A sweltering heat wave is on around Eastern USA and we are all baking in three digit heat though it just might cool off next week. The AC’s and the fans at home are on, and it is bearable inside, but outside, well, the grass is burnt and the heat continues on well into the night. Once in a way we have thunderstorms…but then the humidity goes up. And well, then thoughts like this will come and I drifted off thinking about fans and Punkhas…..
But as you know, the film industry has to come up with new ideas, and they did exactly that by showing us even more special uses for the fan. The heroine was usually the one to use it thus, by putting a stool (this word is known only to Indians, do not try going to supermarket in US and ask for a small stool….you will get bewildered expressions), clambering up, tossing her sari through the blades and hanging herself to death, with the hero on many an occasion reaching in the nick of time to cut a perfectly good saree to bits and get her down. Only in India, Sir , I guess, are fans and saris manufactured to withstand the weight of a healthy human being.
And so we grew up with Usha’s and Khaitans and GEC and all those versions above our heads or on pedestals or tables. It was three blade first, then 4 blade and now I don’t know how many. Then the colors started to change from the usual white and now I suppose one has so many choices. Imagine those days when you sat and looked through the blades of the table fan (no, I am not talking about a Satyajit Ray film scene) at the setting sun’s rays with Geeta Dutt singing in the background, her voice coming through the valve radio propped up on the wall, and your eyes stray to the webbed antenna on the wall, where a spider is anxiously trying to repair his web, at the same time focused on the lonely fly’s hovering. The homework is to be completed, your friends are waiting with the rubber-band ball and the home made bat and you are trying to figure out how to slink away. But the fan is always the whirring spectator, knowing not what to tell you other than giving you the slightly cooler environment to get those grey cells whirring up with new ideas. Know what? The first companies that made them in India were called Tropical and Kassel, with bamboo blades or metal, virtually everlasting. Slowly the induction motor was catching hold, and finding uses for so many applications at home.
'Fast and loose, it cannot touch what it tries to reach; though tied up it moves swiftly, and though a prisoner it is free. Fixed in its place it drives before it the gentle breeze; though its path lie closed up it moves on in its nocturnal journey.'"— That was the ancient Punkah……so beautifully described by Ibn Hamdun in the 9th century..
Pankha wallas in India had a tough time, they worked 15-20 days a month during summers. They were paid tips based on their enthusiasm and a good session in a lord’s house fetched four annas (1900). Usually they charged three annas per day and three annas per night per man. Not only were they seen in the North, but also in wealthy houses down south, punkawing away and figuring prominently in many a court case if you choose to look at those musty, dusty brown records for they were mute witnesses to many an event in a wealthy home, virtually considered inanimate objects by their employers.You can see a great example of the Punkah in the linked blog by Mr Tharakan, still maintained in his ancestral home. . This kind of hanging punkah popular in offices and churches came about by accident.
Remember my story on the Boston ice? If not read it here… Later on with the advent of English, the simple system started to become more complex. Lt RN Cook got a patent to mechanize it around 1855 and use it in places like hospitals, much to the happiness of the hapless patients.
Soon they found their way to the US of A. (quoting from Putnam’s monthly 1856) - Within two or three years, punkas have been imported hither. At Gosling's excellent eating-house, on Broadway, you will find them, and they soothe heated brains at the Sun office. Go observe their mechanism and operation, and if, being an enterprising person with a mechanical turn of mind, you should hereafter take the East India Company's prize of ten thousand rupees for a self-acting punka, you will not forget to thank us for this hint.
But back to India - Francis and Elizabeth Clark in their travelogue notes - The "punkah-wallah," too, or the man who pulls the huge fans with which every office, dining-room, parlor, and church is provided, is a well-known character in Madras, as in all Southern India. I must say I have seen days in New York and Boston when a punkah was as necessary as it even is in hot Madras. This occupation often descends from father to son, for many generations, and the true punkahwallah by instinct and training becomes so expert that, tying the string to his toe, he will go to sleep and still keep jerking away at the cord to fan the hot brows of the Europeans within, who may be dining, or reading, or writing, or sleeping, as the case may be.
Thomas Wallace Knox in the Boy travelers in the FE provides this insight
We visited two or three bungalows in the resident portion of Madras, and had an opportunity of looking through them. They had wide verandas, and the windows were covered with lattices and Venetian blinds to keep out the heat, while the floor was of brick or cement, for the sake of the superior coolness of those articles. Coir matting was laid over the floor to protect the bare feet of the occupants, and there were several punkas in each room to keep the air in circulation.
We were quite interested in looking at the punkas, and learning how they work them. There is a certain class of servants, known as pankhd-wattahs (punka-fellows), who work these fans, and are hired for that purpose at about three dollars a month, they boarding themselves. They stand outside and work the punka by means of a cord passing through a hole in the wall, so that while you are enjoying the strictest privacy, yon may have the fan in motion above you. You have a punka over your bed, another over your bath-tub, another at your dressing-bureau, another over your dining-table, and another above your desk. Your body-servant calls out to your punkha-wallah, and has him shift from one cord to another as yon move about your room, or go from one room to another. You have the punka in motion all day and all night somewhere, and for this purpose you must have two men to relieve each other. When you go to bed a basket of old shoes is placed where you can reach them, and you are fanned to sleep. If you wake perspiring in the night, and find the punka motionless, you may know that the pankha-wallah is taking a nap; you throw a shoe in his direction and thus awaken him, and immediately he resumes his duty.
The side where the man pulls is the one that gets the air most vigorously circulated, for the reason that it is brought forward with a certain force, and goes back by its own weight. The people here call the one where the man pulls the Bombay side of the punka, and the other the Bengal side. We asked why it was, and they told us that when the south-west monsoon blows it comes with its full force from the sea upon the shores of the Bombay presidency; crossing the country and going over the mountains to Bengal, it expends its strength and becomes very weak. Therefore you see how the Bombay and Bengal sides of the punka get their names.
"They say that a good many inventions have been tried for substituting machinery for man power in working the punka, but none ofthem have succeeded, for the reason that the peculiar pull or impulse that is needed to put the air in motion can only be given by the human arm. Machinery works with regularity and a steady pull, and the real need of the punka is a jerk or extra force while the cord is being drawn, followed by a complete relaxation of the cord to allow the fan to go back and get ready to be drawn forward again.
By 1900 the punkah was becoming a big white elephant for the shrinking salaries of the white man. Ashcroft writing for the electrical world magazine explains - The electric desk fan and the electric ceiling fan have sealed the fate of the punkah; its oscillations are becoming feebler and feebler, and will soon entirely cease. And when one considers that four punkah pullers are included in the bag and baggage of every white man in India, transient or otherwise, the Indian labor question assumes a very complex position in view of the introduction of our Western methods of breeze-manufacturing. Every electric fan imported into India means depriving four natives of their means of subsistence; and it seems as though our electric fan manufacturers, who are trading here should annually devote a goodly portion of their profits to that annually-recurring institution—the Indian famine. It is not at all strange that Mahomet and Brahma should nowadays be having their slumbers constantly interrupted by the pitiful supplications of erstwhile punkah pullers for the destruction of this new-fangled enemy of theirs—electric fans and electricity. If there ever is another Black Hole of Calcutta, any fan manufacturer who happens to be in town at the time will undoubtedly find himself an inmate, if his identity is known.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, some 50 years after it reached New York, the electric Punkah was invented. Literary digest in 1905 states - readers of Kipling's stories or of any other Anglo-Indian literature need no information regarding the nature and uses of the punkah, which plays so large a part in all narratives of the land of torrid days and breathless nights. The substitution of electric power for sleepy Hindu servants in its propulsion will probably conduce to greater comfort, though it may interfere with some of the romance.
Says The Electrical Review and Western Electrician (New York):
"An electrically driven punkah has been invented, and although this is not the first of its kind, it is said to give satisfaction because it substitutes for the peculiar jerk which is given by the native, and in which the previously devised mechanically driven punkahs were lacking, a similar mechanical movement. The satisfactory service which the hand-worked punkah gives is due to a turn of the fan that the native effects by jerking the rope at each turn. In order to obtain a flick of the curtain similar to that given to the hand-worked fans, the inventors of the new electrically driven punkah have devised an ingenious piece of mechanism.
"A horizontal spindle is made to revolve by an electric motor, aud against this spindle there is pressed, by means of a spring, a leather-covered, lath-shaped piece attached to the-fan. The motion of the spindle makes the attachment move over as far as the length of its surface, and the impetus carries the attachment and the punkah a considerable distance from the spindle. As soon as the lathshaped attachment comes back to the revolving spindle in the return swing, an extra impetus is suddenly imparted to the swing of the punkah, which gives the requisite flick."—Literary Digest.
But it is time to stop…To end let us once again look at an ancient account, this one by James Kerr writing in 1873 about his impressions of India
I have heard it said, and do in part believe it, that the heat of the climate, the monotonous waving of the punkas, and the senium, each separately capable of producing a great effect, do when combined and acting with united force, form so powerful a narcotic, that no human brain is able to resist it, but, like the eyes of Argus under the wand of Mercury, those of the congregation, one by one, close in sleep, completely overpowered.
The Land of India – James Kerr
Boy travelers in the FE - Thomas Wallace Knox
Old house Journal
Hunter fan history
Southern US Punkha’s
Water powered fan at work
Pics - from the net - thanks and acknowledgements to the uploaders...