The Story of the Handheld, Handcrafted Handmade Fan

The Story of the Handheld, Handcrafted Handmade Fan

Gordhandas, Kishor N.

How did it all begin, this use of a fan? No one really knows – except the first person on this earth who must have felt hot and picked up a palmetto leaf to ‘agitate the air’ and cooled himself down. Today the London Worshipful Company of Fan Makers is almost totally concerned with air-conditioning units, which is as it should be, but through what a rich series of deviations the fan has travelled between that time and this! Someone has said correctly: “In this air-conditioned age the cooling fan has almost disappeared. A sad loss to polite society, for a fan could accentuate wit and puncture indiscretion.”

The fan as described in Purnell’s New English Encyclopaedia is an instrument held in hand used to create a current of cool air. The complicated explanation of a hand fan given in the ‘Reader’s Digest’ dictionary, is: A hand-waved implement for creating a current of air or breeze, especially one in the form of flat, fixed or collapsible devise, usually round or approximately semi-circular and made of a light material such as silk, paper or fine ivory. The fan is a miniature compendium of art and love. The use of the fan dates from the dawn of time as it accompanied the Sun around the world, cooling people down. Hand fans offer us an insight into these small objects that are as beautiful in form, design, and detail as these are functional. The bird in the cage would beat their wings and provide a cool breeze, so what could be more natural than for the owner to pluck out a few nice feathers and make his very own ‘bird’s wing’, the first real fan? In our own India, the word for fan in
Hindi is punkha, which stems from
pankh, meaning wings of a bird. In China the archaic symbol for a fan looks like, and means, ‘a bird’s wing. The same basically applies to Japan. Surely all of this is no mere coincidence? The English word fan is derived from the Latin word
vannus, that means an instrument for winnowing grain”.
The history of the fan, and the story told in accounts, the delightful if whimsical ‘Language of the Fan’ and the glory of its component parts are ingredients that contribute to art works worthy of study. The Fan evolved from both practical and ceremonial beginnings to exist for many centuries as a popular accessory of dress throughout the world.
Although restricted masculine association with fans were recorded in the late sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, western secular usage has been primarily feminine. The language of fan was an essential part of passionate feminine nonsense, and respect for the part a fan has played in various cultures, taking in, for example, the battle-fans of Japan, the feather-mosaics of Mexico, and the punkhas of India.
Women looked at the fan and saw delightful situations in which they could use such a small item. It was decorative when made of proper materials. They perfumed their fans. They carried those fans to their parties, waved them gently in the direction of their young lovers and noted the effect. Seeing how powerful their fans could be, the young women devised a secret fan code which they shared with those they loved the most, so they could carry on a conversation across the room and no one would know what sweet nothings they said. As an accessory, the fan is today studied by general and specialist collectors of both sexes. It holds attraction for the costume enthusiast and the social and political historian. In its early history as a costume accessory in the East and later in the West, the fan served as a symbol of rank or status held only in the hands of the rich and powerful. By the middle of the eighteenth century, as less expensive fans became available, the popularity of these charming personal effects had spread throughout society. The fan went through an evolution of growth with several kinds of fans, and those groups were important in its lifetime. No matter what kind of fan one has, there is a story behind its growth and development. In both China and Japan, the two countries with the longest history of fan use, protocol dictated how, when, and by whom fans were to be used.
There are three main shapes for the fans: The fixed fan, the folding fan and the brise fan:

The Fixed Fan

This is rigid in shape and generally has a handle to hold. It can measure between six inches (15 cms.) and two feet (60 cms.) across, but is rarely larger. It can be shaped like a leaf, be circular, like a spade or a flag. This simplest and oldest man-made fan is the hand screen, a tool consisting of a non-holding ‘screen’ fashioned of wood, paper, leather, woven straws, or feathers with an attached handle. Rigid fans were used in ancient cultures in tropical and temperate zones, from Egypt, Greece and India to China and Japan, and they are thought to be the predecessor of the folding fan.

The Folding Fan
The folding fan has a more complete structure than the rigid fixed fan. It is more compact and convenient to use, and in the Orient it had surpassed the hand screen in popularity by the beginning of the fifteenth century. As its name implies, a folding fan has a pleated mount supported on sticks that open out on a central pivot, known also a rivet or a pin. The leaf has pleats that allow the fan to be folded up according to the fashion between protective outer guards. Whether leaf is single or double, both sides of the fan may be decorated, with the more important image on the front. The folding fan may have originated in either China or Japan: in view of the fact that so much Japanese art and culture stemmed from China, it seems possible that folding fans were a Chinese invention. It simulates a bird’s wing – many are referred to as ‘bat fans’. The two major types of folding fans are the pleated fan and the brise fan. Of these two, the brise is considered to be the older.
The Brise Fan
The word brise, French for broken, is used to desscribe a variety of folding objects such as screens and collapsible furniture. Whether the brise fan originated from China or from Japan is a matter of dispute. A brise fan consists of a number of blades made of any firm or solid material without any leaf or mount at all. These blades can be carved. painted or decorated in any way and then held together in two places, a pin or rivet at the head and towards the other end a ribbon running through and attached to each blade in turn. Brise fans, probably as a result of their lasting popularity, have enjoyed a high level of craftsmanship. They can be made of amber, bone, feathers, animal horn, ivory, lacquered woods or tortoise shell, the most dramatic being of ivory.
It was more than twenty years ago that when walking down a busy street in Fort area, in Mumbai, I came across a large size book on Hand Fans by Nancy Armstrong. Intrigued by the subject and also lovely photo on the cover of this book, I picked up this book which kindled a passion for hand fans. Already an avid collector of World playing cards, I extended my interest to hand fans. I got enrolled for the membership of associations of Hand Fans in the UK , the Fan Circle International and the Fan Association of North America, USA and, also started collecting information on fans as also the fans themselves, wherever possible.
Till the end of the year, 2008, my personal collection of world and Indian fans of all types was some 325 in number. Right now after giving many fans to a Gallery, in the South India, in Dec. 2008, today my collection of fans is hardly 50 or so. But I am happy that the supplied fans when displayed fully would look beautiful to behold! From abroad I still have some beautiful yet modern Japanese, Spanish and novelty fans. My library of books and catalogues on fans, includes many articles too both in English and other languages, is a classic one covering some 35 plus of these! A couple of beautifully coloured books on fans by Nancy Armstrong have been presented to me by Nancy herself, with her autograph during the late eighties. Apart from these, I have fascinating volumes of the quarterly/half-yearly publications of the Bulletins on fans by both the above associations of which I was a member for nearly 20 years!
The history of Indian fans is traced to ancient times for use in temples to fan deities, by attendants to fan kings and by women. There is a mention of fans in Mahabharata and also in Bible. Temple fans vary in size from tiny two inches to large fans needing the full strength of a person to move them. In ancient times, kings were fanned by cloth or feather or a yak’s tail flywhisk, making these ceremonial fans, symbolic of Royalty. The Indian fans in my collection that are noteworthy are:
  • A Chamba Rumal embroidered fan from the North Indian Hill state of Himachal Pradesh.
  • Fans with beadwork, and embroidery, the later incorporating mirrors in the needlework that incorporate folk motifs, from the Western Indian States of Gujarat and Rajasthan
  • From Gujarat leather rigid fans these are still available with an axe or round shape handle, embroidered or patchworked with motifs of elephant etc.
  • A variety of temple fans, in different sizes from Varanasi, U.P. These usually come in pairs and are made of silk and embellished with gold thread embroidery.
  • There are also temple fans, fixed, and in pairs, made of white lace material.
  • From Pipli, Odisha, famous for its applique work there are bright and colorful cloth fans with applique work. Typically the fans are of the rigid type and the material is cloth stitched on to a wooden handle, a small wooden cylinder about 5″ in length, which is also covered and placed at the bottom of the handle, is to be used as the holder. This is a hand fan revolving, half fixed fan. The applique motifs are of variegated flowers, birds and animals. The ground cloth is of different dark and bright colours, and it bears embroidery, applique as well as mirrors, which make the fans very attractive. Earlier, I donated two very large applique fans of Pipli to the Babulnath Temple of Shri Ranchhodrai (Shri Krishna).
  • There are other fans also crafted from fiber, sandalwood and bamboo. Fans crafted from khus-khus, a root are often scented and waft a mild fragrance as they are waved, especially if water is sprinkled over the fan body.
  • My specially designed sandalwood and palm leaf fans are exquisitely hand painted and needle carved with historical or mythological themes, such as Dashavatara Gods; history of Odisha; Chhatrapati Shivaji, King and Jija Mata, and some others; hand painted by traditional artists from Odisha, Sawantwadi and Pune; and needle carved (palm leaf fans) by Odisha artists. Many of the above sandalwood and palm Leaf folding fans are no longer with me now.
  • A small axe-shaped fan made of silver.

    It should be noted that there are many silver fans of different shapes and sizes to be seen in jewellery or silver shops and a few lovely larger fans turn up in some sophisticated exhibitions like Society’s or such.

    Two of the Fans from my collection were sent to London on loan for two different exhibitions on fans: The “East of Suez” An exhibition of fans in the year 1995, from 13th March to 11th June, at the Guildhall Museum, Kent, UK. and “Contemporary Fans” of the 20th Century, from 4th Feb. to 1st June 2003 at the Fan Museum, London, UK. Both the fans which were appreciated appeared in the small catalogues published at that time and were carefully returned after the exhibitions got over.
    A few other noteworthy fans which have adorned my collection, earlier, are:

  • An 1850 buffalo hide folding fan from Thailand. A similar fan is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, England, also.
  • Few of the nice printed advertising, folding fans for some perfume company, belonging to France.
  • Some very nice Airline fans of Air India, and Indian Airlines; British Overseas Airline Corporation, UK; Garuda Airlines, Indonesia; Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong and others.
  • Another 150 year old folding paper fan, slightly torn, of costumes of France, Pictures on one side in black and white and the description on the other, is a classic fan!- from France;
  • A full-cockade – Completely folding Palm Leaf Fan from Odisha, with figures needle carved on both the sides of the fan.
  • A couple of lovely hand painted on folding sandalwood fan, with the theme of Gods, and also Krishna Leela from Odisha, India.
  • And some nice fixed as well as folding Ukiyo-e fans of Japan
  • A rigid, black feather fan made of Ostrich feather and also a white fan.
During the course of the period of my interest and connection with playing cards, I had instructed the traditional Ganjifa cards makers at Odisha and Sawantwadi to get for me a historical or mythological theme hand painted on folding sandalwood and palm leaf fans. Conversely, I also got some nice hand painted playing cards made with painting upon those 52 and Joker cards some females with fans in their hands, each different fan.


A few of the folding sandalwood Fans, and a few of the hand painted playing cards as mentioned above were sent to some collectors of fans and also playing cards. I am the first one to have effected this combination of both the above hobbies into one!
And there are many Fan-related objects such as: ear rings, ash trays, glasses,
key-chains, fan-shaped porcelain (showpiece), erasers, fan shaped boxes, wrist watch etc. etc.
Finally a very interesting aspect of fans is the language of fans. Just as there are postage stamp flirtation, pencil flirtation, hat flirtation, parasol flirtation, handkerchief flirtation, there is also fan flirtation which is the language of the fan.

One may look at a pretty fan and may also look at the pretty girl who owns that fan– and carry on an animated conversation with her when, to comply with convention, no real speech is permitted.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women paid extra attention to the care for their hands. Well-cared and perfumed hands and well-formed toe and finger-nails were just as much considered then as now, as one of the greatest charms of a beautiful woman. Nails were buffed and polished, diamond rings were worn to enhance the length of a pretty finger and draw attention to it, and the universal use of a fan proved one of the finest ways of drawing attention to a well-manicured hand.
According to Uzanne in “The fan “, at the end of the eighteenth century there was a report in the Spectator of a lady who ‘established in London an academy for the training up of young women of all conditions in the exercise of the Fan’.

“This exercise was divided into six portions, and the strange petticoated battalions were put through their facings twice a day, and taught to obey the following words of command:

‘Handle your Fans’, ‘Unfurl your Fans’, ‘Discharge your Fans’, ‘Ground your Fans’, ‘Recover your Fans’, ‘Flutter your Fans’. The Fluttering of the Fan was the masterpiece of the whole exercise, and the most difficult to be acquired by these singular companies of Riflemen of the Fan”.

‘To flutter the Fan is to cool the face with it, or to translate to him whom it may concern, your agitation, your modesty, your fear, your confusion, your love’.

In hot-blooded Spain, land of dark eyes and stolid but dutiful lasses, it was customary for the young of each sex to communicate without words, keeping and breaking the rules at one and the same time. Books came out, originally in Spain but later across Europe, to teach a young lady how to keep up the whole sentences with merely the careful actions of her fan. The scope of the conversation was limited to one topic.

“The Language Of the Fan”, as published by the London Fan House of Duvelleroy-

1 Carrying in the right hand in front of face Follow me.
2 Carrying in the left hand in front of face Desirous of acquaintance.
3 Placing it on left ear I wish to get rid of you.
4 Drawing across forehead You have changed.
5 Twirling in the left hand We are watched.
6 Carrying in the right hand You are too willing.
7 Drawing through the hand I hate you.
8 Twirling in the right hand I love another.
9 Drawing across the cheek I love you.
10 Presented shut Do you love me?
11 Drawing across the eyes I am sorry.
12 Touching tip with finger I wish to speak with you.
13 Letting it rest on the right cheek Yes.
14 Letting it rest on the left cheek No.
15 Open and shut You are cruel.
16 Dropping it We will be friends.
17 Fanning slowly I am married
18 Fanning quickly I am engaged.
19 With handle to lips Kiss me.
20 Open wide Wait for me.
21 Carrying in left hand, open Come and talk to me.
22 Placed behind head Do not forget me.
23 With little finger extended Good-bye!
During the nineteenth century the ‘Language of the fan’ appears to have been enthusiastically taken up by the Spanish and by some other European countries, notably France and England. It was a harmless diversion that must have passed away a tedious evening, and it could be used at a distance with some eloquence. Although fans have become collectors’ items more than a thing of practicality now, somehow we should preserve the delightful mannerisms of the fan language so it is not lost forever.

As an accessory, the fan is today studied by general and special collectors of both sexes. It holds attraction for the costume enthusiast and the social and political historian. The traveler can gain insight into the Fan’s area of origin. Anyone wanting to collect and/or study fans should do well to join the membership of one or more of the Fan Associations in Europe and USA, and also get some knowledge about the fans from many lovely Books, pamphlets and articles on fans which may be affordable.

All the fans are from the authors collection


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