August 20, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ M D Riti

Masters of the Sky

The Brahmini kite soaring majestically over Hebbal Lake peered curiously at the big, multi-coloured bird flying alongside.

Weren't pterodactyls supposed to be extinct, he wondered? Then what was this huge, prehistoric-looking bird sharing his sky space?

The spectators on the grassy banks of the lake, on the outskirts of Bangalore, enjoyed the spectacle of the curious bird circling the bird kite being flown by Ashok Shah from Thane.

Many more real, live, kite birds joined the magnificent kites being flown in the gusty wind at the first national kite festival organised by a private association. While there have been other kite festivals in India before, what set the Kite Clinic Club's festival apart was the fact that it was entirely a private endeavour by some dedicated kite enthusiasts. It also had a four-day exhibition-cum-training camp conducted by some of the country's best kite masters.

The festival -- a spontaneously put together, low-key affair -- was funded entirely by the organisers, most of them businessmen. But they hope the Karnataka government chips in next year.

The scene at the festival was the kind of stuff dreams are made of, as an overcast, grey monsoon sky was brightened by dozens of colourful kites of all shapes and designs.

A black ship with colourful sails gracefully crested the choppy winds. A rustic doll wobbled crazily besides it. Some shiny purple pants flapped along, looking for a wearer. A huge Kathakali facemask undulated gracefully, shaking its head from side to side. A bright yellow kite proclaimed that it belonged to the Mangalore kite-fliers' club. Another kite decorated with cutwork fluttered along bravely in support of AIDS victims. Two lone kites flew far away on the horizon, 1km away from the hands that held them.

The kite that is featured in the Limca Book of Records for being the longest in the country -- it is 600 feet long and has 600 waving pennants in shiny hues -- flowed gracefully through the sultry breeze.

A couple of snake kites wiggled their way uncomfortably close. Not to be outdone, Shah came back with a four-reel kite that cost him Rs 25,000. "Do you know this is the only kind of kite that is kept with the aircraft at the Smithsonian Institute?" he asked, as he deftly manoeuvred it.

Elsewhere, two middle-aged kite-fliers were engaged in a silent, fierce struggle, until one of them managed to cut down the other's kite with the famous manjha (twine encrusted in powdered glass). Huge birds, some painted brightly in rainbow colours, others plain white doves of peace, watched the fight quietly.

"It is only in foreign countries that manjha is banned," explained Dilip Kapadia, president of Bombay's Golden Kite Club. "It is not, as is commonly believed, a dangerous sport at all. You can use a paste of glass powder, glue and whatnot to coat the string of a kite. Or you can just as easily chop your rival's kite string in two with this ordinary thread." He demonstrates what he means, cutting a thick cord in two with a thin, breakable thread.

How did these grown men acquire a hobby that one normally associates with carefree urchins in windblown meadows? "It's not a hobby," said Rasulbhai Patangwala of Ahmedabad indignantly. "We are professional kite-makers," explained his brother, Rahimbhai, more patiently. "It is a hereditary profession in my family, going back to my ancestors."

The brothers said they employed about 15 workers in their kite-making workshop in Ahmedabad. Four of Rasulbhai's sons have also joined the business. "Kites give us our daily bread," said Rahimbhai, at prices as low as 25 paise apiece, right upto Rs 500 for the more exotic variety.

"But we now face a major problem," said Rasulbhai, his distinguished-looking, long white beard quivering with worry. "The fabric out of which we make our kites, which is made in India, is heavy and most unsuitable. If only I could find someone to supply me good, lightweight, imported, nylon material..." Any takers? You can send samples to Rasulbhai at House No 174/2, Lalitaben Chawl, B/H Sabina Appar, Kalupur Bridge Corner, Amdupura, Ahmedabad.

Rasulbhai and his colleagues trained 60 handicapped people in the art of kite-making during the exhibition. "My primary goal in starting this club was to teach small children how to make kites scientifically and well," said V K Rao, who founded KCC a decade ago. "We now have more than 200 members and training remains an important objective."

"You should see him flying his long kites," said C Narayanaswamy, a former member of the Karnataka Legislative Council, who had come to watch the kite-flying display. "He looks just like those small children he teaches, running through the fields, enjoying every moment."

"This takes me right back to my childhood, when my four elder brothers used to make me grind broken glass into powder to stick on their kite strings," said Mythili Varadarajan, who was there with her young granddaughter.

A strange buzzing sound cut through the silence, punctuated until now only by the stray yells of kite-fliers, the high-pitched cries of circling kite birds and the gales of wind whooshing over the placid water. A brightly painted aircraft-shaped kite, with a long tail, swooped low over the ground, then rose sharply, banked to one side and did everything a toy aeroplane does...

Were battery-powered kites allowed in this display, wondered spectators. Then, they realised that the motor-like sound actually came from the wind whistling sharply through the holes cut in the stunt kite Shah was flying.

"That kite cost me Rs 10,000," confided Shah. "It took me years to teach myself how to fly a two-line stunt kite like this. To the best of my knowledge, there are only three of us in India who know how to fly two- and four-line kites."

He displayed the two reels of thread he holds in both hands, wielding them exactly like the joystick of an aeroplane. When he tugs on one, the kite makes a neat turn and flies off at an angle towards some unknown destination.

The Kapadias usually design their kites themselves and get them executed by professional kite-makers. "Many of these exquisite kites are actually collages made with a lot of cutting and pasting," explained Kapadia's son, Deepak. But most others, like Shah of Thane, make them on their own. "I usually sit up all night, after I close my shop, and make my kites," he said.

"It's a pity that kite flying is not a more popular sport," said Rao. "I blame parents and teachers for this. They are always chasing children to study hard, and even actively discourage them from flying kites."

Their spirits soaring with the colourful contraptions, many of the spectators at the show would have agreed.

Page design: Uttam Ghosh

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