The ketu (banner) mentioned in the Rig Veda (c. 5000 B.C.) to pieces of cloth loaded with symbolism fluttering atop masts of national monuments and waved in battle and celebration, flags in India have come a long way. An exhibition tracing the journey of the Indian National Flag is under way at the Abanindranath Tagore Gallery of ICCR on Ho Chi Minh Sarani till August 20. Curator Sekhar Chakrabarti tells the story using pictures, stamps, coins, matchbox covers, newspaper cuttings and advertisements.
The use of flags by epic heroes is demonstrated by a Bhagvad Gita stamp issued in 1978 in which a swallow-tailed dhwaja flutters atop Arjuna’s chariot. Gupta gold coins, whose rulers were worshippers of Vishnu, had Garuda dhwaja, dedicated to his mount. Animal figures were common emblems on flags as were flowers. Rani Laxmibai’s Hanuman jhanda was a triangular piece of silk woven with gold threads and studded with precious stones, in which Hanuman holds a mountain on his palm.
Some exhibits have a story to tell. Laxmibai’s flag, for instance, was seized by the British as a war trophy and was in the possession of the Rajputana Rifles, unit 5. A newspaper cutting describes how it went missing. Bahadur Shah Zafar’s green and gold flag had a lotus and chapati.
The arrival of European flags is also documented, as are the voyages of discovery started in the 15th and 16th centuries. One of them, the Portuguese flag, flew in the Indian subcontinent till December 19, 1961, when Goa was liberated.
Though Pingali Venkaiyya, the founder of the Indian Flag Mission who wrote the book A National Flag for India with 24 flag designs, all with the Union Jack at the top left, is credited with designing the first Swaraj flag, at the suggestion of Mahatma Gandhi, the exhibition pays tribute to other individuals who made their contributions in the quest for the Indian flag, like Sister Nivedita and Madame Bhikaji Cama.
Tribute is also paid to flag martyrs like T. Kumaran, who walked in a procession to protest Gandhiji’s arrest in 1932. Despite being assaulted by the police, he held the flag up till his last breath, shouting Vande Mataram. Down south, he is called Kodi Kaatha Kumaran, meaning ‘Kumaran who protected the flag’. A 2004 stamp on him is on display.
Other interesting exhibits include a Tamil handbill distributed by the Palvankudi Village Congress Committee announcing flag hoisting on January 26, 1940, and a postal notice dated August 16, 1930, signed by H.A. Sams, the director-general of Posts & Telegraphs, that says articles bearing ‘Boycott British Goods’ labels or “portraits of Mr Gandhi or any other prominent leader of Civil Disobedience Movement” or the words ‘Swatantra Bharat’ would be despatched to the Dead Letter Office.
Interesting trivia on diplomatic faux pas involving flags on stamps also find a mention.