At 'Maximum India,' a showcase of art, film and family

By Vibhuti Patel
Monday, March 14, 2011; 4:36 PM

"To Stir the Still Air" is artist Jatin Das's title for his exhibit of 40 hand fans at the Kennedy Center's "Maximum India" festival. It evokes an Indian summer's airless heat, which, for centuries, people tried to "stir" - it's impossible to dispel - with a "pankha" (the Hindi word for fan).

Das was first given an antique fan 27 years ago. That gift led the painter to start a collection that now numbers 6,500 international fans. Invited to Japan as a master painter, Das flew back with 500 special fans. From China came Chinese versions. A diplomat friend sent him large ceremonial leather fans from Africa, while Das scoured remote rural areas for the largest variety, still in India.

Das has shown his fans at London's Fan Museum, filled Kolkata's vast Victoria Memorial with the entire collection and shown select pieces - many are too fragile to travel - at international museums worldwide. The chief minister of Delhi has given him land to create a national pankha museum in the capital, where Das will part with his prized collectibles.

Accompanying the Washington exhibit are documentary films that show fans in paintings, photographs and unusual locations. One, a 100-foot-long ceiling punkah, pulled by a human with a rope, was discovered by Das's actor/filmmaker daughter, Nandita, in a church in Kerala, where she was starring in "Four Women," a movie made in 2007 by art-film director Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Her video short of that pankha was her gift to a father whose obsession she does not share. But she has more than "stirred the still air" - of Indian cinema - with her 1996 acting debut in the film "Fire," an expose of the oppression of women in a patriarchal family. As the first mainstream Indian film to depict lesbianism, "Fire" led to countrywide protests and, despite critical acclaim, became a lightning rod for right-wing rage.

"Fire" and "Four Women" will be shown at "Maximum India" as notable films on women's issues, and Nandita Das, who has served on the Cannes Film Festival's jury, will lead two panel discussions on Indian cinema.

In a family where five Indian languages were fluently spoken, Nandita spoke four by age 3. (Later, she'd make 30 regional films in 10 Indian languages.) Her mother, a writer, worked full-time six days a week at the National Book Trust. As house-husband, Jatin cooked healthful meals, cleaned and worked in his home studio: "I changed nappies, fed the children, put them to bed and painted nights,'' he says.

Nandita remembers: "As a child, I thought mothers went to work, fathers did household chores and painted for recreation. Role reversal came early to me."

Although she wasn't pressured to excel academically, Nandita was an outstanding student. Once, when she stressed over an impending math test, her father told her to water the plants, talk to them. She fought him at first. Then, giving in, she realized it relaxed her to be with flowers.

"I was hugely (if subconsciously) influenced by my father. Looking back, I realize how privileged my upbringing was. I had a lot of freedom - freedom to ask questions, to make my own choices - so rare in our competitive world."

Nandita credits her father for her exposure to the arts and to a wide range of ideas and people of diverse backgrounds and religions. "There were no boundaries or barriers; all that mattered was that a person be a good human being."

They had their differences, though.

"I hadn't grown up watching movies for entertainment. For us, entertainment was to go to a concert, a play, a dance performance, an exhibition." So, "it was by default that I got into films."

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