The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The imaginary sanctity of a well-worn symbol

Perhaps it’s time to contemplate the national flag and the signifiers it floats across the nation. As flags go, it’s quite a nice flag. It has elements to please the modernist: simple, bright colours, basically a warm palette, unless you put too much blue in the green and make it dark with the deep blue Asoka wheel as a nice centralizing touch, balancing the three broad stripes with some complexity and focussing the eye without cluttering the design with shields or stars or diverse curlicues. Our Tricolour serves the basic purposes it’s required to: it looks pretty sharp going up a flag-pole; unfurled, it has a certain simple grandeur — it looks good when it is fluttering in the wind, the stripes taking on a dynamic animation not all flags manage; it’s quite distinctive at a distance and the blue chakra in the middle serves as a neat and useful bull’s eye for those wanting to shoot at it.

It’s something I’ve grown up with, like the smell of tea and deep-fried snacks on the street, or people constantly talking loudly, or three-hour-long films streaked with the fat of songs. After such movies, the flag was ubiquitous, rippling in that freaked out loop with a speeded up Jana-gana-mana blaring, as if both flag and song had ingested amphetamine-based drugs. On days of national pride, the thing would mono-progenate thousands of tadpole tirangas made of paper. These would either come glued on to thin sticks that invariably sent splinters into your fingers, or were stuck around little pins with which you could poke the hated fat boy in the row in front of you while the Princi droned on about swaraj and Bapu, Bhagat Singh and Netaji; the splinters made you subconsciously mindful of the sacrifices of yesteryear, while the pins indicated the future possibilities of the flag as a lethal weapon.

The jhanda also had a huge absent-present sign-valence (as in, it was there even without being visible) whenever an army, ministerial or judicial Amby-rhinoceros rolled past with the phallic black leather sheath poking up from the nose, and in the hundreds of thousands of stark flagpoles sticking up from dusty parade-grounds and school compounds all over the country — long, lonely odd things that made you crave to see a street-acrobat twirling on top.

The thing was sacred and you knew this from many teacherial ear-twistings and beatings. You knew you weren’t supposed to ever hang it upside down (though the green looked much better on top to many of us); you couldn’t wet it — when you got your hands on a rare, proper, cloth one — and use it in a towel fight; sitting on it or touching it with your feet was taboo, as was surreptitiously or otherwise wiping your nose with it, even though the abrasive yet absorbent cloth was actually very good for this.

But all this is from a time when we still hadn’t won a Test match anywhere abroad save New Zealand, when we needed re-jigged British trainer jets called Gnat fighters to fly against the Pakistan Air Force (them, poor things, in their obsolete American Sabre-jets, those clever things that could only shoot upwards at an angle of 20 degrees), when Chicken Tikka Masala was still an exotic dish, when Hindi films were ‘international hits’ only in Athens, Novgorod and Mombasa, and when the only things the scion of an Indian business family could buy outside the country were defunct steel mills in Malaysia. Of course, we already had some things down pat: our army and paramilitary personnel were already pretty good at gunning down or torturing Indian citizens in far-flung corners of the republic, baking alive innocents and insurgents alike in the oven-foil of the Tricolour; our political leaders were becoming skilled at saluting the national flag often, while deftly keeping the non-saluting hand open behind their backs, ready to receive all manner of bribes and kickbacks; the phrase, goonda uuncha rahey hamara, had already made an entry into our language; the phalangists of private enterprise were already learning to deploy the national colours in deftly patriotic co-branding with their logos.

That was then, when the flag was a moustache and fat side-burns set on the face of a raw, young, unsure nation. Why, one has to ask, is all this fuss being made now, about the imaginary sanctity of what is, after all, a well-known, well-worn and well-exposed symbol' Like every other national flag, especially one belonging to a ‘big’ nation, the “Bhartiya Dhwaj” too has now accompanied murder, rape, destruction and duplicity. Either the Tricolour is a flag that deserves, every now and then, to be thoroughly insulted. Or, we are now a confident, adult country that can take the many manifestations of a people’s symbol, whether it be streaked on cricket fans’ cheeks, printed on a racing-driver’s helmet, or worn as the top and bottom of bikinis, whatever. Perhaps we should bring into reality a mature country that is not bothered by its flag being hung upside down, knotted into ropes, left out all night, and if someone so pleases, even burnt, whatever. Perhaps it would be best to accept that we are both: a nation that often needs its so-called ‘national pride’ taken down a peg or two, and yet a country completely bindaas in the knowledge that we are, as it were, here to stay. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that we as a society might be hurt by bombs and bullets, by violence, religious, political and economic, by environmental disaster, natural and man-made, but we will certainly not be touched by a flag-burning here or there, or by the flag doubling as a see-through chiffon sari in some designer’s collection, or by someone leaving the poor thing out at night on a flag-pole.


The only other country comparable to India which has a flag-obsession greater than ours is the United States of America. It might be instructive to see what has happened to the Stars and Stripes across the last 60 years. In the mid-Fifties, Robert Frank, the great Swiss-born photographer, travelled across the country, making a portrait of the Americans. One of the themes running through the book was the ubiquitous national flag, hung and strung in the strangest of places. Frank’s book was the first to throw up images of the absurd, naïve jingoism of an intellectually autistic nation and it was unofficially suppressed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which had funded Frank. When it finally came out in the US, The Americans was already a classic in Europe.

Around the same time, the Pop Art movement took off, capturing American popular icons and symbols both as raw material and subject. One of Pop’s leading lights, Jasper Johns, painted a series of canvases of the Stars and Stripes which, again, have become classics of modern painting. The thickly worked images ‘say’ nothing overtly; the stars and stripes are still startlingly fresh today, as surprising as a jug and peaches by Cézanne or Van Gogh’s vase of sunflowers, but, as you keep looking, humour and tragedy develop out of the passionate rendering of this most banal of graphics, you start thinking about the nature and meanings of words such as ‘country’, ‘flag’, ‘pride’ and ‘patriotism’. You are obliged to think about what America was and what it is today.

Visiting the US nearly 50 years after Johns first made his Flag paintings, I saw a homage-variation on them by a Cuban artist whose name stays away from me: the flag was now the Cuban flag, but the whole thing was made out of delicate pieces of semi-transparent white cloth, the star, the triangle and the stripes all delineated by white stitching. The flag floated, hung vertically in the middle of the room, colourless and neutral yet loaded with meaning, with questions. Looking at it, you saw the state disappear, leaving only a visual spoor, looking at it you saw the revolution, with all its early triumphs and subsequent long years of small-minded brutality, but you saw the revolution as if it had dissolved and gone, taking all its spilled blood with it, leaving behind only this fragile, diaphanous, grave-marker.

Sometimes when I look at the Indian tiranga it becomes like that Cuban Anti-flag, a white, white and white rectangle with a barely discernible Asoka chakra in the middle. And next to it, escorting it like side-deities, are semi-transparent white flags bearing the ghosts of the palm, the lotus, and not least, the hammer and sickle.

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