1947, he withdrew from active politics and settled down in Nellore. He began exploring another area of his academic interest: gemology. He had a keen interest in the precious and semi-precious stones available in this geographical region. He knew what kind of precious stones were available in each and every part of the country. He conducted regular field trips and even worked as an advisor to the Government of India.

Venkaiah published a series of well-researched articles that earned fame as ‘Diamond Venkaiah’. This way Venkaiah earned fame for himself due to his expertise in various fields. He married Rukminamma and they had a daughter Ghantasala Sitamahalakshmi. His last days were spent in utter penury. Before he breathed his last, he wrote his final wish in his will which was that his body had to be covered with the tri-color he had designed. He instructed that it be removed after his body was placed on the pyre and later hung to a tree branch. When he passed away on July 4th 1963, his will was executed and the tri-colour fluttering on the tree branch was a witness to his soul soaring into the heavens. After that Venkaiah was forgotten for a long time. He received no awards for his contribution to India’s freedom struggle. It was during the tenure of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastry that his memory was resurrected on a trip to Vijaywada.

During the Chief Ministership of N T Rama Rao, a statue of Pingali Venkaiah was installed, along with thirty-three famous Telugu personalities on the Tank Bund that connects the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secundrabad over the Hussain Sagar Lake. A postage stamp and a First Day cover were released in his honour in 2009.     During the struggle of a separate Telangana State, seventeen of these statues were vandalized by insensitive mobs. After the formation of the Telangana State, the present chief minister announced the removal of statues of those who did not belong to the Telangana region.

Hopefully the sensible citizens of Hyderabad and of Telangana will realize that freedom fighters like Venkaiah worked selflessly for the whole country. They didn’t belong to any narrow ideologies. A great intellectual of his times, a freedom fighter and as the designer of India’s National Flag, whether anyone remembers him as ‘Japan’, ‘Diamond’ or ‘Cotton’ Venkaiah, he will always be rememberd as ‘Jhanda Venkaiah’, every Independence Day and every occasion the National Flag is hoisted. One often finds hundreds of little flags thrown away after such events. Next time you see a discarded tri-colour, remember the story of the man whose struggle for it, is now forgotten.

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com) Images: V Chalam