India celebrates 73 years of Independence this year. Although when we the people of this country hoist the national flag and celebrate the day, we rarely think about the person, specifically the woman, who played a key role in designing it. For decades, Pingali Venkayyah has been regarded as the man who came up with the design of the Indian flag. But contrary to the popular belief, Venkayyah was a contributor to one of the versions of the flag. He was instead the designer of the Swaraj Flag of the Indian National Congress. On the other hand, it was a woman named Surayya Tyabji who came up with the final design of our national flag and was a contributor to the design of the National Emblem.

Early Life

Surayya Badruddin Tayyabji (née Ali) was born in 1919 in Hyderabad. She was the daughter of Aamir Ali and Leila Hasan Latif. Surayya’s grandmother was Lady Amena Hydari, who was an activist, supporting the cause of women’s education. In the words of Surayya’s daughter Laila Tyabji, her mother’s family was “liberal, emancipated, proudly Indian – rather unconventional, given the times. Even in the late 19th century, all the women were educated and at least bilingual. Love marriages were the norm, often to similarly brought up cousins. Despite the khandaan’s standing and wealth, they were not in demand as daughters-in-law. Perhaps, because their outlook and upbringing were so different from more conventional Muslim families.

Surayya grew up to become a reputed artist, who was known for her uncustomary and progressive outlook towards life and society. She married Badruddin Tyabji, an Indian Civil Servant, who later served as the Vice-Chancellor for the Aligarh Muslim University. Surayya also became a member of various committees under the Constituent Assembly.

Also Read: These Are The Women Who Shaped The Constitution Of India

The National Emblem

Post the partition of the country in 1947, the Constituent Assembly faced the mammoth task of building a nation from scratch. It was then that they realised that this new nation, with a population of over 300 million, will need a National Emblem. A National Emblem was of utmost importance for a country getting freedom from the British rule after 200 years. It would represent India’s first step towards being a Republic. Jawaharlal Nehru thus allotted the responsibility of coming up with a design for our National Emblem to Badruddin Tyabji.

Badruddin Tyabji immediately set up a Flag Committee headed by Dr Rajendra Prasad and sent letters to all the art schools asking them to prepare designs. But most of the designs that came in were influenced by the British Emblem. Nobody in the Committee was keen on using more British imageries. It was then that Badruddin Tyabji, along with his wife Surayya proposed the design of lions and Ashoka Chakra for the National Emblem. However, Laila clarifies, “My father and she never felt they had “designed” the national emblem – just reminded India of something that had always been part of its identity.” Remembering the incident, Laila Tyabji further wrote, “So, my mother drew a graphic version and the printing press at the Viceregal Lodge (now Rashtrapati Niwas) made some impressions and everyone loved it. Of course, the four lions (Lion Capital of Ashoka) have been our emblem ever since.”

Also Read: This Independence Day, She Leads India

The Design For The National Flag

It was initially decided that the Swaraj Flag of the Indian National Congress designed by Pingali Venkayyah would be the National Flag with Gandhiji’s Charkha (sewing machine) positioned at the centre. After all, the country’s independence was fought under its banner. But soon oppositions for a party flag representing the entire nation broke loose. Hence, once again the Tyabjis were handed over the responsibility to come up with a design, this time for the national flag. Laila Tyabji explained the process in an article for The Wire, “They took the same Ashoka Chakra and put it on the tricolour. Once it was done, it all seemed so natural and obvious. Originally, my mother had painted a black chakra, but Gandhiji objected, so it became navy blue.”

Surayya Tyabji also supervised the sewing of the first flag which was later presented to Jawaharlal Nehru. The flag was unanimously accepted on July 22, 1947. Laila Tyabji has said that neither Surayya nor Badruddin Tyabji claimed creative ownership over the design of the flag, but also remembers that it was her mother who had specified the fabric and exact shades of the tricolour.

The Controversy

When the English historian Trevor Royle wrote in his book The Last Days of The Raj about how the national flag that we know of today came into existence, he only mentioned Badruddin Tyabji. According to Royle’s account of things, Badruddin was the one who came up with the idea of the final design of the flag entirely on his own. However, it was the Hyderabadi historian Capt. L. Panduranga Reddy’s research which later showed that it was indeed Badruddin Tyabji’s wife Surayya who actually designed the final tricolour. Even research of the Flag Foundation of India declares Surayya Tyabji as the designer behind the national flag. And indeed, a study of Constituent Assembly of India debates also shows the documents and names of the members of the flag presentation committee, where Surayya Tyabji’s name is clearly mentioned.

Also Read: Kadambari Devi: The Enigmatic Muse And Literary Companion Of Rabindranath Tagore

Surayya Tyabji is the name not just behind the design of the tricolour that symbolises sacrifice, purity and growth, but she is also responsible for contributing to designing a major part of the National Emblem which beautifully showcases courage and unity. Today, on the eve of the 73rd year of Independence, lets then make sure we acknowledge and honour the woman who played such an important role in Indian history.

Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. 

Get the best of SheThePeople delivered to your inbox - subscribe to Our Power Breakfast Newsletter. Follow us on Twitter , Instagram , Facebook and on YouTube, and stay in the know of women who are standing up, speaking out, and leading change.