Artist Jatin Das wryly calls himself “stupid” and “obsessive” in his passion for hand fans. To gather them, he has scouted weekly village haats, requested chowkidars and domestic help to give him their personal fans, invested in heirlooms sold by antique dealers, and paid several thousands a month as rent for a space to house his humongous collection.
It all began with a fan gifted by a friend — and now, after nearly four decades, he possesses more than 5,000. The more exceptional among these are on display in Delhi now. Speaking at the inauguration last month, Das was bemused by journalistic questions demanding quantifiable answers (“how many fans in your collection”, “how much did you buy this for”). He really doesn’t care. “I bought some for ₹2 and some for ₹2 lakh,” he said dismissively.
It is the celebration of the pankhas , an appreciation of the culture, stories and artistry they invoke, and more importantly, a concern that these fragile artefacts be suitably preserved for posterity, that motivate him. “If someone offers to make a permanent home for them in India, I will donate them for free, otherwise I will sell them to a museum abroad,” he said.
For Das, the journey started with an attempt to cheer up a friend. He had waved a hand fan over his head, telling him comfortingly, “Let me stir the still air.” The sentence and the pankha seeded an idea and a desire in Das — he started collecting these almost-overlooked beauties of daily life, gathering them from across the world even as friends gifted him more.
Entering one of the two galleries of IGNCA, and being greeted by a magnificent ornamental silver fan, you feel grateful for the artist’s obsession. The IGNCA’s twin galleries are now a smorgasbord of rich colours, materials, embroideries, designs, shapes, crafting techniques — and uses. Particularly exquisite are the zardozi fans and painted fans from Rajasthan; lush mirrorwork fans from Gujarat; silk phad pankha with its pure zari, used in the service of the aristocracy in Uttar Pradesh; the intricate fragile tracery of the white sholapith fans from Bengal; fans in ornamental brass used as temple offerings; leather fans from Kutch; tiny metal fans with parrots and elephants carved on them. Inevitably for an object named after the pankh (feather), there are fans of peacock feathers.
Made from material as different as bamboo, cane, palm leaf, silk, brass, leather and silver, the fans tell stories of different geographies, cultures, religious rituals, social protocols and class structures. There are large painted hanging pankhas, to be pulled by attendants, that were meant for elite homes and durbars or temple congregations; on one such, Ram and Sita in richly painted colours hold court.
In the interstices of the exhibition, you also find movie stills and colonial-era photographs and paintings that showcase the use of hand fans. A sahib sits reading his newspaper as the native attendant fans him; Akbar, flanked by two pankha bearers, receives Queen Elizabeth’s envoy; Patachitra and Kalighat paintings have women fanning themselves or their husbands; there is even a poster of a Hong Kong film, Mad Monkey Kung Fu, which has the protagonist fighting with one hand while the other holds an fan spread out elegantly. Also on show are short documentaries by Jatin Das on pankhas and their makers.
Interestingly, the collection includes a subset that merits an exhibition in its own right — pankhas painted by some of India’s well-known living artists. Das invited his friends to contribute their bit to his fan collection, and so a contemporary twist was given to this almost-dying form. Several fans painted and signed by the likes of Paresh Maity and Manu Parekh are on display.
A second gallery showcases fans from Japan, China, Sri Lanka, Egypt and countries of Southeast Asia, West Asia, as well as Africa. There are bamboo, silk and feather fans here too, but also paper fans, which are missing from the Indian section.
Beauty with utility
The word ‘craft’ is used so often in policy discourse, school lessons, or urban ethno-chic fashion manuals that we tend to forget the original utilitarian purpose of objects. People made artefacts because they had an intrinsic role to play in their lives: you embroidered trousseau for your wedding; you wove shawls to wear or sell; you shaped pottery to store water or grain, and you made fans to survive Indian summers.
The exhibition benefits from having contemporary pankha -makers demonstrating their craft outside the galleries. Craftswomen from Uttarakhand and Jaisalmer paint elephants on fans or embroider them with the typical designs of the Rajasthani desert, their fingers weaving beauty with utility. Fan-making workshops have been arranged for children. An additional delight is a set of stamps of Das’s pankhas released by India Post.
But in this otherwise multifaceted homage to the pankha, there’s one thing missing: explanatory labelling about the provenance of the fans. Neither is there a broad grouping of them according to region of origin. However, guided walks promised to provide more context and detail.
Leaving the exhibition, I am overwhelmed by the rush of memories it has unlocked. My maternal grandmother fanning me to sleep in the 70s’ era of power failures, or fanning her wood-fired chulha to life. The pankhas carelessly kept by pillows or on side tables. An old woman scratching her back with the stem of her pankha in Premchand’s novel Gaban . Newly married Apu (played by Soumitra Chatterjee) and Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) taking turns to fan each other as they had their meals in Apur Sansar . Me fanning my friends’ children with a newspaper to keep flies away during a picnic in the hills. It makes me realise that the pankhas at the exhibition are not just a visual treat but also talismans that unlock cultural heritage and personal histories.
ON SHOW : Pankha: A Collection of Hand Fans from the Indian Subcontinent and Beyond by Artist Jatin Das; till June 24, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi
The Delhi-based writer and photographer likes to remain hopeful. Her blog is called The Laughter Memoirs.