The Passion to Fly
Man always wanted to fly like birds and tried various ways to fly up in to the air. Before the advent of airplanes hot air balloons were the only means by which man had been able to see the world from a higher altitude. The concept of using a hot air balloon to float up into the air first came from the idea of sky lantern which have been used for decades by the Chinese.
Traditionally these were made of rice paper and bamboo frame and were known as tiān dēng, popularly some even call these as Chinese Lanterns.
The Kolkata Connection
Kolkata is a city of various faces and the same applies to sky lanterns or hot air balloons also, traditionally these were quite popular during the twentieth century but faded as time passed by. Out here these are known as Fanush or Phanush and has more emphasis on the design and the creativity than lighting up the night sky.
Traditional joint Bengali families were known to have the passion to build them by hand and then to release them during Kali Puja or Diwali. It was more like a competition between families of North Kolkata to show off their Fanush building skills. Some followed the traditional designs whereas some experimented with shapes and colours. However the science remained the same, one needs to build a light paper balloon with a thin bamboo frame and use a heat source to create a lift.
The Fanush Family of Kolkata
My introduction to Fanush making came from the families of Bholanath Dham or the Dutta family house of Abhedananda Road. This house and its members have been releasing Fanush from their family house courtyard for decades and is one of the most celebrated family when it comes to Fanush making. One of the reason for this is the immense support the members of the family extend to strangers like me to explain the process of Fanush making and to open their house to complete strangers on Kali Puja day when they release the Fanush in the air.
The day I visited Mr Ajoy Dutta and Mr P. K. Mullick along with their family members were busy making Fanush. In spite of the work load they greeted me with a warm smile and within minutes made me comfortable as if I was coming to their house for decades. They were also kind enough to show me step by step process of Fanush creation and some in depth details into the science of it all.
The Construction Steps
Colourful kite papers are used to create the Fanush, imported Swedish papers were earlier used but now Chinese papers are used since they are much cheaper and of course very colourful. The paper pieces are cut according to a pre-cut deice that the family owns probably for decades and this is the secret formula that each house have. For each of the shapes of Fanush different deice exists, the cut papers of different colour are stuck together with glue and this glue is also made by them and not the readymade ones in the market. Special attention is given to ensure that the paper uses minimum overlapping edges so as not to increase the weight of the Fanush.
After this, a thin slice of bamboo stick is made into a circular shape to form the base of the Fanush. This bamboo stick is tied up with strong black threads in order to maintain the shape. This circular bamboo is critical as it should not be heavy and should be strong enough to hold the weight of the heat source.
Once done the Fanush is inflated using an electrical fan, this way the team checks for holes and other defects, which are repaired instantly with small paper strips of the same colour.
A wick is made by rolling up small strips of cotton cloths into a shape of a sphere resembling somewhat a shape and size of a tennis ball. This is a critical element of the Fanush as the longer this wick will burn the higher and longer the Fanush will stay up in the air.
A cross wire is tied up with the circular bamboo frame to which the wick is tied up, locally this wick is called Luti. The wick before tying up with the frame is soaked in spirit overnight so that maximum amount of fuel is soaked up. A special attention is given to the quality of spirit as a low quality fuel will result in heavy smoke when lit up.
To light up the Fanush a flame torch is used which has two sections, the top portion is used to create the heat inside the Fanush for the main lift and the lower portion of the torch is used to light up the wick (Luti). Once the lift is generated the torch needs to be taken out of the Fanush in one straight pull so as to avoid the flame touching the paper outer layer of the Fanush. Once the torch is out of the Fanush the flame on the torch is put off by covering with a wet cloth.
By now, the Fanush will be standing straight on its own and the people holding the Fanush can feel the upward pull, the Fanush is then gently let go off and within few seconds it completely vanished off to the bright blue sky. The height to which a Fanush will go depends on the size and volume of the Fanush along with the duration of the flame on the wick.
The shapes vary from the typical designs to football, clock, earthen pitcher, top (toy) etc. Typically these are launched before sunset so that the colours and designs could be clearly seen.
This was my first experience photographing Fanush in its creation phase as well as during the actual launch. On the launch day there were more than hundred photographers trying to pick the best spot for the best frame. Since this was my first time I missed shooting the launch of the first Fanush as I was so engrossed with the whole launch that I forgot to press the shutter button of my camera.
The Dutta family on that day is an open house and people can freely roam around in the courtyard, first floor, the lower terrace and the upper terrace. I would recommend to shoot the launch process from all the four vantage points to get an overall feel.
Why Should I Be Left Behind
Seeing all this made me very excited and I decided to buy some readymade sky lanterns for my family. I knew my daughter would be quite excited to see these fireflies up in the air vanishing in the dark black sky. Luckily Calcutta Instagrammers had arranged for a Sky Lantern evening and I made sure to be present at Vivekananda Park along with my family to see these small Fanushes go up in the sky.
So next year if you want to experience something really different on a Kali Puja evening you know where to go, and remember to bring your camera along to see some colourful papers fly up in the sky.