The Allure of the cool breeze: The story of Hand Fans

Pankho or Vijada (Hand fan), Kadhva Patel, Gujarat, Embroidery on cotton cloth, wooden handle. Collection: Sushmit. Photograph: Bijendra Kumar.

The invention of many useful articles which are a part of our day-to-day life, goes back to the earliest times of mankind. Over the course of time, alongside invention of fire and basic tools for chopping and hunting, the know-how of basketry, pottery and even weaving was gained and developed. Their creation was triggered by the necessity to have a solution for tackling the need at hand and in many cases the idea came from observing an accidental incident that occurred. For example, it is said by many that probably elephants were mud-bathing and the mud on their forehead was baked in the sun and harden to form a shallow bowl. This sparked the idea of pottery in the early times. Similarly, a bark of a tree or a large leaf would have been swayed out of curiosity and the soothing air that was a resultant of it, gave the idea of hand fans.

Lady with a fan, c.1850, Jaipur (Rajasthan), watercolour on paper, Accession. no. 14762.
Courtesy: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
Bisoni, Assam, bamboo, velvet and sequins, wooden handle (machine-made).
Created by Shri. Kesoram Bora of Notun Komalabari Xotro, Majuli (Assam), 2017.
Collection: Sunayana and Sushmit. Photograph: Bijendra Kumar.
These fans were especially commissioned by the maternal grandmother of the bride to be, as a part of her trousseau and had been a tradition for a long time. The specialty of this fan is the expert weaving of thinly sliced bamboo strips in a way that it has a flexibility that is unbelievable when it comes to bamboo as a material. These days the handles are machine made but the rest is completely done by hand by a handful of young boys (bhakots) under the watchful eye of Shri. Kesoram Bora.

In India, hand fans are immensely popular and are used in every part of the country, especially in small towns and villages. Even after the advent of the modern electric fans, either ceiling or table fans, every household had their hand fans kept ready at different parts of the house because power-cuts (load-shedding) were a regular feature and still is in certain rural areas. In the summer months, when ever there is a power-cut, people would sit outside in the courtyard in their light coloured cotton clothes (saris, dhotis, vests and shorts) and fan themselves while cribbing how the weather has become so hot. The fan not only created a soothing breeze but also kept away the mosquitoes, which were abundant in the monsoons.  Sometimes, a hand fan was also kept along with a torch beside the pillow, with electricity gone it can become unbearable inside the mosquito net and for many in the last century, can recall their grandmothers giving them advice or a short story from her creaking bed, fanning herself.

Hand fan, probably eastern India, bamboo.
Collection: Geeta Athreya. Photograph: Bijendra Kumar.
Bijana, Haryana/Punjab(?), wool and metal frame.
Collection: Geeta Athreya. Photograph: Bijendra Kumar.

The popular name for fans in India is ‘pankha’, which is mentioned by artist and a collector of fans, Jatin Das, describing it as more urban generic nomenclature. He says the reason behind this is the origin of the word which is a Hindustani word, ‘pankhi’, meaning a feather of a bird evoking flight and stirring the air. Therefore, this word is used for any kind of fan, even the ones which are powered by electricity. He goes on to explain how a more region specific name for fans comes from the Sanskrit word, ‘Vinjanam’, which becomes vinjno in Gujarat, bijana in Haryana, binjana in Rajasthan, bisoni in Assam, bichana in Odisha, vishari in Tamil Nadu or visheri in Kerala.[i]

Pankho/Vijada, Mutva Maldhari community, Banni region of Kachchh, Gujarat, embroidered with mirrors. Collection: Sushmit. Photograph: Bijendra Kumar.

Hand fans being an utilitarian object were made all throughout the Indian subcontinent. The fans made solely for the purpose of utility were made of easily available materials. This made them cheaper and affordable for everyone. Hence, hand fans found in the local markets or haats, depending on the region could be of anything such as palm leaves, cane, bamboo, feathers, wool or other yarns, solapith (Indian cork), etc. It is a fact that the exclusive ones were always made of materials that were not locally found or were imported from a far away place, which made them expensive, limiting it to a very narrow clientele. These fans were made of feathers of exotic birds, embroidered with gold zari over imported velvet (makhmal) or silk, ivory or gilded with precious metal. Hand fans also have rich cousins such as fly-whisks (chauvr) made of yak hair or flat metal strips (badla) with silk fringes having jade or ivory handle and morchals (peacock feather whisks).These were assigned the duties in the temple, gurudwara and the royal courts, hence made with the most exclusive of materials often commissioned by rich patrons. Fly-whisks are a ubiquitous article, seen in the souks of Cairo or Alexandria in the books of Agatha Christie.

Pankho or Vijada, Saurashtra (Gujarat), imported glass beads (technique called moti-bharat), metal encased mirror.
Collection: Jon-Eric Riis.
Group of beaded (moti-bharat) hand fans from Saurashtra, Gujarat.
Collection: Jon-Eric Riis.
Pankho or Vijada, Saurashtra (Gujarat), imported glass beads (technique called moti-bharat), gajji silk frill, wooden handle.
Collection: Geeta Athreya. Photograph: Bijendra Kumar.

From the beginning, hand fans always had in its DNA to become something more than a tool for creating soothing air. The basic purpose of a hand fan is to make the hotter environment around, a slightly bearable one, but in order to use a hand-fan one must be in leisure or at least cannot be working simultaneously. Hence, it became a beloved tool for people who had ample time to sit and fan themselves as they chatted. Few would even start employing others to sway the fans for them as they lay idle enjoying their wine and fruits. This elevated status made the fans, an elaborate affair as society and civilizations expanded, clearly seen in the surviving examples from the tombs of Pharaohs and their depiction in the hieroglyphs, or slave girls fanning and waiting on their dominas (mistress) in the luxurious roman villas to the fans and parasols seen in the joyous royal processions carved in the surfaces of the ancient stupas.

Paper fan with blossoming carnations, early 1900s, Japan.
Collection: Jon-Eric Riis.

Hand fans also have an inherent sense of mystery and drama within them. Even in the basic act of swaying it, creates a sense of mystery by constantly revealing and concealing the face of the user, which has been exploited by many story-tellers to create a character who can stir up a mundane afternoon tea party or invite attention of a suitor of choice in a fully packed ballroom. The role played by fans and especially foldable hand fans is immense in the entire pan-Asian culture starting from China, Japan, Korea to the entire South-east Asian world. Apart from just being used as a relief from the tropical heat, they can transcend into deep symbolism with specific movement and gestures both in the Peking Opera (China) as well as Kabuki Theatre (Japan). On several occasions, these fans were immortalized in the famous Ukiyo-e woodcut prints or what is popularly known as ‘Pictures of the floating world’, where ethereal geishas in their wonderful kimonos and uchikakes are depicted fanning themselves while getting ready or taking a stroll by the banks of the Sumida river.

Hand fan, Late 19th century, China, woven in rattan.
Collection: Jon-Eric Riis.

In Europe predominantly a cold climate throughout the year, the widespread culture of hand fans got stimuli with the trade with the east especially with China. Various styles of fans were being made over a period of time, and the luxurious of them were spotted with the ladies of noble ranks which set the trend of what was to be made in case of the atelier or what was to be seen with, in case of the client. Lot of these exclusive fans were hand painted with Biblical or romantic vignettes especially the ones from Rococo period or made of precious materials such as mother of pearls, ivory or even delicate laces. They were a part of the wedding trousseau or in many instances gifted by a suitor during courtship. Hence, they were kept carefully and with fond memories. One might wonder why these fans became so popular in a land filled with snow as far as the eye could see and the answer is what was said in the earlier paragraph, that these fans were not just fans. To point out a dialogue of a scene from the popular culture series Downton Abbey, when the Dowager explains a fan that was gifted by a beloved former lover, Prince Kuragin at St Petersberg in the year 1874, perfectly summarizes it. It goes this way, “no no ..we were at a ball in the Winter Palace…oh it was so hot….there were icicles outside the window but the rooms were hot as the tropics, and I was wearing pale blue velvet trimmed with silver lace…” with a nostalgic smile enacts Dame Maggie Smith when she was interrupted by Prince Kuragin saying, “Then I gave you this fan and you hid it in your reticule in case Lord Grantham should be angry.”

Hand fans, early 19th century, Europe, Lacquered on wood.
Collection : Jon-Eric Riis.

The Iberian peninsula was a melting point of so many cultures arriving to its shores from all over the world. In the past, it was the Moorish culture that dominated the taste and the arts but with the two nations, Spain and Portugal faring into the seas to find gold and glory, exposed them to other exotic cultures specifically, the East. The climate in the Iberian peninsula, was warmer than rest of Europe and the popularity of hand fans quickly caught momentum. The Flamenco dancers in south of Spain from places like Andalusia, would use many accessories that date back to the traders coming back with galleons laden with exotic goods from the Orient such as the spectacular fringed Manila Shawl (also known as piano shawl indicates the ship route that passed through the Philippines to reach Portugal or Spain) and the Pericon, a hand fan, that is used to enhance the dance moves and create an atmosphere of out-most seduction and ecstasy.

I am highly grateful and would like to thank Jon-Eric Riis (Atlanta, Georgia) and Geeta Athreya (New Delhi) for lending me images of fans from their collection which truly enriched the illustrations of this entry. I would also like to express the importance of exceptional individuals who has a passion to collect and share it with the world in the form of exhibitions. The exhibition on the wonderful collection of hand fans of Jatin Das will always be an inspiring moment.

Embroidered fans in silk, early 20th century, Japan.
Collection: Jon-Eric Riis.


[i] Pankha: Traditional Crafted hand fans of the Indian Subcontinent from the collection of Jatin Das, Greenwich: The Fan Museum, sponsored by Air India, October 2004-January 2005, London.

The Allure of the cool breeze: The story of Hand Fans

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