Hand fans pose a bit of a paradox. They are valuable markers of culture, class structures, natural resources and aesthetics of a people. Yet as a common possession in the hot and humid Indian subcontinent, they often go unnoticed. It is a truth that hits home in an ongoing exhibition of hand fans at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi.

Pankha: A Collection of Hand Fans from the Indian Subcontinent and Beyond by Artist Jatin Das, which opened at the Twin Art Gallery at IGNCA on May 26, showcases ranges of hand fans from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Japan, China, Egypt, among other countries. The show includes artworks – paintings and photographs that depict hand fans – from colonial times to the present. On display are Kalighat and Patachitra paintings made in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as recent works by contemporary artists like A Ramachandran and Paresh Maity.

The month-long exhibition will be accompanied by fan-making workshops and storytelling sessions as well as daily screenings of documentaries that Das has made on the craft of making hand fans. “When I do something, I go the whole hog,” said Das during an interview in late May. “Then I get passionately involved.”

Selected pankhas from artist Jatin Das' collection. Photo courtesy: JD Centre of Art, Bhubaneshwar.

The way the exhibition has been designed by Siddhartha Das – Jatin Das’s son and an exhibition and spatial designer – visitors are free to explore the show in any way they like. The twin galleries are broadly divided into fans from India and elsewhere. Barring this, there are no obvious themes or signs on how to navigate the show. There are no notes or labels besides the individual fans, which can be confusing. (The catalogue at least has brief captions about the state of origin and material used to make each fan.) But there is opportunity to chance upon something that captures your interest, and wonder who might have made it, where, and why?

Markers of place

For example, a set of metal fans ranging in size from 3 inches to about 2 feet in a glass vitrine might hold your attention. One of them has an intricate design of two parrots in a garden on the fan and a carved handle. Or you might be drawn to the series of Patachitra and Kalighat paintings – the fan is prominent only in some of them – like in a painting of four domestic scenes by Rabindra Nath Sahoo in four panels. In several other paintings, the fan is incidental, and seems perfectly natural in that time and setting. There’s even a Raj-era comic strip, with an irate Englishman whose troubles begin when a hand-pulled fan mounted on the ceiling, falls on his head.

A temple fan from Rajasthan. Photo courtesy: JD Centre of Art, Bhubaneshwar.

Of course, there are also more contemporary pieces. Like a 2004 drawing by A Ramachandran of various types of hand fans in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala with his characteristic self-portrait worked into them. It’s remarkable how Das has enlisted the help of friends and colleagues to grow the hand fan collection, to make it at once historical and contemporary. The absence of museum labels and notes on these pieces again feels like a missed opportunity to tell the story of these fans and collaborations. But for those who can make it, there are scheduled guided walks on weekends where visitors can learn more.

In terms of materials, the hand fans on show are made of paper, wood, grass, palm leaves, bamboo, cotton, lace, velvet, beads, feathers, leather, animal hair, and metals including silver. They range from simple fixed fans in natural colours to carved and bejewelled pieces. It’s possible to gauge the origin and station of the owners from the material and make of the fans. The heavily embroidered pieces, with expensive zari fringes, for instance, must have been owned by the wealthy. The fans are from around India – Odisha, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab. And from around the world – Japan, China, Singapore, Indonesia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and several African nations.

In 2017, the Department of Post released commemorative stamps on various types of Indian hand fans. Photo courtesy: JD Centre of Art, Bhubaneshwar.

Some of these fans Das collected himself. For others, he asked friend to bring them back from their travels. “When ambassador Lalit Mansingh was posted, 30 years ago, in Africa, he talked to all the African kings and got leather ceremonial fans from all of them,” said Das by way of example.

Important archive

Extensive as it is, the show at IGNCA showcases only a portion of the fans and paintings in Das’s collection. In an interview at his Mehrauli studio, Das said that he began collecting hand fans 40 years ago, and now his collection runs into a few thousand pieces.

This isn’t the first time Das is showing his collection of hand fans, though. The first Pankha exhibition opened in Delhi’s National Crafts Museum in 2004, and has since travelled to Kolkata, London, Zurich, Malaysia, the US and the Philippines. So why did Das decide to put up another exhibition – a time-consuming and often expensive proposition – in New Delhi?

A palm leaf pankha made by Alekh Baba Monks, Odisha. Photo courtesy: JD Centre of Art, Bhubaneshwar.

“Look, I am 77 years old; I want to round up the projects I’ve started,” he said waving his hand to indicate the rows upon rows of boxes, files and canvas stacked in his Mehrauli studio. “I have taken too much on my plate.” Das added that after this exhibition, the hand fans will go into the permanent collection at the JD Centre for Arts, Bhubaneswar, for safekeeping. Indeed, some of the fans made with natural materials like local grasses and leaves are quite fragile.

The second reason, he added, is that “obviously the collection has grown [since 2004]”.

Das has also been working on two books on the subject of hand fans and these are slated to be launched at the exhibition. The first of these – To Stir the Still Air – contains all his research and experiences on collecting the fans and related art. The second is a book of poetry about hand fans. “We started by thinking it would be 50-60 poems in different languages,” said Das. The count, he said, has increased manifold. “Everyone I asked – Gulzar, Pawan Varma – sent in a poem. Now there’s a team of people who are figuring out copyright permissions.”

The final reason, he added, is an attempt on his part to “enthuse people to have a sense of historicity; a sense of culture; to collect; to preserve for posterity, for future generations. Everybody should build some collection. A lot of our arts and antiquities have gone out of the country. We are not bothered.... We are a great country [and] decadent people”.

Whether it accomplishes this purpose of encouraging others to collect and preserve traditional crafts, the Pankha exhibition does make us relook at the hand fan. A fine example is the paintings in the show. The fan is transformed from a prop in the paintings to their hero in the context of this exhibition. We see it in fresh light – as the instrument of power play, romance, even deux ex machina as in the case of the poor Englishman in the comic strip who had a series of bad luck after a hand-pulled fan fell on his head.

A portrait of Jatin Das by Raghu Rai. Photo courtesy: JD Centre of Art, Bhubaneshwar.

Pankha: A Collection of Hand Fans from the Indian Subcontinent and Beyond by Artist Jatin Das is on till June 24, 10 am-7 pm, at Twin Art Gallery, IGNCA, Janpath, New Delhi.