How did your interest for pankhas start?
I am a contemporary Indian artist with a deep interest in traditional art forms. The Pankhas, hand fans, showcase a wide range of diversity in materials, colours, techniques as well as social use, making them intriguing and unique objects that provoked my curiosity and admiration. The crafts of Pankha are however, on the wane. These are endangered by electric alternatives being widely adopted. Being local in nature, they are also being swept away by the rising tide of globalization. The collection of hand fans is a small attempt to draw attention and honour the rare and dying crafts of India. It is dedicated to the unknown craftspeople of the great Indian subcontinent.
How long have you been collecting hand fans?
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. 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. The journey of collecting pankha that was envisioned that summer afternoon has come a long way since.
Over the years, my passion became a collection that dictated systematic research, documentation and archiving. It expanded to include paintings, prints, miniatures, photographs, films 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.
Where did you collect the 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. 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. I would also sketch them and take 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. 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. The collection also grew with gifts from friends from across the globe.
The world-range collection of fans must be very diverse, could you single out some specific examples?
The collection has a vast variety of fans. Fans come in different shapes and sizes, are made of varied organic materials and are used for different purposes. In the relatively tropical conditions of east and the north east of India, bamboo and cane, besides beads and peacock feathers are among the materials that are widely used. Palm leaf fans, made mostly in the coastal belt are simpler than those of cane and bamboo, which are often woven, in intricate patterns. The hotter the summer gets ― as in the Punjab, in Sindh and out towards the Middle East ― the more the use of date-palm leaves is seen. Khus, a fragrant root when used for a pankha, stirs an aroma-filled air. Besides the hand fans there are fixed, hand-pulled, aristocratic pieces of leather and velvet as well as those used for chulha and bhutta-kebab which kept the coals alight. Unique to the sub-continent are the ceiling fans pulled by rope and the chiks 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.
Among the main fan centres of the subcontinent are: Assam, Manipur, Gujarat, Rajasthan, the North Western Frontier Province, Lahore, Kerala, Orissa, Bengal and Assam. In Assam, the special fans made at the monasteries/satras of the river island of Majuli are made to fan images of Krishna.
In the collection there are ceremonial fans and a large variety of personalised fans of many kinds made by crafts women. Many of them are centuries old and are priceless antiques. Besides these, the collection also has painted fans done by more than 300 Indian contemporary artists.
Do you think the fan culture is still a living tradition in India?
Traditional crafts, including the hand fans, 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.
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.
Was there already a display of your collection of pankhas?
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.
What can visitors expect from the exhibition at IGNCA, New Delhi?
The exhibition at IGNCA is the most definitive exhibition to date and will present a wide range of unique hand fans from India and across the globe. A month-long exhibition will include a series of accompanying programmes for the weekends such as fan making workshops with our team and with craftspeople, who will also demonstrate the crafts making, poetry readings and curated walks. The exhibition will also involve different aspects of summer that are married to the existence of fans and the air of intrigue that surrounds them. Cool Indian summer drinks, leisurely music, poetry and literature centred on the warm months complete the image of these lyrical objects just in time for Delhi’s temperatures to rise. The 21st of June, the longest day of the year and marker of the beginning of summer, will be celebrated in this manner as well.
Do you have further plans with exhibiting the collection after this exhibition?
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 fans will be set aside for traveling exhibition in future and a part of the collection will be on permanent display at the JD Centre of Art in Bhubaneswar, in my home state Odisha. The Centre is one of my biggest project for promoting traditional and contemporary arts without boundaries. The Centre already has annual and monthly cultural programmes in Bhubaneswar while the building’s construction is underway opposite the ancient Khandagiri caves. A gallery would be dedicated to the uniquely handcrafted fans for the public to explore and enjoy.
After 40 years of collecting pankhas I believe that they also deserve a unique fan museum in New Delhi where children and adults can see and understand the dying crafts that vanishing rapidly in our country. They could be on display in all their splendour and celebrate the traditional crafts of India and beyond.
Where can we read more about your collection and the culture of hand fans in India?
This exhibition will be accompanied by a publication on Pankhas entitled “To Stir the Still Air”. As the collection grew, while travelling across India, I realized that diverse varieties of design, medium and material were used for this craft in rural India. This book weaves a visual narrative covering a wide range from bamboo, grass, palm leaf, wheat stalk weaved intricately, as well as, leather, textiles, beads, mirror, feather, metal and embroidery. They come from different parts of the sub-continent according to the vegetation.
Unlike in the Far East, which has a well-known fan culture where the folding hand fans are used on various social occasions, very little is known about the hand fans of India. First of its kind, this book is an intimate revelation on this craft and the romance of the pankha in the lives of those who use fans as private objects in inner recesses of homes. The book highlights how they were used by the aristocracy in their courts and durbars, with pankhas and pankhawalas entering the colonial parlance and represented in colonial etchings such as Daniel’s.
My effort to illustrate the traditions of the pankha for posterity is approached in the perspective of an artist, rather than that of a scholar or historian. Some of these fans portrayed in the images are made of fragile material and have a short life span. Most of hand fans represented in the book are made by women. There are references to painting, engravings, advertising and poetry depicting fans from all over the subcontinent. All these varied depictions add up to ensure that the pankha retains its aficionados.