Pankha Exhibition, 2018
The collector’s note
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 Pankhas. It was that amazing hand fan that gave me the impetus to begin the collection.
I am a contemporary Indian artist with a deep interest in traditional art forms. 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. The journey of collecting pankhas that was envisioned that summer afternoon, has come a long way since. The collection now consists of more than six thousand fans.
Throughout my travels, whenever I visited villages or towns in the Indian subcontinent, one of my main concerns was always to scout for hand fans and traditional crafts. I also sketched them and took photographs. In each place, the pankhas were made of different things, using raw materials that grew in the area. They often had a variety of intricate designs. Traditional crafts have survived in India because in our villages people still make and use them.
I often asked chowkidars, cooks and peons for hand fans because they are the people who are still connected to traditions. At first they would laugh, but later would bring 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 heritage, but hoped that they would get another. Although the cost of making the pankha is minimal, the workmanship, effort and personal touch make these delicate objects invaluable. Antique dealers in Jaipur and Ahmedabad immediately smelt that I was a collector. They would not let me leave without some rare heirloom that had found its way from palaces and havelis into their stores. Of course the prices of these hand fans were sky-high.
I also collected hand 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. Fans come in different shapes and sizes. They are made of varied organic materials and are used for different purposes. Each fan has a story to tell.
The collection has a variety of fans. There are antique ceiling fans from the Mughal and Colonial periods that were pulled by pankhawalas from outside the room and used for large congregations in temples, royal courts and offices and aristocratic darbaars. Then there are fans called phadh, large hand fans held by attendants for groups of affluent men and women. There are ceremonial fans and of course a large variety of personalized hand fans. Many of them are centuries old and are priceless antiques. The collection also grew with gifts from friends from across the globe. They all knew of my obsession.
Fans are mostly available in the summer, mainly in old markets and weekly haats (village markets). Vendors sell them along with broomsticks and baskets. The hand fans are mostly made of bamboo, khajur (date palm) and palm leaf. The advent of electricity has made the use of pankhas in urban areas redundant. In the countryside, people still have a 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 revolving fan as they talk. They buy such fans from the market and embellish them - little by little with beads, silk or satin and keep them under their pillows. They cool their husbands and their children at meal times or in bed. Fans are also a tool for romance; a language to appease, cajole and seduce.
Over the years, my passion became a collection that needed systematic research, documentation and archiving. It expanded to include paintings, prints, miniatures, photographs and poems on the subject, from the Colonial period to the present. Methodical accessioning was followed by written and photo documentation. A bibliography was compiled with glossary of names of fans in different languages. Along with a film crew, I also travelled to many parts of India and made short documentary films on the craft of fan making.
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 and looked at the fans carefully. At the close of the year a selected show opened at the Fan Museum in London for four months. It was followed by an exhibition at the Rietberg Museum, Zurich in 2005. Then the collection was displayed at the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur and at the National Museum of Manila in the Philippines. In 2011, they were exhibited at the ‘Maximum India Festival’ at The John F. Kennedy Centre in Washington DC.
I am worried that repeated handling, mounting and dismantling of the exhibitions in different climatic conditions is going to make these fragile objects more vulnerable to damage. In the future, a separate collection of similar fans will be set aside for traveling exhibition only.
Painting is my only source of income and has alone funded this unusual collection without any support from outside. I have been collecting, studying, researching and documenting arts and crafts from many parts of India, and in particular, Odisha, which is my home state. I feel sad when a beautiful craft of India disappears due to lack of interest, utility or buyers. This collection of hand fans is a small attempt to draw attention to the rare and dying crafts of India.
This show is dedicated to the unknown craftspeople of the great Indian subcontinent.