CHENNAI: The story takes place in a pre-independent India, in 1932, when Chennai was called Madras. It was a time when the Congress Party had requested the people to observe January 26 as Independence Day. This was a risky idea because the fierce British army was ready to imprison or even go to the extent of torturing those who did so. Calling a public gathering or hoisting the flag was not even thought of because of the fear of being attacked.
During the same time, a man from Tamil Nadu, driven by patriotism and Gandhian philosophies, rebelled against the British government and hoisted the National Flag at Fort St George, thus celebrating India’s Independence, 14 years before the actual day in 1947. This man was Bhashyam Iyengar, also called Arya, an unsung hero who became the first man in Madras to hoist the National Flag. With the intention of paying homage to the freedom fighter and making people aware of his selfless deeds, historian and heritage enthusiast, Krishnakumar TK has been talking about his contribution in his lectures for the past few years.
An inspiration since childhood
Krishnakumar first learned about Arya through Cho Ramaswamy’s famous drama Vandemataram in 1975. “I watched a series based on the play on Doordarshan in 1987. Many scenes in the play and a character’s name were inspired by Arya. He was also Cho Ramaswamy’s friend, so many incidents related to the freedom movement were based on the stories told by him,” he recalls. Krishnakumar gathered more information about lesser-known freedom fighters from books like Suthanthira Porattathil Tamilaga Thiyagigal and Viduthalai Velviyil Tamilagam, from the public library in Tirunelveli. From Arya’s interview on All India Radio in the early 90s, he learnt more about his rebellious act of hosting the National Flag. From then on, Arya left a strong impact on him.
The heroic act
Born in 1907 in Mannargudi, Arya involved himself in the freedom struggle right from his college days. About Arya’s act that made history, Krishakumar shares, “He disguised himself as a British soldier and wore a khaki dress and joined the soldiers who returned from watching a movie to St. George’s Fort. At about 2 am, on January 25, 1932, he started climbing the 148 feet tall flag mast. After an hour, he unfurled the Indian tricolour he had brought along (During that time, the flag was not the same as the one we use today). He had to hide from the light from the lighthouse while hoisting the flag.
On the morning of January 26, hundreds of people gathered to witness the glory of our National Flag flying high, the result of an unprecedented daring act of our hero. Incidentally, it was Arya’s birthday too. It appeared as if the people of Madras celebrated Independence Day and his birthday together. The Britishers could not bring down the flag immediately as they had to wait a few hours to get the fire engines. Refusing to tender an apology, the brave Arya went to prison. Moreover, it was not his first or last tenure in the jail.”
My life, my message
Even though Arya was an extremist, he was equally attracted by the Gandhian movement. Post-Independence, he refused to accept the pension for freedom fighters as he believed that he shouldn’t be rewarded for his duty as a citizen. For a living, he made sculptures and paintings of national leaders. The beautiful statue of Mahatma Gandhi found in Thakkar Bapa Vidyalaya in CIT Nagar and the portrait of Mahakavi Subramania Bharathiyar with his handlebar mustache and white turban were his creations.
Arya passed away in 1999. He lived a large life and like Gandhi inspired us, he turned his life into a message to show love and selflessness for the country. However, it is unfortunate that this great national leader remains an unsung hero of Madras. On this Independence Day, while commemorating the thousands of freedom fighters who gave us the land for ourselves, let’s not forget Arya.