Millennium Post

Fanning the collection

Fanning the collection
Sitting in his quaint two-storied apartment-studio in ShahpurJat, contemporary Indian artist Jatin Das knows what it takes to live his dream to the fullest.

'It was one summer afternoon, 27 years ago,' he says, 'I saw a friend sitting depressed in my studio in Nizammuddin. I picked up a pankha with mock seriousness and 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.'

This journey that was envisioned one lazy afternoon in Delhi, took the artist to the remotest corners of India - to villages and towns, to craftsmen and
, to peons and postmen. 'Whenever I visited any place, my real concern would be to scout for hand fans. I also sketched them and took photographs.'

The survival of traditional art forms in India is hanging by a thin rope. The danger of urbanisation is breathing down the neck of these slow paced, indigenous artisans who specialise in folk art mostly. 'Traditional crafts have survived in India because rural folks still make and use them,' says Das. 'I had a deep sense of guilt every time I would get around to collecting one of these artifacts; I felt I was depriving these artisans of their heirlooms, these small inexpensive objects that had a personal touch, required effort and precise workmanship, although never cost much.'

On the other hand, whenever Das ventured out to the outskirts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, he would always be greeted by eager antique dealers, who would be more than willing to sell him a couple of rare heirlooms that had found their way from the palaces and outhouses of the royal fraternity. These would cost a fortune, but that was hardly enough to deter him from his purpose.

These fans are a part an exquisite traditional art. They come in various sizes and forms and are largely, if not entirely, hand woven. Local, organic material is used and the craftsmen are mostly the women of the house or local artisans who depend on this art to earn a livelihood.

The ancient Egyptians regarded these as a life giving force and the Chinese called it ‘poetry on the wind’. Pankha, the common word for hand fans in India, is derived from the root Hindustani word pankhi, meaning the feather of a bird, evoking flight and the motion of stirring the air. In other parts of India the nomenclature is largely originates from the Sanskrit vinjanam: bisoni in Assam, binchana in Orissa, bena in Bihar, binjana in Rajasthan, vinjno in Gujarat, visheri in Kerala, and so on.

'There are antique ceiling fans from the Mughal and colonial period that were pulled by pankhabardars
from outside the room and used often for large congregations in the temples, royal courts, aristocratic darbars, and offices and within the recesses of the andarmahal or the inner room allocated to the women of the house. There are the even smaller, ritual fans that are strictly used for the purpose of fanning idols of gods and goddesses. Even now on summer afternoons, men fan themselves to sleep on a charpoy after a lazy lunch; women sit around in circles chatting, with a hand fan to keep them company, or they embellish the regular object with some beads or silk or lace and tucks it away under their pillow, to fan the husband at meal times or in bed.

'It is a tool of romance, private and personal; a language to appease, cajole and seduce,' remarks Das.

'Temple fans are often painted, made of cloth, palm leaf or metal, but never of bamboo,' says the collector. 'Fans are chiefly available in the hot months, the tropical climates makes it a necessity. Sold mainly in old markets and local haats with vendors who also sell broomsticks, baskets and stock fans made of bamboo, khajur [date palm] leaves, cloth, leather, golden grass and coir fibres,' he adds.

A passion is often dictated by an inner urge. But it requires meticulous attention. For Jatin Das, there is no greater cause than to give in, with full fervor, to a calling of this kind. 'Over the years my passion became a collection that needed systematic research, documentation and archiving. It expanded to include paintings, photographs, prints, miniatures and poems on the subject from the colonial period to the present. We compiled a bibliography, along with a glossary for names of the fans that belonged to different parts o f the country, we also traveled extensively throughout several parts of India and made short documentary features on the craft of fan making,' says Das.

The collection has grown tremendously over the last 25 years, with indulgent friends and the collector’s own resolve to add to this quixotic assortment of hand fans from not only the sub-continent, but as well as larger parts of Asia and Africa.

The summer of 2004 saw an exhibition of a kind that had never been seen or heard before in India - that of hand fans. Jatin Das took his collection of over 2000 pankhas to the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi. Subsequently the exhibition traveled to Calcutta and was showcased at the prestigious Victoria Memorial Hall in the city.

'In the meantime, Mrs. Helene Alexander, Director of the Fan museum in Greenwich, invited me to show a part of the collection in London,' says Das.

'My collection is an effort to reaffirm the role of the millions of craftsmen and women who struggle to keep our multicultural tradition alive,' says Das.
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