Indian flag maker Pingali Venkayya: Soldier, scientist, polyglot, and selfless patriot 

Pingali Venkayya earned several titles, including Patthi (Cotton) Venkayya, Diamond Venkayya and Japan Venkayya. However, the name that stays forever is Jhanda (flag) Venkayya.

Published: 15th August 2022 08:30 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th August 2022 05:59 PM   |  A+A-

An artistic depiction of Pingali Venkayya handing over the national flag to Gandhiji at the 1921 AICC meet at Victoria Jubilee Hall, in Vijayawada.(Photo | Prasant Madugula)

An artistic depiction of Pingali Venkayya handing over the national flag to Gandhiji at the 1921 AICC meet at Victoria Jubilee Hall, in Vijayawada.(Photo | Prasant Madugula)

Express News Service

VIJAYAWADA: On August 2, 1878, a boy was born into a humble farmer family at Bhatlapenumarru village near Machilipatnam in Krishna district. He was named Pingali Venkayya who later earned several titles, including Patthi (Cotton) Venkayya, Diamond Venkayya and Japan Venkayya. However, the name that stays forever is Jhanda (flag) Venkayya. Unhappy with the hoisting of the Union Jack at every political meeting, Pingali resolved to design a national flag for India — a single flag that would not just shed light on the culture and traditions of the country but also unite the people, which is what the Har Ghar Tiranga is all about.

But that was not it. ‘Designer of the national flag’ was just another hat Pingali donned. There was more to him than meets the eye. Sahitya Academy award-winning writer and poet, Dr Venna Vallabha Rao - who also penned ‘Jathiya Pataka Rupasilpi Pingali Venkayya’, a biography on the freedom fighter - calls him a scientist without a degree. He believes there is a lot that is unknown about the man.As part of Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, the Union government released a postal stamp, commemorating Pingali’s 146th birth anniversary.

“Pingali was born in 1878, not 1876. So, this year was his 144th birth anniversary. We submitted a representation and told the officials concerned about the same, but they did not change it,” Dr Rao tells TNIE. Quoting Pingali’s family members, Dr Rao says the freedom fighter was born in Pedakallepalli, not Bhatlapenumarru. “His maternal grandfather was a police constable in Peddakalepalli at the time Pingali was born and his father was a village administrator in Yarlagadda, near Challapalli. After Pingali’s grandfather was transferred, he lived in Bhatlapenumarru and Challapalli. He completed his primary education in these three places,” Dr Rao explains.

For high school, Pingali came to Machilipatnam and studied at the Hindu High School. He belonged to a large family and was the eldest of five siblings. A selfless individual, he did not wish to burden his parents. In Machilipatnam, Pingali used to live as a guest with people who offered free stay and food for students. He would have food at different homes. At the age of 19, Pingali was moved by a sense of patriotism and decided to serve the country.

He went to Bombay, underwent training and joined the British Indian Army. He participated in the Boer War in South Africa, but the capacity in which he served in the Army is not known. Around this time, he met Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa. Gandhi was fighting for equal rights for Indians under British rule. Pingali and Gandhi remained friends for over half a century. During his time in South Africa, Pingali developed a worldview. After having witnessed the oppressive nature of the British since childhood, his hatred and disgust towards them kept growing. His desire to free India also increased with each passing day.

Pingali Venkayya with his wife Rukmanamma and elder son Parsuramayya

While returning from South Africa, Pingali visited Arabia and Afghanistan, where he analysed their political, social and financial status to understand why independence was important for India. After returning to India, Pingali actively participated in the freedom movement.“Pingali was a Gandhian. He respected Bapu’s struggle to attain freedom for India and admired his commitment, patriotism and perseverance. But Pingali was Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s disciple. He believed one had to fight to attain freedom for the country, instead of requesting for it,” Dr Rao recalls.

Pingali also had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He wanted to pursue higher education abroad. However, as he did not wish to burden his family, he did odd jobs to save money. He underwent training as a plague inspector in Madras and worked in Bellary, Karnataka. He also worked as a railway guard between the Madras-Bangalore route but did not like either of the jobs. The gritty Pingali went to Colombo and studied Political Economics. His idea was to study subjects he could use to improve India’s economy.

Pingali’s thirst for knowledge grew leaps and bounds. He had a fascination for different Indian and foreign languages.  “In 1904, he learnt Japanese at Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College in Lahore and began speaking rather fluently. In Lahore, he also learnt Urdu, Sanskrit and Hindi. He met national leaders, who were fighting for independence,” Dr Rao says.

The unsung hero was known to be a great orator as well. Congress leaders would always give him an opportunity to address public meetings. At times when microphones would not work, Pingali was the go-to man as he had a booming voice that could not only be heard by thousands but also keep them riveted.

In 1906, when Pingali attended a meeting of the All India Congress Committee in Calcutta, an invitation changed his life.

Rangarao Bahadur, Zamindar of Munagala (now in Telangana) in Krishna district, offered Pingali a job. The zamindar advised Pingali to look after agriculture or administration. This way, Pingali could earn money and fulfil his wish of studying further. Pingali accepted the offer. He had an interest in agriculture as his family was also into farming. He started conducting research on soils and crops. His most vital research was on how agriculture could contribute to the country’s economy.

In line with his research, Pingali focused on cotton. The type of cotton harvested in India was thick, so youngsters did not prefer it. They wanted light-weight Videshi clothes.“With an aim to see youth wear India-made cotton clothes, Pingali researched and imported seeds from Cambodia and America. He used these seeds to develop a new variety of cotton, which later came to be known as Cambodia Cotton,” the biographer says. The research won him laurels and a job at the National College in Machilipatnam where he taught from 1911 to 1919.

Pingali returned to Machilipatnam from Munagala and began teaching various subjects like soil fertility, history, physical education, NCC and military training. His aim was to instil patriotic feelings among students and help them understand India’s freedom struggle and the need for it. Pingali was then aged over 30 years. In those days, people were not allowed inside their homes if they had crossed the seas. Although Pingali’s parents allowed him into the house, he was prevented from eating meals with his family. He left home and began living separately while doing his job.

Being the eldest son in the family, came with several responsibilities. Pingali had to get married as his brothers and sisters could not tie the knot until he did. At the age of 32, a reluctant Pingali married 10-year-old Rukmanamma. She was a village administrator’s daughter from Pamarru in the Krishna district. During his stint as a lecturer at the National College, he researched the flags of various countries. After extensive research, Pingali designed some models and published a book, ‘A National Flag For India’, in 1916. During the numerous meetings he attended, Pingali stressed the need for a single national flag for the country. Pingali had a very good rapport with national leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji, Motilal Nehru, and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He shared his ideas and took their input on designing the Indian national flag.

“The editor of ‘Krishna’ newspaper, Mutnuri Krishna Rao, in one of his columns, had highlighted Pingali’s book. The newspaper underscored the need to translate Pingali’s book into various languages for a wider reach,” Dr Rao says. In 1921, on March 31 and April 1, an AICC meet was held for the first time in Vijayawada (Bezawada at the time). It was held at Victoria Jubilee Hall, now, the Bapu Museum.

Meanwhile, Gandhi was aware of Pingali’s efforts to design the national flag. He also knew about Pingali’s book on national flags. He invited Pingali to the meeting in Vijayawada. During this meeting, Gandhi discussed with Pingali the design for the national flag. Pingali designed a flag as per Gandhi’s suggestions and presented it to him at the meeting. After a few changes, the flag was adopted as the flag of the Congress and later, the spinning wheel was replaced with the Ashoka Chakra and hoisted officially as the national flag on July 22, 1947.

After Tilak’s demise in 1920, Pingali took a step back from active politics. It’s not a surprise that he then shifted focus to studies. He pursued courses in geology and mining. Till 1944, Pingali worked in the field of diamond mining at various places. Pingali used to stay in Nellore, while his family and children lived in Vijayawada. After India achieved independence, Pingali moved to Vijayawada for good in 1948.

Pingali’s younger son, Chalapathi Rao, was with the Indian Army. He returned home after being affected by tuberculosis but died at a tender age. Pingali and his wife were grief-stricken. From 1948, Pingali lived at Chitti Nagar near Milk Project in Vijayawada. The government had given Chalapathi Rao a small plot of land, where Pingali lived in a thatched house till he died in 1963.

His elder son, Pingali Parsuramayya, was a correspondent with the Indian Express in the 1950s.
Pingali was in extreme poverty in his final days, so much so that his family did not have enough money to have food. For a while, his expertise in mining fetched him some money. He was made an advisor in the Mines Department and given an honorarium. However by 1960, the post was revoked, and the honorarium was withdrawn.

Once again, Pingali and his family were left with nothing. Asked why Pingali died in such penury even though he was a master in several fields, the biographer says, “Despite his excellent knowledge on numerous subjects, Pingali never used it for making money. He worked for the greater good of society and people. He was a selfless patriot, who never even sought help from his acquaintances even in dire circumstances. Self-respect and dignity were his core qualities.”

Pingali Venkaiah.(File photo)

Pingali had two wishes. One was fulfilled, the other was not: he wanted to see the flag hoisted at Red Fort, but never could.“Pingali died on July 4, 1963. Many Independence Days and Republic Days were celebrated between 1947 and 1963, yet no one ever invited him to the events in Delhi. Prime Ministers, Presidents and leaders of several other countries were invited, but not Pingali,” Dr Rao does not hide his disappointment.

Pingali’s final wish was to be wrapped in the national flag. He wanted the flag to be tied to a peepul tree in the graveyard. “The wish was fulfilled, but no one seemed to care when Pingali died. Only a few people from the city participated in the funeral procession from Chitti Nagar to Vijayawada, when Pingali died,” the biographer says. His 100-year-old daughter, Sitamahalakshmi, died on July 21, 2022, and was given a State funeral.

Pingali journaled published research papers, and biography on Chinese leader Sun Yat-Sen and even his book, ‘A National Flag for India’. Unfortunately, everything is lost. A hall in Bhatlapenumarru, where Pingali was born, is the only memorial in the unsung hero’s honour. This hall, too, was built with the help of donations.


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