Pankha, the common word for hand fans in urban India, is derived from the Hindustani pankhi, meaning the feather of a bird, evoking flight and the stirring of air. In other parts of India, local names for fans are derived from the Sanskrit original vinjanam: bisoni in Assam, binchana in Orissa, bena in Bihar, binjana in Rajasthan, vinjano in Gugarat, visheri in Kerela, and so on.

Before I elaborate on my collection, I would like to mention that I am a contemporary artist, a painter, living in New Delhi, India. I originally come from the princely state of Mayurbhanj in Orissa in eastern India. I grew up surrounded by a rich traditional heritage of tribal, folk and classical arts, crafts, music and dance, my interest in which is intertwined with my work as an artist. India is one of the few countries in the world where tradition still lives on and functions parallel to the industrial and consumer driven culture which is pushing it aside. Tradition, rituals and festivals have kept our crafts alive and, to this day, large numbers of craftsmen and women make hand fans in villages for their personal use.

Indian fans are found in many varieties and often their usage varies too. There are fixed fans, which are held to fan oneself; revolving fans, which can been shared by people seated together; and lavishly decorated royal fans, which are wielded by strong men and used to fan large congregations of people. There are small ritual fans, which are used to fan the idol of Lord Krishna; fly whisks, which are used to fan the Sikh holy book at gurudwaras; and those which are used in mosques during certain festivals.

Pankhawallah, a word used extensively during the colonial period in India, refers to those undernourished ‘natives’ who would sit for hours pulling a long ceiling fan under which the sahib had his siesta. Hand-pulled ceiling fans were also common at the royal courts of kings in post-Independence India. Replicas of these fans are included in this exhibition.

Temple fans are often painted, made of cloth, palm leaf or metal, but never of bamboo. Fans for daily use are mostly made of cloth, bamboo, palm leaf and date palm, leather, golden grass and a variety of natural fibres, depending on the local climate and vegetation. Traders bring leaves to craftsmen during the winter months of January and February and fans are made till the monsoon sets in.

Common hand fans are made in large quantity. Roadside vendors use it to fan charcoal to roast maize and the kebabwallah does the same to roast the meat. These are still familiar sites on the streets of urban India. The haat or weekly village markets still sell simple and beautiful hand fans along with bamboo baskets and other products. A housewife will request her brother-in-law to get her a fan from the haat, which she will then embellish with silk, beads and love to later fan her husband, children and other members of the family.

I have been collecting these fans for the past 25 years. What began as an amateur interest has now become an ever-increasing collection of over 2,500 fans from Asia and Africa. Although the collection is self-funded, I am grateful to dear friends who indulged my madness by sending me fans from all over the world! As the years went by, I became interested in everything that had to do with fans: poems, songs, miniature paintings, graphics and popular images, photographs and film clips, all of which I have added to the collection. After its Indian and overseas tour, the collection will be housed at a fan gallery at the JD Centre of Art in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, an art centre that I am building.

The maiden show of my collection, Pankha: Handfans of the Indian Subcontinent, was held at the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi in summer 2004. The exhibition then traveled to Calcutta and Hyderabad, and is slated to travel to several other Indian cities as well. In the meantime, Mrs Helena Alexander, Director of the Fan Museum in Greenwich, London invited me to show a part of the collection at her museum. I was so excited to hear from her. Our association goes back a long time: a decade ago Mrs Alexander had invited me to give a lecture to the museum camp office while the 18th century Victorian building was being restored. Because of our long friendship, I am very happy that the first stop of my collection’s overseas tour is the Fan Museum. I would like to thank Mrs Alexander for curating the show and all the members of the Fan Museum who have worked so hard to put together the exhibition.

Siddhartha, my elder son, a professional designer, has designed all the publications for the exhibition. It has been a new and enjoyable experience to interact with him as a designer. My wife, Bidisha, gave up her job as a television producer and made documentary films on the craft of fan making, along with taking care of all the mundane jobs like typing my letters and sending emails.

I have always believed that, although Indian royalty was a great patron of art, it is the poor and middle classes that are the real perpetuators of arts and crafts in India. The traditional Indian saree has survived because common women still wear it and use the fabric to make their clothes. Likewise, the tropical climate of the Indian subcontinent and the shortage of electricity have helped the craft of fan making survive. Sadly, the urban population has embraced the comforts of gadgetry and forgotten this unique craft. My collection is an effort to reaffirm the role of the millions of craftsmen and women who keep our multi-cultural tradition alive.