Hanging Punkaha, Calcutta, c1786-90

 

tom-raw-between-smoke-and-f
টানা পাখা, কলকাতা, c১৭৮৬-৯০
The heat of the Indian summers scared the English. Before the advent of punkhas and American ice in early the 19th century, the English dreaded the oppressive heat and miseries of the hot season. As the description continues in the Putnams monthly of 1857* – In every room of every house in Calcutta a punka swings from the ceiling. Hanging Punkah (or Punka, or Punkha ) is a long, light frame of wood, covered with long-cloth or fancy paper, having a flounce of muslin along its lower edge. It is suspended from hooks by three or four ornamental cords. Then another cord passes from the body of the punka over a brass wheel on the wall, and so through the wall, and over another such wheel on the opposite side, to the hand of a punka-wallah, who squatting on the floor, pendulates his charge continually, or so long as the apartment is occupied. * The World of New York [pp. 220-224] In: Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art Volume 0008 Issue 44 (August 1856),
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.Punkah-Colonel'schamber
Here is a comical description of the effects of Bombay-side pulls that GF Atkinson narrated in 1895 –If you go inside the room, you will practically experience the effects by finding your hat blown off into an adjacent corner, and your hair blown indiscriminately and unpleasantly about your eyes and face! And as there is a corresponding thermantidote hurling its Boreas blasts from the opposite verandah, and a superpending punkah, which waves recklessly and defiantly above your head, you only need a current from the ground to be involved in a general hurricane—a perfect cyclone. So what with the tatties—those moistened furze screens that close up every other aperture—” Our Colonel ” has unquestionably the coolest house at Kabob. And we have opportunities, many and oft, for appreciating it, as ” Our Colonel ” gives no end of dinner-parties; and the claret and beer submitted to the refrigerating influences of his ingenious devices are soothing and appeasable to the desiccated throats on a summer’s eve.Curry & Rice by GF Atkinson. See6.punkhawallah
The punkah-wallah, the man who pulls the huge fans with which every office, dining-room, parlor, and church is provided, is a well-known character not in Calcutta but also in Madras, as in all Southern India. This occupation often descends from father to son, for many generations, and the true punkahwallah by instinct and training develops expertise. Usually they charged three annas per day and three annas per night per man.
It is learnt from Echoes from Old Calcutta , that the hanging punkah came in between 1784 and 1790, and it was originally introduced into this country by the Portuguese. 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.
The oil on canvas,’Tom Raw Between Smoke and Fire’, featured at the top was painted by Charles D’Oyly in c1820

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