Fan-ning art: A look at Indian artist Jatin Das’ vast collection of ‘Pankhas’

For an urban audience addicted to instant air cooling, a trans-national collection of hand-made fans might be of little interest, until you visit an exhibition showcasing artefacts belonging to a rare and dying tradition. The exhibition has been curated by Indian visual artist Jatin Das, a well-known researcher and archivist of the craft of hand-made fan.

Odisha-born Das, who has many paintings, murals, sculptures and other visual art forms to his credit, has been collecting hand-made fans of different shapes and sizes for the past 40 years. It all began one summer afternoon, when he had a friend over to his Delhi studio. His friend was unhappy for some reason, and as he picked up a hand-fan to lighten the mood he said in jest, “let me stir the still air.” Little did he know the phrase would be the title of a book on Pankhas, which is due to be released soon.

Since then, Das’ abiding interest in hand-made pankhas has not only taken him to the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, but also to regions as far and wide as Africa, Middle East and East Asia. His collection, which comprises of thousands of fans created with all kinds of organic materials (bamboo, cane, date palm), was recently mounted at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).

His archive also includes, paintings, prints, miniatures, photographs, poems and films on the subject. Entirely funded by money received from the sale of his paintings, the archive is the result of a full-fledged project that has involved documentation, research and archiving of this dying form. Over the years, the artist’s collection of fans has grown because of gifts received from friends all over the world.

These objects have had a worldwide audience, beginning with their maiden exhibition at New Delhi’s Crafts Museum in 2004, followed by shows in Kolkata, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Zurich, London and Washington DC.

“Although the cost of making the pankha is minimal, the workmanship, effort and personal touch make these delicate objects invaluable. I feel sad when a beautiful craft of India disappears due to lack of interest, utility or outlet,” said Das.

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Palm leaf fans from Alekh Baba monastery, Dhenkanal (Odisha)

Seen together, the fans made of zardozi, applique, mirrors; carvings from woods; some of them designed from feathers, bamboo, cane, palm leaves, paper, natural fibre and batik cloth transform a forgotten art into an alluring craft, the IGNCA exhibition shows.

The exhibition offers a historical and artistic insight into an art form that was once popular in hot and tropical countries of the world. As electricity came into our homes, the use of this art form has become largely redundant, even though people in Indian villages still use it.

Mainly sold in village markets during summer, the hand-fan is seen as a symbol of communal and personal engagement. The sight of a man fanning himself to sleep on a charpoy, or a woman fanning her husband as he eats his meal are common instances of the role of a fan in rural life. The hand-fan, Das notes, could be a tool for seduction and romance as well.

Of course, the hand-fan has been deployed for grander purposes, such as in the courts and offices of Mughals and colonial rulers; and during large congregations at temples. Costing millions of rupees, the royal fans have silver and gold handles, embroidered with silver thread or zari. Personalised and ceremonial fans are also part of the archive, with many of them being centuries old and regarded as a “priceless antiques.”

During his search for hand-fans and traditional crafts, Das found a group of monks in his home state devoted to the traditional art of crafting large circular fans made of palm leaves and stems. The collection has several fans from the monastery, one of them is more than a hundred years old. Other present-day examples include a large but neglected hand-made fan at Kochi’s St. Francis Church, the first church built by the Europeans in India. The Mayurbhanj palace, also in Odisha, in another landmark where this dying art form is still being preserved.

The craft of fan-making has been primarily done by women and girls in India, and at the heart of India’s pankha art history are stories of India’s rural folk who, for generations, have made this art form a source of livelihood. As India aims for full electrification of its villages, the pankha faces the onslaught of being completely switched off.

Have you tried Café Lota in Delhi? Please do

Photo by - Ankush AroraIt’s the sort of place you’d enjoy if you’re nearing 30 or past 30 or if you just like quiet places, where you don’t just sit with your friends to booze aimlessly and reach home somewhat unconscious.

Haven’t you heard of the 30s syndrome? It’s probably when you prefer sleeping early or when you don’t really look forward to boisterous pubs where you can’t hear your own voice. A small peg of liquor or a pint of beer works best or no peg either – after all you have to drive back home and you don’t want to mess with Delhi’s incorrigible cops.

Delhi’s Café Lota is one such place where the food – a sumptuous assortment of north and south Indian cuisines – is good (and healthy and arguably affordable); and there’s no loud music either, save for the minimal All India Radio instrumental recitals in the background.

The lighting is dim, the seating spacious. Ample pots of embers are kept next to tables to keep you warm in winters. The venue effectively drowns out the noise of traffic outside.

If you’re a metro person, get off at Pragati Maidan station and take an auto rickshaw to Crafts Museum (across Bhairon Mandir) for 40 rupees and no more.

Lota is an unusual name, isn’t it? A lota would be a steel/brass/copper container that you would use to drink water from, or bring milk from the nearby dairy or a permanent fixture with a yogi or anyone who doesn’t own a toilet and has to go behind the bushes for the first morning call. A souvenir shop at the museum is called ‘Lota’, and hence the name for the cafe, a waiter there told me. The cafe opened in 2013.

When I entered the museum on a cold Friday evening, I walked into a dark alley that took me to a sparsely lit dining area that is now famous in Delhi as Café Lota. Restaurant search provider and reviewer Zomato has listed it under its hidden gems collection.

It’s funny how the sound of conversations on dining tables didn’t spill over to the rest of the restaurant, a likely scenario in Delhi’s dining areas. In front of my table, a group of friends quietly ate Palak Patta Chaat (which has crispy spinach leaves, potatoes and chickpeas topped with spicy yoghurt and chutneys). In other words, an expensive version of your street side chaat papdi, served in a big porcelain plate. Lovers idled away elsewhere, engrossed – platonically only, thankfully – into each other rather than the food; two girls giggled in a far corner.

I liked the craft work on the white wall, enhanced by the yellow light. The interior – if you can call it that – is tasteful in its austerity.

I had Pondicherry fish curry with steamed rice, which reminded me of Thai curry. While the sole fish was prepared just the right way, the rice could have been cooked more and the portions should have been bigger for a plate for 400 rupees.

But as my friends arrived, here’s what ALL we ordered:

*Beetroot chop – the café’s own take on a popular Kolkata street snack, served with cheese dip

*Chicken bharta, which reminded me of places that serve tiny pieces of chicken mixed in what is otherwise a curry made for paneer. Skip it, unless you can’t do without chicken

*Kumaoni platter – a forgetful meal of sabzi, roti et al

*Sattu parantha – a wholesome wheat flatbread stuffed with roasted gram and served with homemade butter

*Apple cinnamon jalebi – I hate the smell of cinnamon until I had this! Highly recommended.

WSJ recommends Quinoa upma, “filled with slivers of crunchy green beans, and flavoured with smoky mustard seeds and roasted peanuts.”

“Another delightful dish was the chicken ghee roast, or boneless chicken coated in a red paste made of curly red chili peppers from the south Indian Konkan region,” they write.

The Hindu reporter ordered a plate of Amritsari fish (batter-fried sole, coated with popped amaranth seeds, served with sweet potato chips); Gujarat khichri (with sweet and sour kadhi); and bhapa doi (a Bengali sweet dish).

Looks like the café deserves not one, but many more visits. And by the way, early risers – this place opens at 8 a.m.

The café is closed on Mondays.

(Writing and photography by Ankush Arora)