Part 1 – Precursor
During my childhood days the month of September was always very special, 15th of September is my mother’s birthday and 17th September is Biswakarma Puja. Now you may ask why Biswakarma Puja well then let me tell you that on this day Kolkata wakes up to a sky full of kites, September 17th and sometimes 18th is what Kolkatan’s have year marked for flying kites.
I still remember my father flying kites along with my uncles from roof top while I used to sit at the corner holding the Latai (thread reel). Occasionally I used to hear my father shout out the words “Dhil Diye Rakh” which meant keep the thread loose so that when there would be a match he would be able to release the tread much quickly thus gaining an advantage.
It was a whole day affair and most of the snack and tea used to be served at the terrace itself as no one would have time to come down. In those days there were no sky scrapers and at most there were four storied house in our locality. All around me I could see different family on their rooftop flying kites and whenever some kite got cut the victorious word “Bhoo Kattaa” would resonate from one of the roof tops. Sometimes this victory cry would be accompanied by the beating of Kanshar Ghanta (Metal Plate) and booing to the house which just lost a kite.
Part 2 – My Hey day
Years passed by and the next generation that included me took up to the challenge, I always managed to bunk school on Biswakarma Puja and fly kites from sunrise till sunset. I would have to compensate the days missed studies with hours of extra studies in the following week but it was all worth. The funding for this mega day would normally start a month back and every single Rupee went straight to the kite fund.
On Christmas Eve… I mean the evening before Biswakarma Puja I would count all the money and make the grand journey to Jarrah the famous kite shop on Samshulhuda Road where even my father used go when he was of my age accompanied by my great grandfather. The shopping list would always include three dozens of kite, a fresh reel of 1000 meter waxed white thread and the world famous Barelli Manja which is basically abrasive thread coated with glass powder. My father would always signal the shop owner to get the Manja from the stock which he would oblige and take out from the stock stored in the attic of the shop. We would normally buy 500 or 1000 meter of Manja enough for me to last till the season end. When it used to come to pay up my father would always pay the shop owner even before I could take out all the coins and hundreds of changes.
Once back home I would straight go to the terrace room and start tying the Kol (treads) to the kites so that next morning I would not waste time fixing them, sometimes prayer in my lips would accompany this process requesting the all-powerful God not to make the sky rain the next day and to ensure a good breeze from South to North.
Then there were some wise men in my friend circle who would swear by the quality of Manja made out of Cat Poop. I don’t know who came up with this absolutely obnoxious idea but somehow many of us were convinced about it. Luckily I was not among those who tried it but there is an urban legend in our locality that it was tried and it did work.
Normally the season for flying kites in our locality would be from 15th of August till 17th of September and this also happened to be in between the monsoon season so many a times when my kite would be half the way up rains would start pouring and I would have no choice but to cut the thread with my hand and head back to my room.
Though we had a small roof but that did not hamper the impossible attempt of some of my friend s and cousins flying along. Often the threads would crisscross each other and inadvertently cut some ones kite. But it was all fun and after some initial outburst we would get back to our laughter and start all over again.
Few of our common enemies were television antenna, low flying eagle, palm tree and of course groups of young boys from the nearby slum who would try their level best to steal your kite with the help of a piece of stone tied to a thread, which they would through as high as possible and hack into the thread line to steal away the kite. We did not actually mind this as it became a part of the challenge somewhat like a cat and mouse game.
Kite flying was at its peak during my school days but somehow it all slowed down when I was in college and only a few rooftop could be seen populated with kite flyers. This was also a time when traditional two – three storied house were slowly being replaced by house sky scrapers and this created a death warrant for kite flyers like me. With these huge structures all around the wind flow got hugely disturbed and became impossible to fly kite in any direction and surely the kite just would get stuck in those tall high rises.
Part 3 – Baksu – The Kite Seller
This story was narrated to me by my father and the reason why I am sharing this story is to remind us of the passion of a hobby and the level it can take someone.
This was during my father’s school days and just like me even he would save money for Biswakarma Puja, he would along with his friends pre order kite as per particular specification like the colour of the paper, size of the tail and ensuring the sticks being used to be bent by heat to give it a better shape. Baksu the shop owner was renowned for his master craftsmanship and would always deliver the best kite possible, his shop was also famous for selling the top quality Bareli Manja which were normally used by professional kite runners around the city.
Out of excitement my father along with his friends would keep visiting Baksu’s shop regularly enquiring about the stage of the order and Baksu would always confirm the delivery date as 16th September evening , the day before Biswakarma Puja. He had never failed and this assurance always kept my father and his friend assured of success on the grand day.
On one such Biswakarma Puja eve my father along with his friend went to his shop to get the delivery and saw a huge crowd gather outside his shop. This was not uncommon as it would be full of last minute shoppers to get their hands on the best kite and Manja in the town. However this time the hustle and bustle was missing and people stood outside with a gloomy face. My father pushed aside others and tried to get in front but could not manage to get much closer. He decided to ask someone as to what has happened and that he was a client of Baksu who had come to collect the pre ordered kite and Manja. Shockingly the man responded “Baksu…. aap nahi mil saketey aab, dekhiye unka janaza” (you cannot meet Baksu now, see his coffin in front).
Shell shocked my father and his friend decided to skip the kite purchase and follow the funeral procession of Baksu. Ironically this procession was full of Baksu’s loyal client more than his relatives who came to pay their last respect.
This was the level of passion about kite flying, just like other sports the kite sellers were the coach, manager, therapist etc. all combined together. We still trust the kite seller to give the very best Kites from their stock and give us the best Bareli Manja. We will go by their word on the quality and never doubt them.
Part 4 – Present Day Kite Seller
When I decided to write this blog I definitely wished to highlight the status of these famous kite sellers, one fine afternoon I went along with a friend of mine to photograph these store and talk to the owners. I could definitely see the gloom in the face of all of them, all of them complained that children of this generation have lost interest in kite flying and are only interested in mobile, laptop or satellite television. They also blame the recent increase of high rise in the city for being a spoil sport for kite flyers like me who cannot fly.
I went to meet them on a Saturday evening and they showed the status of their sale which in my school days were at its peak on a Saturday evening as all school goers would be running to the shops to stock up for the weekend and when I was there I was the only one that too I was there not to buy but just to ask a few questions.
The owner Bilas Sahu of Doma Kite on Dr. Suresh Sarkar Road which is more than fifty years old is worried about its future and see a day very soon when they have to shut shop. Similar worry also showed on the face of its neighbouring Kailash Kite. Both of them were very happy to see me and wish me to highlight their plight, though I was never a regular buyer from these shops and only came along with my school friend who used to stay in the same locality but for them like me kite flying is a passion.
Jarrah the 80 years old kite shop on Samsul Huda Road was in much worse shape, visibly the shop looked in shambles but the same old sign board above the shop was still visible. These guys had no option as they were stuck in this trade and cannot change their future now. They have to keep selling and survive on whatever they can, I am sure one fine day when I go past this shop I will see its doors closed forever.
Regretfully Khudabaksh informs me that his generation is the last who will make and sell kites as all his children now work in factories and not interested in joining the trade. Right before leaving the shop he asks me if I would be something from his shop, even though I am not sure that I will be able to fly kite this year but I could not say no, he hands me my preferred grey colour Barelli Manja which some say is the best.
The logic of inflation actually does not apply to these kite sellers, the price of kite have hardly changed much in decades. The only change were the increasing popularity of plastic kites and use of coloured synthetic threads instead of the waxed cotton threads. A plastic kite costs between 1 – 2 Rs., whereas a paper kite would cost somewhere between 3 – 15 Rs., there are also fancy kites which cost an upward of Rs. 30. A reel of the new synthetic colourful tread costs Rs. 20 for 500 meters and Rs. 40 for the 1000 meter. The Latai were also changing with times and instead of wooden ones people are more attracted towards the colourful plastic ones.
Part 5 – Professional Kite Running at Maidan
The irony of Kolkata is its extremes, while some like me can’t find a piece of open sky to fly a kite on the other hand in the Kolkata Maidan area it’s being practised in professional form. I met up with two groups, one from Sealdah and the other from Behala, both of them belonged to a kite flying club who had come to Maidan challenging each other in a kite running match.
The rules are very simple, the team is formed of 4 – 5 players from each team, and the names of these players are informed to the other team so it would be easy for them to maintain score. You need to fly your kite at a minimum distance 600 meters before you are eligible to start the match. Each player has the option of either playing with Dheel (release of the thread) or Taan (Pulling the thread) but the minimum distance needs to be kept in mind before starting a match.
Moment a kite is lost it is meticulously noted by the score keeper from the both the team and ticked against the player. This way they can also get an average performance of a player and can plan their future moves accordingly.
These type of match happen all across the different fields of Maidan in different pockets. The one that I went to is right in front of Tata Centre and has four spots assigned for these matches to take place. The teams discuss the date and time of the match over phone and come to the field prepared accordingly.
The best season however during the winter when the wind blows in the reverse direction and the kites look wonderful against the blue sky. According to one of the team score keeper this sort of matches is becoming quite popular nowadays, more and more new team members are joining. He then points out to a team member in the distance and informs that he is a bank manager and on weekend he becomes a kite runner.
Unlike any other sports kite flying is an expensive hobby and each of these pro kites costs somewhere between 18 – 25 Rupees, a reel of match grade Manja would cost between 1800 – 3000 Rupees. None of them are re used, once the kite gets cut the player just breaks the thread and never winds the leftover. At a distance boys can be seen collecting these leftover threads and Manja which they use for flying in their own locality. Some re sell these costly threads and earn some quick extra money.
All these kite flying really made me nostalgic and I just hoped that one of the team would offer me to take a chance and prove my metal but it’s all team based thus accommodating an extra player is not possible. Last year I tried to fly kite from my rooftop and just could not as the only option to fly the kite would be to fly it vertically straight which logically is not possible and would defy the laws of physics. I would again try this year and hopefully symbolically at least would be able to lift my kite up in the air at least for a few seconds. Till then wish you a very happy kite flying season and remember to shout “Bhoo Kattaa” the next time you see a kite getting cut.