Phanush, or fanush, hot-air balloons made of paper with a bamboo and wire base, were once an integral part of the Kali Puja celebrations in North Calcutta. The indigenous phanush operates on the same principles as a hot-air balloon. A cloth rag ball soaked in spirit, also called a luti or nuti is attached to the balloon’s base and set aflame, heating the air inside, making the phanush light enough to fly.
There are no written records of when phanush flying started in Calcutta, however, oral history mentions the Dey family of Darjipara. According to these records, Gourishankar Dey, a Mathematics professor of Scottish Church College, began the tradition in 1912.
Over the years the art of phanush making evolved with artisans perfecting their skills in creating various shapes and frames. Apart from the conventional balloon shape, phanush were made in the shape of pitchers, stars, footballs, ducks, kettles and even Saturn, complete with its rings.
Making the phanush
Sadly, with time, and with the new generation not picking up the skills, phanush makers and flyers began to lose interest and it became a dying art. By the 1980s, very few of these colourful balloons were spotted on a Kali Puja afternoon in Darjipara and Beadon Street area of North Kolkata, and the number kept decreasing. The Darjipara Dey’s have long stopped their grand phanush flying tradition. The same is not true, however, for the Dutt family of Bholanath Dham in Beadon Street. The Dutts have been involved in the art of phanush making and flying since 1924.
Even now, the Dutts, led by Ajoy Dutt who is now in his 70s, release about a dozen phanush into the sky on the afternoon of Kali Puja. The tradition and the art have seen a revival in the last decade, thanks to the active role of social media. A new generation, well adept with the Internet and technology, has picked up the skill of phanush making. They are also using computer software such as AutoCAD to design the contraptions, giving a new lease of life to the century-old art.
In recent times, phanush makers have been joined by artists who help decorate the phanush, and these creations have become a regular feature during many social and cultural events beyond Kali Puja.
This phanush by artist Aditi Banerjee with Madhubani painting was the star attraction this yearRangan Datta
Bholanath Dham also has a Durga Puja and after the immersion on Dashami day, Ajoy Dutt sets out on his phanush making venture, assisted by some of his family members. In recent years, however, he has found assistance from a bunch of young phanush makers. With social media, and the number of phanush festooning the afternoon sky on Kali Puja increasing, the family tradition has turned into a mini festival. It now attracts enthusiasts and photographers, some even slightly foolhardy in the face of the fire-fuelled contraptions.
Phanush flying has become a mini festival of sorts, attracting photographers and crowds of spectators
Even with the popularity and rekindled interest, the pandemic has slowed things a little bit. In 2019, about 20 colourful phanush made by Dutt along with half a dozen phanush makers and artists were let out from Bholanath Dham. Sadly, in 2020, COVID 19 affected the family and the festivities were given a miss. Things are better now, and preparations for 2021 have begun. A beautiful painted Patachitra painted phanush is on the cards, along with many others, which will be released this year from an unoccupied house close to Bholanath Dham.