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Home Cover Features Soaring High - Story of the Kites

Soaring High - Story of the Kites

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Come January and the blue skies are a colourful array of bright hues and tones. The usually calm skies come alive with the swaying kites dancing in the winds.   

Head held high, going against the strong wind with all its might, tails aflutter, flying in all its glory, on a single lifeline lying in the hands of its owner who can either make it feel literally on top of the world or let it lie deep and dead - an exhilarating feeling that makes one flying the ‘humble’ kite feel like the ruler of the world.  

Kites have a universal fascination. It’s difficult to find one who can resist the temptation of using the wind to defy gravity and make a man-made object, like the kite, not just fly but soar high up in the sky. It is an interest that goes back thousands of years and kites today have developed into many forms and uses throughout the world.

Kites appear in the culture and history of many countries around the world. They have been worshipped as religious symbols, used as instruments of war, been developed as practical tools apart from simply being a source of entertainment and enjoyment.

Sailing in the wind, scaling distances, arousing curiosity, amazement and wonder as well as entertainment for the spectator, are the humble kites. Kites that come in all shapes and sizes never cease to enthral young and old alike with their rather tempting designs. Kites flying so high up in the air, that they look like tiny little dots decorating the sky. You have the Jehiya fighting with the Gudi Langoti, while their Disco and Feroza manjas ably help them decide who can last it out. 

Do Kalam, Jehiya, Gileri Do Paan, Naamamdar, Gudi, Gudi Langoti, Dulhan, Ounda, Jeebiya, Char Paan, Paachisi are just some of the 200-odd varieties of kites that dot the Hyderabadi sky. Dulhandaar, however, is the most prominent one since it is Hyderabad’s very own design and is immensely popular. Vying for their share of attention, and without whom kite-flying is a futile attempt, are the innumerable manjas (thread treated to make it razor-sharp) like Motiyan (pink), Ganlak (light yellow), Gajar (orange), Disco (white), Angoori (light parrot green), Feroza (sky blue) and many others.  

Kite Flying Today
Today the world of kites is enormous. It ranges from simple children’s toys ideal for a family stroll in the park to the latest state-of-the-art kites. Whether you enjoy the artistry and craftsmanship of making kites or get a kick out of synchronized team flying, kite-flying no doubt is a great pastime. 
Even though, the gravity defying technology and aesthetic craftsmanship of kite making and flying is acclaimed by one and all, it is yet to be recognized and propagated as a sport, rather than a hobby and pleasure, in India. 

It might be hard to believe for many but there is at least one Kite Festival every weekend of the year in some part of the world and kite-flying is known to be one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Why, people were flying kites 1,000 years before paper was invented. Each year on the second Sunday of October, kite flyers in nearly every country of the world unite and fly a kite to celebrate ‘One Sky One World’.

Kite-flying is a great treat to watch, especially when it takes the form of ‘kite fighting’, in which participants try to snag (cut) each other’s kites. The kite fights are at their maximum in India during the Sankranti festive celebrations and fighters enjoy competing with rivals in which one has to cut-loose the string of another kite - this is popularly called as ‘Pench.’ As people cut-loose an opponent’s kite, shouts of ‘kataa’ or ‘aaffaaaaa’ ring through the air. Reclaiming the kites, after they have been cut-loose, by running after them is a popular ritual especially amongst kids. Highly manoeuvrable single-string paper kites are flown while using line friction in an attempt to cut each other’s kite lines, either by letting the line loose at high speed or by pulling the line in a fast and repeated manner.

Family and friends gather in hordes on roof-tops and unleash their kites on the sky. The band of revellers is so great, that the sky becomes almost invisible behind the montage of colourful paper creations. In Hyderabad, the International Kite Festival is organized by the Andhra Pradesh Tourism department. From bytes to kites, corporates too are holding kite festivals regularly as part of their recreational activities. 

Kite-Sellers in Hyderabad
Where do you head to, in the city, if you have to buy kites in bulk or want the best of kites for the best of bargains? Gulzar Houz and Dhoolpet, without a doubt. The die-hard kite-flyer, I’m sure, knows these places like the back of his hand. It is here that the lanes and by lanes take on a festive spirit, closer to the ‘Festival of Kites’, Sankranti. This is one of those festivals where one can truly witness a heart-warming sight of complete communal harmony; what with people of all religions participating in it with full gusto.

Hyder Baba, of Ahmed Kite Shop at Gulzar Houz, says with a smile, “Sab log aake hamare yahan se patang khareedthe hain. Bachche tho bachche hain, unhe koi faraaq nahi padtha. Patang udhana hain tho, bas udhana hain. Bade log bhi bahut khareedthe hain, kilo mein.” (All people come and buy kites from us. Kids are kids; it does not make any difference for them. If they have to fly a kite, then they have to do it, no matter what. Older people too buy a lot of kites, at times in kilos.” Started by his father, his shop has been around for more than 40 years and is quite a popular one at that. Why, he gets orders for large amounts of kites from far off places such as Delhi.

To cater to the mad rush of demand for kites of various shapes and sizes, just like the many others in the field, he starts stocking up on kites from the month of February till December every year. Sales start picking up pace from December and he says, “Usually by January 15 every year, all the kites are completely sold out.” Speaking about the kites that he makes and buys, he says, “Hyderabad mein tho sirf kagaz ke patang banthe hain. Plastic wale patang hum log Ahmedabad aur Kanpur se lathe hain.” (Only paper kites are made in Hyderabad. We get the plastics ones from Ahmedabad and Kanpur).

Another shop in the same vicinity that has been around for more than 50 years is Bajaj Patang Mahal. Started by Venugopal Bajaj’s grandfather, it too does brisk business around Sankranti. Speaking about the vast difference in kite-making and selling compared to his grandfather’s generation and today’s, Bajaj says, “In those days, all kites were hand-made wherein even the kadi (stick) was cut by hand and not machines unlike now; and were sold for not more than 1 paisa or 2 paise. Then only paper kites were made. In fact, why then, a lot has changed in the past 10 years itself. Now you have PVC plastic kites too.”

Kite-flying is an art and a passion in itself. And Venugopal Bajaj is one of those firm believers too. Speaking about the benefits of flying a kite, he says, “Flying a kite is a physical and mental exercise. And there is no age restriction here, anybody between the age of five and 100 years can fly it. When they fly a kite, they feel very happy.” He even goes to the extent of saying that “people who fly kites regularly do not need glasses because their sight improves to a great extent,” and adds, “people have a lot of tensions in this digital and express age; and flying a kite truly has its own benefits for them.” 

Kites’ Business
Kites in the city are mostly made locally, while some are brought from Ahmedabad, Kanpur, Baroda; and sell for anything between 50 paise to Rs. 30/- (large kite) for a paper one and Rs. 10/- to Rs. 20/- for a plastic one, whereas manja sells for anything between Rs. 10/- to Rs. 30/- for each gitti (a small bundle). Chinese kites, including small paper lamps, are available from Rs. 10/- to Rs. 100/- each. Higher end versions of both are available too, for those willing to splurge. You can get a Katrina Kaif kite (a huge kite with her photo pasted on it) or a Spiderman kite for Rs. 250/- and a ‘very sharp manja’ for Rs. 200/- per charki (the wooden device that holds the manja and thread). But the most popular or ‘running-wale’ (as they call it) ones are the medium kites that sell for Rs. 5/- or Rs. 10/-; and China and Bareilly manjas that sell for Rs. 5/- to Rs. 20/- per gitti. However, old passions die hard. Paper still rules! Paper kites account for more than 80% of the sales and the remaining 20% are by plastic ones. Kites and strings are definitely a big business in the country.

Making Kites & Manja
Deep in the lanes of Dhoolpet are many shops and houses that are busily making countless numbers of kites. Watching them make a kite from scratch was truly an amazing experience for me, who has always flown one but never really cared about how it was made.

Santosh of Chotum Singh Patang Shop in Dhoolpet, which he claims is over 200 years old and started by his forefathers, took the pains of not just explaining everything, but also showing how it is done. Why, he even led us to his house, which had become a make-shift workshop with his parents, uncles and aunts all pitching in, in making kites in bulk to cater to the festive season. While they sell kites singularly at their shop during the festive season, the rest of the months they sell it to other stores in bulk.

Kiran, his mother and a rather sweet lady who made me feel at home immediately, explained the process of making a kite, which begins with cutting the double ghoda (a very thin and delicate paper made and sold in Old City) or China paper (comes from Mumbai) in different shapes and sizes (depending on the type of kite you have to make), sticking the different papers to make a square, attach the middle stick (tadha), then the tail (punne), then the small round paper on the top (tikli) and then the arched stick in the center (kamp or kadi). The last step is to stick the thread (dora) around the kite to give it the strength it needs to fly against the wind. Some are stuck with the round stickers (gariyal) on them to add more colour. 

The double ghoda paper is dyed in various colours at Talab Katta and then dried before it is cut in desired sizes. One bundle (ream) of paper makes over 1000 medium-sized kites, which they make in about 10 to 15 days, and fetches them about Rs. 500/-. Lai (home-made gum made with maida that stays fresh for four to six days) is used to stick everything in the kite. The sticks are brought from Nepal or Calcutta for Re. 1 each (for the big ones). Sometimes, each person can stick about 500 kites on an average in a day.

Since they make kites months in advance, the fear of termites eating them away is always there for them. To tackle this, they have a rather simple yet risky solution. Kiran who has been making kites for the past 35 years says, “Hum maida mein Neela Thotha milathey hain aur phir use lagathe hain.” (We mix Neela Thotha, which is poison, with maida and then use it to stick anything on the kites).  

So, is there any loss in making kites? “Hamere liye tho nuksaan sirf kadi mein hain. Mota kadi agar chote patang ko laga diye tho, dukaandaar nahi lethe hain kyunki who theek se udhega nahin. Hazaar mein se sau kadi toot jathe hain. Kagaz agar phat gaya tho bhi, us se tikli banathe hain.” (For us, the loss is with the sticks only. If we put a thicker stick on a smaller kite, then the shop keeper will not buy it from us, because it will not fly properly. Out of thousand sticks, about a hundred break off. If the paper tears, we use it to make the smaller rounds that we stick on the top of kites). To curtail this, the sticks are soaked in water to make them more flexible, but it doesn’t always work. So, what do they then do with the broken sticks? “Chulha mein isthamal karte hain (we use them as firewood for cooking),” she says with a smile. Well, nothing is wasted here.

Sunita, another relative of theirs who puts the dora around the kite, says, “Ek din mein char sau patang ko laga dethe hain (In one day, I put the thread for about four hundred kites)”.

With all this talk about the making of kites, can the making of the manja be far behind? Dharmesh is one of the many people who make manja during the peak season to cash in on the demand. Working hard under the sweltering sun he explains how it is done. “Pehle tube-light ko bareek powder banathe hain. Phir use ubla huwa chawal mein colour ke saath milathe hain. Us ke baad, ye paste ko mota dhaga ke upar ghisthe hain. (First we make a fine powder of the glass from tube-lights. Then we mix this powder into boiled rice and add a desired colour. Then we rub this mixed paste over the thick thread).” The threads are stretched from one end to another on wooden poles and left to dry in the hot sun. Each ball of paste makes about 50 gittis which sell for about Rs. 6/- to Rs. 8/- to the shop-keeper, who in turn sells it for about Rs. 9/- to Rs. 10/-. Dharmesh makes about five to six charkis in a day. He however laments that unlike earlier when he would start making manja six to eight months in advance, he now starts it only two months in advance and says, “Woh naya Tangrez manja aaya hain bahar se jo bahut tez hain. Uske wajah se hamara business barbaad ho gaya hai. Sab log wahi lete hain. (That new manja called Tangrez that is brought from outside is very sharp. Because of that our business has taken a beating. Everybody buys that one only).”

Culture of Kites
While kites have come to be associated with the Sankranti festival for us, it has many a folklore to tell from various corners of the world. Here are some:
- The Chinese believe that looking at kites high in the sky maintains good eyesight and that when you tilt your head back to look at a kite in the sky your mouth opens slightly, which gets rid of excess body heat - giving you a healthy yin-yang balance.
- Kite flying was banned in China during the Cultural Revolution. Anyone found flying a kite was sent to jail for up to three years and their kites destroyed.
- There are 78 rules in kite fighting in Thailand.
- The Maori tribes from New Zealand made beautiful birdman kites made from bark cloth and leaves.
- Kite flying was banned in Japan in 1760 because too many people preferred to fly kites than work.
- Kites were used in the American Civil War to deliver letters and newspapers.
- Large kites were banned in East Germany because of the possibility of man lifting over the Berlin Wall.
- When the Japanese were building some of the early temples and shrines they used large kites to lift tiles and other materials to the workmen on the roofs.
- The Russians used kites to tow torpedoes in 1855 with great accuracy.
- In the Second World War, the RAF issued pilots with a rescue kit, comprising a dingy and a folding box kite called a Gibson Girl which enabled them to send an SOS message from a portable transmitter with the kite line acting as the aerial.
- In Vietnam, kites are flown without tails. Instead small flutes are attached allowing the wind to ‘hum’ a musical tune.
- In Bali, large bows are attached to the front of the kites to make a deep throbbing vibration.
- In Malaysia row of gourds with sound-slots are used to create a whistle as the kite flies.

History of Kites
Kites have probably been in existence for over twenty-five centuries and it is now thought that the first kite was probably flown in China around 1000 BC. The kite was said to be the invention of the famous Chinese philosophers Mozi and Lu Ban. By at least 549 AD paper kites were being flown, as it was recorded in that year that a paper kite was used as a message for a rescue mission. Ancient and medieval Chinese sources list other uses of kites for measuring distances, testing the wind, lifting men, signalling, and communication for military operations. Kites spread quickly throughout the Far East and by the end of the first millennium they played significant roles in many different countries and cultures.

Fighting and fishing kites appear throughout the Malay Peninsula. Early forms of fishing kites were as simple as a large leaf threaded with strips of fine bamboo, with a hook hung from a long length of line – a form still used in Asia today. In Japan kites were used to wage war and there are many records of warriors being strapped to large kites and raised up above the walls of cities under siege.
Until the eighteenth century in Europe, kites were almost exclusively a children’s plaything. Eventually scientists and inventors began to realize their potential and the period from 1860 to about 1910 became the ‘golden age of kiting’ where kites started to be used for scientific purposes. 

Kite Records & Trivia
- The smallest kite in the world that actually flies is 5mm high.
- The largest number of kites flown on a single line is 11,284, a record held by a Japanese kite maker.
- The longest kite in the world is 1034 meters (3394 ft).
- The largest kite in the world is Peter Lynn’s Flag Kite, measuring 42m by 25m (1050 sq m).
- The fastest recorded speed of a kite is over 120 mph (193 km/h).
- The record for the highest single kite flown is 13,600 feet above sea level.
- The world record for the longest ‘kite fly’ is 180 hours.
- The fastest crossing of the English Channel towed by kites was 2 hrs 30 min, by a team from Flexifoil International in 1999.
- Some Japanese kites weigh over 2 tons.

Safe Flying
There are safety issues involved in kite-flying and one needs to be careful with kites and manjas. Kite lines can strike and tangle on electrical power lines running the risk of electrocuting the kite flier. The manjas are sharp and can be very dangerous. Apart from causing serious cuts, manjas have also killed pedestrians and motorcyclists who fail to notice the almost invisible thread dangling across the roads. While flying kites, keep an eye on the ground too, especially when you are on roof tops and elevated points. People tend to get so engrossed in flying kites that they fail to notice roof edges or the roads and traffic. Fly kites safely.   
So, what’s it for you? A Dulhandaar or a Jehiya? Whichever one it is, have a Happy Flying!

Photo Credit: Varaprasad Ponnaganti

Month: January 2011.

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