Meow Meow was his pet refrain as painter Jatin Das, grinning like a Cheshire cat, breezed through the opening of “Pankha”, an exhibition of hand fans at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) recently. The showcase brings together 500 hand fans of the 8,500 that Das procured from across the world. Over 300 of his artist friends, including A Ramachandran, Manu Parekh, Arpita Singh and Gopi Gajwani, have contributed fan-themed paintings to the showcase. Besides, women fan-makers from Jharkhand, Bihar, Jaisalmer and Uttarakhand can be seen making and selling hand fans outside the exhibition, which is divided into Southeast Asia and rest of the world.
Among the pankhas — made of jhaadu sticks, khajur leaves, bamboo, wool, colourful cloth patchwork with beads, mirror, silk, satin and lace — is one semicircle red-green-painted dry grass one, resembling the headgear of a chhau dancer and is used for Barsha Ritu and Chhath Puja, a fan-maker tells us.
Das’ phrase lingers on, perhaps it’s his way of fanning the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof. Forty years ago, in his Nizamuddin studio, Das picked up a hand fan and, in all mock seriousness, tried to “stir the still air” around his friend who was sitting depressed. Thus began a sempiternal fascination for hoarding hand fans wherever he went.
“I would often ask chowkidars, cooks and peons. They would laugh first, but later produce beautiful pieces made by their mothers, wives and daughters,” says Das, 76. Soon, antique dealers started chasing him to sell rare heirloom fans of erstwhile havelis. He says that we Indians are oblivious to the omnipresence of such crafts, “Sabse zyada pankha Hindustan mein hain, aur Hindustaniyon ko pata nahin.” His collection (www.pankha.org) has fans worth Rs 2 and Rs 2 lakh. “It’s not about the money, but what each fan represents,” he says. There’s also a fixed feather fan, the only replica of the Turkish emperor’s gold-plated and jewelled fan, bought for $10,000 from Istanbul’s Sophia Museum.
“In Russia, the aristocratic women would carry hand fans in purses when they travelled to Paris. It was a fashionable thing to do,” says Das. The Spanish abanico has a secret language. The Far East excelled the fan dance. The number of strips of cypress (hinoki) wood in Japanese folding fans reflect a person’s rank/ status.
Describing the poetic act where lovers fan self/other to cajole and seduce, Das says, “Pankha kabhi apne aap karenge, kabhi kisiko karenge, phir ruk jayenge, uski ek masti hai, poetry hai. The electric fan, that made hand fans redundant, rose in a monotonous way.”
The palm-leaf and warp-and-weft-woven cane fans smell of childhood, of nostalgia: women squatting over chulhas, fanning the fire to speed up cooking, fanning their husbands and children at mealtimes, men on charpoys cooling themselves, on hot summer “load-shedding” afternoons, with the swirl of a hand fan or a folded newspaper, roadside hawkers using it to roast bhuttas. And the plaything chakri, “a great work of art, architecture and science, the two colourful paper-ribbon wheels rotating in opposite directions with a twist of wind,” says Das.
Fan became a symbol of servility and devotion — in the colonial courts and Mughal darbars, ceiling fans pulled by pankhawalas from outside the room; the large phadh held by attendants for the affluent; priests fanning idols in temples; and the chaur waved over the Granth Sahib at gurudwaras. The ancillary objects — comic strips, postage stamps, miniatures, sculptures, prints — show how the fan entered the lexicon of art, including “the Sikh raagmala, the Barahmasa poetry depicted in miniature paintings and prints,” says Das’s son, designer-architect Siddhartha Das.
Siddhartha says his father, who grew up in the culturally-rich Mayurbhanj in Odisha, remembers seeing, as a child, the Alekh Baba monks, followers of Bhima Bhoi, wandering with huge, regal fans. Das went to the Ashram in Dhenkanal district to get one. The head monk conceded 14 years ago. Many such stories make up the book, To Stir The Still Air, which may be released on the last day of the exhibition, organised by IGNCA in collaboration with JD Centre of Art (JDCA).
“So many traditional and folk crafts are vanishing. Ideally, there should be a public-private partnership in collecting and preserving art and craft as it should be everyone’s concern,” says Das, adding, “There are individuals who have painstakingly done this with their family funds, like the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum in Pune and the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art in Hyderabad. But I have no family funds. I have put every penny of mine for this huge collection of not only pankhas but of art, craft and antiquities collected over 40 years. To set up the art centre for it is my dream.”
Das will donate his entire collection if someone builds a fan museum in India (like there are in Greenwich, California, and Japan’s uchiwa museum). Till then, they will sit pretty as a permanent collection at the upcoming JDCA museum in Bhubaneswar.
For years, many people have kept the blue trunks for Das, says Siddhartha, including Purnima Rai of Craft Council of India and OP Jain of Sanskriti Pratishthan. At present, they are all in Das’ studio, and he is quite worried about the upkeep. “They are fragile and handling them too often damages them. I have already had a few shows in India and abroad and this is my last temporary show of pankhas,” says Das. First shown at Delhi’s National Crafts Museum in 2004, this might be the last chance to see his gargantuan, cat’s meow spread till he lets the pankhas out of the bag again…
‘Pankha’ is on display till June 24, 10.30am to 7.30pm (Monday closed), at Twin Art Gallery, IGNCA, New Delhi