‘Flagman’ Pingali Venkaiah

A young boy, very far from home, was fighting an alien war, on foreign land as part of an imperialist army. His name was Pingali Venkaiah. He was a soldier in the British Indian Army fighting for the British in the Anglo Boer war in South Africa, at the end of the 19th century. Around the same time, another young man in South Africa was starting his experiments with what was to become a lifelong crusade for truth, justice and freedom. His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

When the Boer War broke out in 1899, while Gandhi’s sympathies were with the indigenous Boers, but as a member of the British crown colony of Natal he felt that he needed to contribute to the British efforts. Gandhi set up an Ambulance Corps of 1100 volunteers, out of whom 300 were free Indians and the rest indentured labourers. Gandhi’s task was to instil in this motley group a spirit of service to those they regarded as their oppressors. Gandhi’s corps placed a significant role as stretcher bearers, carrying the wounded out from the battlefield.

At some time during this period, the 19-year-old Pingali met Gandhi, who had already become known for his mission for justice. He must have seen Gandhi as described by the Pretoria News: Gandhi was stoical in his bearing, cheerful and confident in his conversation and had a kindly eye. Pingali was deeply impressed and influenced, and a bond was formed between the two; a bond that would endure half a century.

Inspired by Gandhi, and the strong urge for freedom from colonial rule, Pingali, on his return from Africa, became a member of the secret revolutionary units fighting against the British Raj and spent time in Eluru. At the same time he began to seriously pursue his interest in agriculture, especially the farming of cotton. He spent a lot of time in experimenting with cotton cultivation. He imported Cambodian variety of cotton seeds from America and crossed them with Indian seeds to create an indigenous hybrid variety of cotton seeds. He acquired a piece of land in the nearby Chellapalli village and planted these seeds. The fine variety of cotton that grew from these, 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 locally famous as ‘Patti (cotton) Venkaiah’.

Along with agriculture Pingali continued to pursue his academic interests, especially in languages. This took him to Lahore to study Sanskrit, Urdu and Japanese in the Anglo Vedic School. He became fluent in all the languages, and in 1913, gave a full length speech in Japanese that earned him the moniker of ‘Japan Venkaiah’.

Pingali joined the railway services as a guard and was posted to Bangalore and Bellary. During those years, Madras was reeling under the plague epidemic. Seeing the plight of those suffering, he quit his job and went there to work for a short time as an inspector of the Plague Disease Eradication Organization.

Pingali continued his commitment to the freedom movement. He attended the sessions of the Indian National Congress. At the Calcutta session in 1906, Pingali’s patriotic sentiments were deeply hurt at seeing the English Union Jack being hoisted. He returned from the session with a new passion—a national flag for India. He started by researching the flags of different countries, even while pursuing his numerous other interests and occupations. In 1916 he published a book titled A National Flag for India which included thirty designs for the flag. From 1916 to 1921, at every session of the Indian National Congress, Pingali raised the issue of the need for a national flag. Gandhi liked the concept, but his vision was that of a flag that would “stir the nation to its depth”, a flag that “represents and reconciles all religions”.

It was in 1921, at the meeting of the Congress at Vijaywada that Pingali showed Gandhi his book with designs of the flags. Gandhi appreciated Pingali’s hard work and persistence. In an article in Young India titled Our National Flag 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”.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Pingali worked overnight to make a fresh design that would reflect Gandhiji’s vision. The flag, as Pingali Venkaiah designed it, became the blueprint for what would, eventually, become the national tricolour of India. And earned its creator another title: ‘Jhanda Venkaiah’ or Flag Venkaiah.

In 1931, the flag was officially adopted by the Indian National Congress with some changes in design. Pingali Venkaiah’s nationalist mission was fulfilled, but he continued to be a part of Gandhiji’s mission for Swaraj until India gained her Independence on 15 August 1947, when India’s own flag was proudly hoisted, as the Union Jack came down.

After 1947, Pingali Vekaiah withdrew from active politics and settled down in Nellore. He had always had a keen interest in geology, and a sound knowledge of the precious and semi-precious stones in that region. He now seriously embarked on yet another area of study—gemology. He soon became an expert in the field, writing research articles, advising the Government of India and conducting field trips. Thereby adding another title to his repertoire—‘Diamond Venkaiah’.

A humble unassuming man of amazing versatile talents, Pingali Venkaiah lived his life following his inspiration Gandhiji’s motto of simple living, high thinking. So much so that his last days were spent in utter penury. While the young Republic proudly raised its tricolour as the symbol of its growing stature and strength, the man who had dreamed and designed this very symbol was increasingly forgotten.

But for Pingali Venkaiah this flag signified the highest fulfilment of his life. As he wrote in his will, his final wish was that his body be covered with the tricolour before he was put on the pyre, and then be removed and hung on a tree branch. Pingali Venkaiah died on 4 July 1963, and his wish was fulfilled.

This month all Indians have cheered as our tricolour was raised high by our young Olympians. This week we will hold our heads high as we salute our Nation. A good time to also remember the generation of Indians that fought and sacrificed so much to give us these proud moments. And to recall Gandhiji’s words: The national flag is the symbol of non-violence and national unity to be brought about by means strictly truthful and non-violent.


Swadeshi and My Ratnam Pen

“(Swadeshi) means production and distribution of articles manufactured in one’s own country.”

“Swadeshi is that spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote…  In the domain of politics, I should make use of the indigenous institutions and serve them by curing them of their proved defects. In that of economics, I should use only things that are produced by my immediate neighbours and serve those industries by making them efficient and complete where they might be found wanting.”

Mahatma Gandhi

For Gandhiji, swadeshi was the key to independence. To him, swadeshi had several dimensions including the political—revolving around revival of indigenous institutions and their strengthening; and the economic—as a powerful tool for local production and therefore decentralized livelihoods.

Which brings me to the story of my Ratnam/Guider pen. Inspired by Gandhiji’s call for swadeshi, K.V. Ratnam started manufacturing fountain pens in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh in 1932. Mr. Ratnam sent one of the pens to Gandhiji in 1935, and Gandhi wrote back to him (presumably with the gifted pen).  The shop(s) proudly display the quote: “I have used it and it seems to be a good substitute for the foreign pens one sees in the bazars.” Nehru is said to have made a trip to the shop during one of his visits to AP, to get himself a pen or two. One wonders which of his literary works were penned with a Ratnam! Ratnam pens were symbols of self-reliance and national pride!

My Rajahmundry Trip Helped Me With an Innoavtive Birthday Gift for My Husband


Today, Rajahmundry boasts more than one shop which are offshoots of this legacy of hand-made pens—two Ratnam Pen shops run by Mr. K.V. Ratnam’s two sons, and the Guider pen shop which also claims its lineage to this.

I have had the fortune of visiting Rajahmundry and two of these shops. It was an experience to go to the back of the shop and see a workman turning the pen and shaping it by hand! I bought more pens in more sizes and colours than I know people who still write with fountain pens! But those to whom I have gifted them, cherish them.

Not only for the historical connection, but also these pens write beautifully and are beautifully hand-crafted. They are highly prized by pen collectors and orders come in from across the world.

I may not be written about in history, but I can write with a piece of history!


P.S: Even as the nation gears up to mark Gandhi Jayanti, here is a sad piece of news:

97-year-old school founded by Bapu closes as funds dry up – https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/rajkot/97-year-old-school-founded-by-bapu-closes-as-funds-dry-up/articleshow/65987400.cms?utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=iPadapp&utm_source=email


Well Spun!

Ponduru, a village in Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh, arguably produces the best khadi in India. Well, at least Gandhiji thought so. He was highly impressed with the fineness of the khadi produced here and preferred it to other khadis. The best dressed (khadi-mode) contemporary politicians even today get their saris, dhotis and shirt material from here.

Ponduru khadi is hand-carded, hand spun and hand woven—truly khadi in letter and spirit.

What makes it special? Well, more than one factor, it seems. For one, the raw material itself is of a special quality—it is made from special varieties of hill cotton and red cotton which are grown in Vizianagaram and Srikakulam districts. For another, Ponduru khadi is very smooth, especially the higher count variety. This is because the jawbone of the Valunga fish found in Srikalkulam is used to comb the cotton  fibers to separate them from the seeds, and the process lends a soft sheen  to the cotton.


There was a time when every home in this village had a loom. But like in most of India, the number of khadi workers in Ponduru is falling. The low remuneration is of course a major reason. Those involved in the sector do not want their children to follow them—they would much rather they got a ‘professional’ degree and got a ‘secure’ job.

Fortunately, there are some efforts to improve the situation, including dedicated NGOs working in the sector. Chitrika is one such which has been working closely with the Ponduru khadi sector for over a decade now. They are helping the workers organize themselves into Producer Cooperatives, find newer markets, and improve their capacities. New and innovative designs are being brought in. All this is enhancing the incomes of the weavers, almost doubling them in the last decade.

But without a pull from the market, no government subsidies or NGO efforts are going to lead to sustainable results. An eminent Gandhian once mentioned that if every Indian bought one khadi garment a year, the sector would thrive and all our khadi workers would be able to earn decent incomes.

A small thing to ask! And this is in our hands.

So this piece today is a call to action. We are about a month away from Independence Day. Go out and buy some khadi! It is a practical and easy ‘good deed’ for 15 August!

Buy khadi, and specially buy Ponduru khadi, best of all khadis!






Starry, Starry Village

Last week, I was in interior Andhra Pradesh. We were felicitating high-performing Std. 10 students from government schools of villages in our project area.

All was routine, till they announced one of the winners as Keerthi Chawla. I wasn’t sure I had heard right. It was too North-Indian a name for a village in AP. So I asked again what the child’s name was, and she reiterated that it was Keerthi Chawla. And she was speaking Telugu. I asked her if she belonged to those parts or her family had moved there. She told me she was very much from Dosari village. And also told me her full name, which was Vangapudi Keerthi Chawla.

I couldn’t wait for the function to finish to catch hold of my colleagues to ask what this was about. They told me that the trend in Dosari village was to name children after film stars. That is not an unusual trend—we all know that many a Rajesh or Dilip or Aishwarya were named about the eponymous stars. What was unusual of course was the adoption of the name—lock, stock and surname!

We thought we should get a little more into it. A very quick count in the primary school and Bala Badi in the village threw up 81 children who were named after stars: from Trishas to Tamannas to Anushas (these ladies don’t use surnames, I think). From among those who do use surnames, we found apart from Keerthi Chawla, also a Vidya Balan. Among the boys there were Nageswar Raos, Ram Charans and Prabhas.

(I have met many a Jhansi, Jhansi Rani and Jhansi Lakshmi from AP/Telangana. Not sure why these names are so popular here.)

I thought mine was my Keerthi Chawla was the most exciting find. But I was deflated when my colleague told me that in her previous job, where they used to provide education support for children from Tamilnadu slums, they had one child called David Beckham (Muthu David Beckham).

With what dreams do parents name their children?

How we look up to the stars!

Do they know?