Mechanisation or passage of time has not eroded market for these fans

Little mushroom clouds of colour are deftly painted on the palmetto slates stacked together. These are palm slates kneaded into colourful palmetto hand-fans – stitched together to bring in a whiff of breeze on a lazy afternoon. Not a dying art, but a struggling occupation for sure – the handicraft of hand-held palm fans.

In the narrow lane of Nagore, a cattle pen of a workspace is filled with stacked palm-leaves, and oil paints. Five men and few women are engaged in the making of palmetto hand-fans and this small group is a rarity in what is otherwise well-known area for bamboo-based handicrafts.

Nagore is the only place in the region, where the craft is still alive, and we are the only people engaged in this, says Jabahar Saddiq with pride. Saddiq runs the place and has been at it for twenty-five years now.

The handcrafted palm fans are products of a strict, organic division of labour. The stacked palmetto leaf strips are cut to size with the aid of a die-like cast held beneath a cutter - levered by a team of two. The cut palm slates are counted and tied into bundles of 56 strips – required for a single hand-fan.

The cut-and-tied bundles are kneaded into a bamboo stick that has been dyed-ready in indigo. From here, the bundles are sent to home-based enterprises run by women, who stitch these slates together into peacock-feather-like palm fans.

And then follow a riot of colours - of orange, yellow, blue, white, green, black powder, along with varnish and turpentine.

With the base colours, a rainbow of colours is unleashed deftly on to the kneaded palm-fans.

Neither the advent of modern gadgetry or mechanisation nor the passage of time has eroded the persistent market for these fans. “Threat is not from market or mechanisation, but from banks,” says Saddiq. For these small-time crafts men and women, financial hurdles from not-so-responsive banks are the greatest hurdle for expansion. “We need just about Rs.1 lakh for expansion to engage more women to stitch the leaves into fans, but the banks are not forthcoming.”

Supply of palm leaves routed from Vedaranyam continues till the onset of monsoon, after which it is the stacked palm leaves that sustain the industry during the wet months. But, there is just as much palm leaves that could be saved up for the rainy months with financial constraints.

Each day, about 750 fans are crafted out under this shack – and routed to markets including Amritsar, Delhi, Bombay, Kolkatta to Tuticorin, Tiruchi and Chennai. A fan made at a cost of Rs.4 is sold in the lanes of Janpath or Jaipur many times over, says 60-year-old Sayeed Ahmad, the man who turns bland palm fans into a rainbow of colours.

The lure of mechanisation could not touch this craft, as nothing works better than human hands for these palm leaves, says Ahmad.