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.

When in Punjabi Bagh, dig into Indonesia’s Gado Gado salad

Once a settlement colony after India’s partition in 1947, Punjabi Bagh is now a thriving locality of ridiculously ostentatious display of wealth, power and consumerism. So, it’s oxymoronic to have an austere Indonesian salad in an area many would visit for butter chicken, kebab or sharaab.

The Club Road, for example, is a hotchpotch of houses, gyms, restaurants, bars, cafes, departmental stores, tandoor kiosks, flower shops, coffee shops, and chemist shops. There’s a big jogger’s park. And there is The Punjabi Bagh Club. The road also accommodates west Delhi’s rowdy car and bike owners, who actually belong in the back seat or the prison cell.

So one fine evening, I shed my anti-Punjabi Bagh bias, and went to Starbucks with a friend, who was visiting from south Delhi. Inside, the noise of traffic was effectively blocked, with people on the street looking like mute robots.

After a cold beverage, we walked around – I found myself tour-guiding my friend through Punjabi Bagh. He did seem fascinated by the chaos, a sharp contrast to the sleepy lanes of Chittaranjan Park, his home.

Screengrab of Backyard cafe from Zomato website (https://www.zomato.com/ncr/the-backyard-punjabi-bagh-new-delhi)

We finally decided to grab a table at Backyard café, as per my sister’s recommendation. She also suggested Gastropub, a few metres ahead, which sounded more about a medical problem than food.

We ordered two virgin mojitos, a vegetarian manchow soup and a quirky-sounding Gado Gado salad. It’s a popular Indonesian eat, made of steamed vegetables and peanut sauce.

I relished every bit of it. It’s a simple, yet filling salad that thankfully didn’t come with a pungent dressing, a staple ingredient in salads these days. And it turned out to be a full meal for me.

“This is a mega salad that has its roots in Sundanese cooking and has now become the typical street food of Jakarta in Indonesia. Gado-gado means medley or potpourri, which refers to all the different seasonal veggies and ingredients that are used. Tossed with the most incredible peanut dressing, and served with something crunchy on the side, such as prawn crackers, it’s a winning combination,” writes chef James Oliver in his blog. You should check out his recipe too.

If you like salads and food that’s not spicy and don’t mind a mildly sweet taste, you must give it a try. It can be easily prepared at home. You could also add rice, eggs, cooked tofu or tempe.

Delhi’s Ritwik Sarkar makes it once every two months or so. He learnt the recipe when he moved to Indonesia in 2008 to take up a new job. After four years he returned to India with a fondness for the salad. He also got married to an Indonesian girl, who helped him “hone” his Gado Gado skills.

Being a Bengali, who’re known for their food and rapacious appetite, has Ritwik ever added the local flavour to Gado Gado? “I have never tried to add Bengali flavour to Gado Gado. But now that you told me, I may try it. Perhaps adding a tinge of mustard oil to the peanut sauce dressing,”

That sounds lip-smacking. I have had the mustard curry fish at City of Joy in CR Park and it’s a refreshing break from the staple daal, sabzi or butter chicken. I look for forward to Ritwik’s Bengali-Indonesian salad, which we will call — Godo Godo.