One summer afternoon, 40 years ago, I saw a friend sitting depressed in my studio in Nizamuddin, New Delhi. I picked up a pankha (hand fan) and with mock seriousness said, “Let me stir the still air”. It suddenly occurred to me that this would be the perfect title for a book on the Pankha, and it was this amazing hand fan that gave me the impetus.
I am a contemporary Indian artist with a deep interest in traditional art forms. I took up this project with spontaneity and fervour – as I do most things in my life. When an idea is born in my mind, I try to visualize and see the larger picture. The journey of collecting pankha that was envisioned that summer afternoon has come a long way since. The collection now consists of a few thousand fans.
Whenever I visited villages or towns in the Indian subcontinent, one of my main concerns would be to scout for hand fans and traditional crafts. I also sketched them and took photographs. In each place, the pankha would be made of different materials, according to the raw materials that grow in the area and have a variety of intricate designs.
Traditional crafts have survived in India because rural folk still make and use them. I would often ask chowkidars, cooks and peons for hand fans because they are the people who are still connected to the tradition. At first they would laugh, but later produce beautiful pieces made by their mothers, wives
and daughters. The craft of fan-making is done mainly by women all over India. Every time I bought an exquisite fan from a home, I carried the guilt of depriving people of their personal belongings, but hope they will get another. Although the cost of making the pankha is minimal, the workmanship, effort and personal touch make these delicate objects invaluable. On the other hand, antique dealers in Jaipur and Ahmedabad immediately smelt that I was a collector and would not let me leave without some rare heirloom that had found its way from the palaces and havelis to the dealer. The price of these fans would, of course, be sky-high.
I also collected fans when I visited different countries. Africa, Egypt and the Middle East; far eastern countries like China, Korea and Japan; Indonesia and South-East Asia - the entire region has a big fan culture in their everyday life as well as in their traditional dances. Fans come in different shapes and sizes, are made of varied organic materials and are used for different purposes. The collection has a variety of fans. There are antique ceiling fans from the Mughal and Colonial period that were pulled by pankhawala from outside the room and used for large congregations in temples, royal courts and aristocratic darbars and offices. There are fans called phadh, large hand fans held by an attendant for groups of affluent men and women. Then there are ceremonial fans and a large variety of personalised fans of many kinds made by women. Many of them are centuries old and are priceless antiques. The collection also grew with gifts from friends from across the globe.
Fans are chiefly available in the hot months, mainly in old markets and weekly haats (village markets) with vendors who sell broomsticks, baskets and stock fans made of bamboo, khajur (date palm) and palm leaf. The advent of electricity has made the use of pankha in urban areas redundant but people in the countryside still have the need for them. Even now on summer afternoons men fan themselves to sleep on their charpoys. Women seated in a circle air themselves with a fan revolving between them as they talk. A wife buys a fan from the market, embellishes it little by little with beads, silk, satin and keeps it under her pillow to cool her husband at meal times or in bed. It is a tool of romance, private and personal; a language to appease, cajole and seduce.
Over the years, my passion became a collection that dictated systematic research, documentation and archiving. It expanded to include paintings, prints, miniatures, photographs and poems on the subject, from the Colonial period to the present. Systematic and methodical accessioning was followed by written and photo documentation. A bibliography was compiled, along with glossary of names for fans in different languages. We also travelled to many parts of India and made short documentary films on the craft of fan making.
In May 2004 all the fans came out of their trunks for their maiden exhibition, held at the National Crafts Museum, New Delhi. After a month, the exhibition travelled to the grand Victoria Memorial, Kolkata. Tens of thousands of people visited. At the close of the year a selected show opened at the Fan Museum in London for four months and was followed in 2005 by exhibitions at the Rietberg Museum, Zurich, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, and the National Museum, Manila, Philippines. In 2011, they were exhibited at the ‘Maximum India Festival’ at The John F. Kennedy Centre in Washington DC.
I am worried that repeated handling, mounting and dismantling of the exhibition in different climatic conditions is going to make these fragile objects more vulnerable to damage. Hence, a separate collection of similar fans will be set aside for traveling exhibition in future.
A book on pankha, “To Stir the Still Air,” is being published.
Painting, being my only source of income, has alone funded this unusual collection without any support from outside. I have been collecting, studying, researching and documenting arts and crafts from many parts of India, and in particular, Odisha, which is my home state. I feel sad when a beautiful craft of India disappears due to lack of interest, utility or outlet. The collection of hand fans is a small attempt to draw attention to the rare and dying crafts of India.
It is dedicated to the unknown craftspeople of the great Indian subcontinent.