Flying High with Kites

It is interesting to note that even early colonial officers recorded about kite flying as a common amusement in their gazette books

Vo-katta!” Even a few decades back, this was a familiar cry of exultation breaking the quietness of sultry, lazy afternoons, particularly in the northern neighbourhoods of the city. Truant boys stole away to the roof tops as mothers and other guardians enjoyed their afternoon siestas. They would be busy preparing the special manja (thread), using homemade gum and powdered glass, a deadly mix rubbed on the string in order to sever kites of rivals. The thrill of flying a kite, seeing it soar above everybody else’s, the momentary tautness of the thread before it beheads the other kite, the severed one flying away limply in the air and the cries of exultation from the rooftops – today seem to be elements from a bygone era.

Kite-flying is among the oldest amusement and it is difficult to pinpoint its origin. It was a favourite past time of the Babus of Calcutta along with bulbuli fights, watching various performances, often bordering upon vulgarity. Latubabu (Ashutosh Deb) and Chatubabu and Pradyumna Mullick were all fond of kites and attached currency notes to their kites’ tails. The more moneyed and pompous the landed aristocrat was, the bigger would be the size and denomination of the currency note. Often they would indulge in kite-flying from the rooftops of houses belonging to their mistresses and blow trumpets every time they defeated another babu. But kite flying was not restricted to only the elite. Even ordinary middle class people took part in kite flying and enjoyed kite fights. It is interesting to note that early colonial officers recorded about kite flying as a ‘common amusement’ in their gazette books.
But kite-flying as a sport gained momentum with the arrival of the deposed Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah from Lucknow who settled with his large retinue at Metiaburj. Kite flying was one of his favourite past time and kite making became a cottage industry in Metiaburj. Even today Metiaburj supplies kites to different parts of the country like Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar. The kites manufactured in Metiaburj for the Nawab and the gentry were bigger in size and decorated. The paper used to make the kites was brightly hued and had golden borders. The latais were decorative too.
Popularity of kite-flying as a sport can be gauged from an anecdote involving Swami Vivekananda. In February 1902, an ailing Swami Vivekananda was walking down Bosepara Lane in north Kolkata when suddenly he spotted a 9-year- old boy whom he had once taught the nuances of kite flying, on the terrace of his house. Swamiji asked him to come down and began flying the kite together. Passers-byes were taken aback by the sight of Swamiji flying a kite with the boy holding on to the latai. Such is the thrill of kite flying that even Swamiji could not resist the temptation of practising a skill he had picked up during his boyhood days.
Even after independence, in the old neighbourhoods, particularly in north Kolkata, kite flying continued to be the popular past time. For instance, Manna Dey who grew up in north Kolkata took avid interest in kites. Even after moving to Mumbai every Sunday afternoon he, along with Mohammad Rafi who was his neighbour in Bandra, used to fly kites.

Earlier, it was during Makar Sankranti that people from this side of undivided Bengal flew kites. But in East and North Bengal there was no specific day for kite-flying. However, after independence, flying kites on the day of Viswakarma Puja became a popular practice in the industrial areas which now has spread across West Bengal.
Kites have different names and designs like Chowringhee in which four different coloured papers are used to make the kite. Petkatti or Petkata has two colours. Then there is Chadiyal which has a moon in the middle of the kite. The smallest kite is called Siki tel while the mid-sized one which is most popular is called Aadh tel. Ek tel and Do tel are the larger varieties though rarely used. Kites are made of paper and thin bamboo sticks. Prices depend on the quality of the paper. The best quality kites were made of Australian paper. These papers were not imported from Australia though; some sort of tracing paper was used to make the kites. The thin paper used to make kites came from Uttar Pradesh and the bamboo sticks were brought from Tripura.
Devalaya was the biggest kite-selling shop in south Kolkata. Situated in Kalighat the shop was always crowded with patrons, mostly school kids. In north Kolkata Ghurighar which was closed down a few years ago, had clients from all over the state. In Metiaburj too, there were a couple of shops. Kite aficionados also prepared the manja using special formula which varied from one place to another, from one individual to another. For instance, in Howrah and Hooghly people preferred the thick thread while in Kolkata and its neighbourhood fine threads were used. Some even used very fine copper wires which were tied to the string to sever kites of rivals during competitions.
Unfortunately, with the change in the city’s skyscape kite flying passions also took a plunge. Though the multi-storeyed buildings were conducive for flying kites, the new generation lost interest, finding new passions like video games and play stations. In nuclear families, cooped in apartments, there was hardly anybody to teach the kids the art of kite-flying which they usually learnt from neighbourhood boys. Mr Swapan Parui, owner of Ghuri on Creek Row say that though kite flying has lost much of its popularity but still there are youths who fly kites quite frequently. “My kites are sold in the districts like Nadia, Murshidabad, Howrah and Hooghly. The prices have gone up and it is difficult to carry on business unless that old interest is revived again” he rued.

Vokatta International Kite Festival 2014
Recently, a riot of vibrant colours greeted the city’s skyline when Eco Park in Rajarhat played host to the international kite festival, Vokatta – an initiative of Benchmark Developers Pvt. Ltd. For once, fancy kites of myriad shapes and sizes dotted the wintry skies of city’s eastern fringes.
Vokatta, the biggest organised kite festival in eastern India showcases the rich heritage of Indian kite making and the traditional technique of kite flying. Started in 2013, the festival became an instant hit. This year it was turned into an international event with assurances that henceforth it would feature in Kolkata’s festival calendar.
“The festival celebrates the growth of this township. It got active support from West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (WBHIDCO) and the Department of Urban Development of state government. It is the first international kite festival in eastern India,” said Santosh Kumar Jaiswal, managing trustee of the Benchmark New Town Kolkata International Kite Festival Trust.
The biggest inflatable delta zero wind kite (the ‘Big Blue Beast’ from Belgium – 10m x 5m) was a key attraction. Its creator, Johan Van Eeckhout, executive member – International Kite Federation was equally amazed by the crowd. “It is really nice being here. Loving the spirit”, he said. Kite fliers from countries like US, Belgium, UK, France and Malaysia participated along with those from various corners of India. Kite Aerial Photography (KAP), a popular hobby was another major attraction of this year’s festival. Famous French kite flier and aerial photographer Nicolas Chorier impressed with his artistry. A hot air balloon show was also arranged for children.
Rajesh Nair, a participant said: “Nowadays, children are busy with indoor activities. In my childhood, we had kite fights amongst siblings and cousins. It was so thrilling. We are trying to save our tradition. Kolkata and kites go back a long way too.” A kite gallery showcased the history of kite flying from 300 A.D to modern day.

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