The works listed here are creative responses to the time intended towards a dialogue
with the history of future.
  Plastic Patriotism

Flags produced in materials like plastic, to my mind, is an antithesis to the values
Our flag affirms and celebrates.
Our flag is symbol of our stern resistance against imperialism,
-A symbol of self reliance.
Our flag honours and celebrates labour,
-labour seen not as drudgery but an act of consciousness and spirituality.
It affirms our faith and conviction in the philosophy that,
"the Means should justify the End".
The flag affirms the value of authentic materials
-which radiate aura and energy,
-which has a halo of truth around it.
Our flag is weaved.
It is weaved with fibres to make a reality,
-Bringing a view of life in its totality.
An understanding of labour, material, spirituality-relationship among these,
An understanding of self reliance, freedom, celebration of life,
Interconnectedness, nonviolence, purity in thought and action.
Flags produced in plastic is an antithesis to the values our national flag stand for.

 -C.F. John


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Plastic Patriotism

A Campaign to ban plastic flags should be a starting point of a debate on modernity, nationalism and development,
says C.K. Meena

"Plastic represents the alienation of the worker, in the Marxian sense. There is a break in the link between man and his work; the worker does not conceptualize the product, he does not determine what he produces, he has no choice over the materials he uses. He is separate from the production process. Work is creative. You create yourself through the creation of your product. Take away work and you take away the core of human existence. Take away work from the human race and you are destroying it. We might as well all return to the animal world". (Prof. Babu Mathew The former vice President of Trade Union International)
- C.K Meena, Plastic patriotism - The Hindu Magazine, January 7, 2001.

Unfurling the Plastic National Flag

Kamaan Singh Dhami builds a value based case against the popular plastic tiranga

  What's wrong if it's plastic? What is not of plastic these days? Its durable and its cheap, which even the poor can buy for their children to wave around.
Perhaps, this is how many of us unconsciously justify the use of plastic national flags. Some may have even forgotten that the flag ought to be made from a specific material: khadi (handspun and hand-woven) cloth made from natural fibres like cotton, woollen, or silk, an aspect as important as the right colour pattern.

  'Cheap' was what I thought the plastic flags looked when I first saw them being sold by bony children at the fuming, suffocating junction of Brigade and M G Road. Perhaps, having been used to seeing paper flags kept me from thinking further. To think of them now, I find there is nothing to beat plastics on the side of durability too. For they are so durable that long after the national festivals, party meetings and government functions have passed, plastic flags along with party banners, cups, plates and other garbage, continue to litter public places. And if they have not been cleared away, as is usually the case, like other non biodegradable garbage they finally end up clogging drains and waterways and cause long term hazards as well.

  In recent times apart from jingoists, plastic manufacturers, government propagandists etc. who have used the national flag for purposes belying its spirit, there have been others who have done so out of concern. Even among artists, C F John has not been the only one. However, it was his paintings that led me to think over the issue.

  During John's latest exhibition titled 'Fragile Memories' held in Windsor Manor Art Gallery, an important aspect was the use of the Indian National Flag as produced in notably two diverse materials. On the one side were plastic, thermocol, etc. and the other was khadi. While the synthetic ones were freely available, John says it was the khadi version, a single piece, which he found most difficult to procure: a long search in the government Khadi Bhandar shop with much perseverance from his side as well as effort of the keepers.

  C F John is perhaps one of the few adult artists to have the flag dominate many of his paintings, which he jointly displayed with three other artists. I say 'adult' because the national flag is a favorite subject for many children, whose depiction of the flag John imitates in one of his paintings: a stiff three-striped rectangle attached to a disproportionately long and thin post, with a string distinctly spiraling around.

  It is not that John hopes to take the plastic industry, the political parties and the government itself, to court for violating the norms. That would be missing the point. Besides, given the treatment meted out to the people of the Narmada Valley by the Supreme Court, such an approach would hardly be worthwhile. John does something else. His paintings bring out the values that our flag symbolizes and also what the plastic flag stands for in the present day context. For John, 'the flag in materials like plastic is an antithesis of the values that our flag affirms and celebrates in all its totality.' In the light of what John is saying, one needs to rediscover the symbolism behind our national flag.

 A far too simplistic and in many ways wrong interpretation that I learnt in primary school was, 'saffron stood for Hindus, green for Muslims, and white for all the rest, while the chakra with 24 spokes was borrowed from the Ashoka stambha that represented Ashoka's Empire - something in the past that is comparable to Modern India.' This is how the flag was originally conceived and has perhaps remained in the popular imagination. While it was red and not saffron that represented the Hindus, Mahatma Gandhi too had conceded to this conception, although with a different colour scheme. Gandhiji said -
  "The weakest numerically occupy the first place (white), the Islamic colour (green) comes next, the Hindu (red) comes last, the idea being that the strongest should act as a shield to the weakest… to represent the equality of the least of us with the best, an equal part is assigned to all the three colours in the design."

 While the Sikhs had demanded the inclusion of a yellow stripe to represent them, the interpretation itself was later rejected on grounds of being communal. It is important to note that Muslims, in those days, though proportionately the same as now in terms of population, were not considered a minority.

 The flag since then passed through some modifications which were done mainly for practical considerations. It however accumulated newer interpretations which were finally endorsed by Dr. Radhakrishnan, who at the time of Independence said,

"The green is there - our relation to the soil, our relation to the plant life here on which all other life depends. We must build our paradise here on this green earth. If we are to succeed in this enterprise, we must be guided by truth (white), practice virtue (wheel), adopt the method of self-control and renunciation (saffron)."

 The wheel in the middle was originally a simplification of the Charkha (the manual spinning wheel) that was made into a popular symbol by Mahatma Gandhi to represent the masses, their self-reliance, and way of life as well as modes of production. Later it was also interpreted as the Dharma Chakra of Ashoka, whose ambassadors went to different states with the message of peace and non-violence.

 The evolution of the Indian National Flag like that of the Indian Nation had been a troubled one and what it signifies cannot be taken as an absolute. The committees that sat for its inception comprised leaders and thinkers who were popular, but still far removed from 'the masses' that they took to understand as Indians. The elitism of the Indian National Congress, whose flag was inherited as the Indian National Flag, cannot be disregarded. Was the national flag simply a fantasy of the most 'westernized' of Indians, that the INC certainly was, as is evident from the career charts of Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar? Did the flag truly propagate the aspirations of the people subjugated under the British as well as the still existing social structures? The fact that these principles have remained unpracticed and now largely forgotten warrants asking these questions.

 At the same time, but for the lack of enthusiasm from the Hindu right, one cannot deny that the flag was popular. Also that our flag symbolizes ideals that are anti- imperialism, people-oriented, with an understanding of a harmonious relationship between human beings and nature, and directed towards humanity rather than the nation in isolation. Even the communal conception of the flag positively represented the religious groups - perhaps explaining the response of the Hindu extremists. For C F John the national flag underscores 'an understanding of labour, material, spirituality - relationship among these, an understanding of self reliance, freedom, celebration of life, interconnectedness, non-violence, purity in thought and action.'

 The plastic flag in contrast, garishly symbolizes the way the Indian Nation since its birth has moved away from the ideals it had set forth, and like much of the rest of the world, has been transformed by the global capitalist regime. In one of John's paintings, the post liberalized India's preoccupation with militarism and war could be gathered from the associations drawn from the representation of the plastic flag with a pistol painted below. The proliferation of mass-produced plastic flags, used on any and every occasion, indicates the way patriotism defined in very narrow terms has been used for even narrower political interests, and many times tainted with communal colours.

 The exhibition also told a story. It told the story of those villages whose only source of livelihood was from the production of the national flag. And how, instead of being a boon, the greater demand for national flags in the recent years has actually spelt doom for these villages. The skewed logic that has been operating in the policy makers' minds and their connivance with modern industry isn't unknown. First the government says that the villagers with their traditional looms are not sufficiently geared to satisfy the large-scale need for flags. So with much show of reluctance it gives permission to private industrial manufacturers - in this case, the plastic industry. And then we find the villages have entirely lost the market that has been guaranteed to them by the constitution, so much so that even for government needs, private manufacturers are given orders. Soon we hear that the weavers are starving, or as someone found out, that some of the weavers had ended up selling zips and other knick knacks in the bazaar.

  Like the symbolism, the story of the change in the 'production' and 'consumption' of the National flag stands for much else that has been happening in the country. The history of the entire village-based handloom and most other cottage industries, whose expertise wasn't even recognized as valuable science, tells a similar tale. The same logic has been operating since Nehru's days. While vowing to safeguard the interests of the traditional artisans, our leaders gave encouragement to numerous mills and later to powerlooms on the pretext that the labour-intensive and so-called time-consuming handloom industry cannot handle the nation's clothing requirements. As in the case of the latest textile policy by a government that proclaims to have a 'swadeshi' outlook, the lip service paid to the weavers has now led handloom weavers to the brink of extinction.

In all these processes, the weavers, like peasants, ironsmiths, cobblers, tanners etc., who come from the lowest rung of the class and caste ladder, are nowhere on the consultant list. They perish not simply due to the government's discouragement but deliberate cheating, where even laws that protect their rights have been violated. In the weavers' case, numerous other items like sarees, towels, bedsheets etc, over which they have exclusive production rights, have been illegally permitted to be mass-produced by the modern industry owners. Their livelihood, seen purely as another profitable market, has been grossly swallowed up by private manufacturers who have violated the rules to the extent that they aren't penalized in spite of blatantly broadcasting advertisements on national TV.

The plastic flag denotes the plastic revolution, ushered in as a remedy to all our ills in the name of globalization, that has meant a change whose proportions we can understand only partially. While production modes that nurtured the Indian civilization through millennia stand ghettoized as 'handicrafts' and 'ethnic-ware' in the present economic system, there are others like vegetable vendors, street entertainers, tender-coconut sellers… whose livelihoods are being systematically snatched out of their hands and gifted to factory owners. So that we now have to buy patented groceries cunningly packed and displayed in blindingly lit supermarkets, we are entertained by star media tycoons, and our thirst quenched not by naturally packaged fresh coconuts but through tetra packs that claim to be 'extra-fresh'.

 John's focus in his paintings has mainly been on one particular aspect of the flag - the material. The medium used, essentially natural fibre as in the case of our flag, commands as much attention as every other aspect. The fibres tell their own story. The medium is not brutally flattened for the artist to work on, like the treatment of landscape for modern constructions. The medium speaks its own language and has its own meaning. For John, fibre stands as a metaphor for Indian sensibility and how it permeates every sphere of our spiritual and material world, interwoven and inseparable. Fibre as the material for the flag truly signifies the rural and the tribal life that most Indians continue to live. Fibre connects them spiritually as a community and constitutes every aspect of their living: food, clothing, housing, even their very bodies.

 John is perhaps re-articulating Mahatma Gandhi and his stress on the principle that 'the means dictate the ends'. 'The medium denotes its own truth' is the principle that underlines John's artistic and creative work. Not to be simply slotted as an artist dabbling in social and political issues, John derives his understanding from the tenet 'Sathayam, Shivam, Sundaram'. That the beautiful, the good and the true always go together. That the trinity of aesthetics, truth and ethics is inseparable, i.e. when one changes, there is an inevitable change in the others. The change in the material of the flag, which constitutes its aesthetic, invariably signifies the change in what it holds as truth and what we understand as the good and the right. It is tragic that very few among us perceive this.

 It is not my intention to simply pitch the Gandhian outlook that in some ways the flag stands for, against the modern capitalist form. Both cannot be seen in black and white, and Indian society stands somewhere in between. John's exhibition is an attempt to understand our living, our world and the happenings around, and also to bring changes in it as a result of that understanding. John hasn't simply depicted the world but tried to cull out those ideas that drive it, the Indian Nation in particular. The ideas that our flag embodies were a result of the struggle against the ideas of imperialism and exploitation. The change in the medium of and the message in the National flag signifies how ideas of colonization have re-entered our lives in the form of capitalism and 'free' market in ways so sinister that many of us have been stupefied into mindless celebration. Year after year we continue to foolishly empty out our pockets to foreign and now our own desi Multinationals in return for The Miss World accolades, refusing to see the media, the cola companies and other hawks winking to each other while squabbling over the world's largest middle-class market that India presents. Those of us who do see this drama for what it is and are resisting it have been branded as 'unpatriotic', 'conservative', 'anti-development'… and even 'western'.

 The National Flag provides a valuable means of understanding our society and the way we think. Some may raise questions about the use of the flag in art as John has done. But I think that meditating and reflecting on our ideals, and 'the temples of our mind', as John's mentor S Kappen terms them, is by far more rewarding and necessary than our unthinking devotion to a striped piece of plastic. What could be more insulting to the flag and the nation than the fact that those who hammered down the Babri Masjid and now talk of going further, are seeking to control the nation and have appropriated the responsibility to uphold the flag? And, what is more inappropriate than the flag being associated with weapons of mass destruction, like the nuclear bomb? We are living with these glaring contradictions and ironies. Are we willing to even face them or are we to accept them as fate?

 Present day India also means that many Indians have access to resources and moneys they never dreamed of. India is earning millions of dollars in the info-tech field. There are success stories of individuals who have made it big internationally and put India on all kinds of maps. This is a reality associated with our flag that is made most visible and is celebrated endlessly. The fact that this reality is restricted to a bare one per cent of the Indian population, especially the English-knowing class, and is unlikely to expand and in fact is at the cost of the others, is something that needs consideration. The Indian National Flag and the Indian nation mean different things to different peoples. Can we begin to understand what it means to all these different people? This is the step John has bravely taken. The next step can't be his alone. Among others, the forthcoming Republic Day is an opportunity to take our understanding further ahead and also be able to do something meaningful.

-Kaaman Singh

  Links to the other works:

> Plastic Patriotism
> Mandala- Meditation Space
> Campaigns

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