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The decline of kite flying in Kolkata

Kite makers at work in Kolkata.

Kite makers at work in Kolkata.   | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah brought the sport to the city, but now it’s all but forgotten here

“Mobiles have killed kites,” Ajit Dutta complains as he daubs a paste of white flour and Bengal gram onto a flimsy wooden kite frame almost lovingly, as if he’s feeding a child breakfast. “Look at kids these days, they’re always on their phones. Who wants to fly kites?”

Dutta is a kite-maker — a kite-master more appropriately, given his expertise — and kites have been his livelihood for over 50 years. As a child, he taught himself to reverse-engineer the kites he’d find discarded after Vishwakarma Pujo, the festival day of the divine architect of Hindu myth, the god who keeps the cosmos from falling apart, and, in Bengal, traditionally the day for flying kites.

In Kolkata, Vishwakarma and kites always go together — the architect and a simple, perfect design. Some 2,500 years ago, the Chinese were using kites to send signals, measure distances, and even lift people into flight. These days, in India, kites bridge farflung geographies: the kite paper comes from mills in Bengaluru, the strings from Uttar Pradesh, and the wood for the crosspiece from the jungles of Assam. But, as Dutta points out, kites have become more and more rare in Kolkata’s skies. Only a handful of kitemakers still ply their trade, and business is crashing.

Once upon a time

This is a far cry from the regal beginnings of kite-flying in Calcutta in 1856, when the last Nawab of Awadh was exiled by the British to the banks of the Hooghly. Wajid Ali Shah brought his passion for kite-flying with him. For the next 150 years, the Calcutta sky would be confettied with coloured paper. It is believed that Wajid Ali Shah, tired of his strings getting cut during kite fights, insisted they be coated with diamond dust. But that was then.

“We don’t sell as many as we used to,” says Dutta. “Not as many as when I started this shop.” That was 45 years ago, when he opened India Kite in Central Kolkata, next to the small park that has now become Santosh Mitra Square. He looks like he has been sitting in the same dark corner for ages, twisting wood into fragile bows and crosses, sticking delicate paper onto them to create airborne diamonds. “We don’t sell as much manjha (kite string) either,” he sighs.

Big price

A retailer drops by, looking for a bulk purchase to ship to U.P. and Gujarat, but the price isn’t right. “No one will pay so much, not any more,” the retailer complains and leaves empty-handed. “It’s a dead industry,” says Souvik Ghosh, a third-generation kite-seller and owner of one of Kolkata’s oldest kite shops, Air-Play Gobindo.

Kite-flying, like other traditions, has been edged out by change, for which there are the usual suspects like market economics, and unusual ones, like the Goods and Services Tax of 2017, which has put a 5% tax on kites, in addition to 12% on kite paper and 5% on manjha.

Mahavir Singh, in his 60s, has been a taxi-driver in Kolkata for many decades. He grew up near Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, the spiritual home of Indian kites, in a village tiny enough to have escaped the cartographer’s pen. He wants his granddaughter to be out flying kites in the evenings. Instead, “she studies and then picks up her phone,” he says. “Mobile wobile ke liye hi nahi udaati.” (She doesn’t fly kites because of mobile phones.)

Bad forecast

But the most unexpected catalyst for the nosedive this ancient pastime has taken may be Kolkata’s changing weather.

“We’re afraid of rains during Vishwakarma Pujo these days,” says Dutta. “It wasn’t like this 10 years ago.” He holds up a kite, checking its balance. “It’s harder to keep your kite up in this heavy air.” Recent climatological statistics seem to bear Dutta out. September rains in the city have “most certainly” increased dramatically since 2001, says Lakshminarayan Satpati, professor of geography at the University of Calcutta. And a 2015 study in the Journal of Applied and Natural Science, on long-term patterns of rainfall in Gangetic West Bengal, finds a “significant increasing trend in September rainfall” in and around Kolkata.

“Is it El Niño? Global warming? Local land use? We need more research to explain it,” says Satpati.

A paper in Journal of Geophysical Research puts it down to “large-scale climate variability”. In other words, global warming seems to be engendering cloudbursts in September. “September is the time for kites, because September is Vishwakarma Pujo,” Ghosh murmurs into his third cup of cardamom tea in the little office behind Air-Play Gobindo. “But how do you fly kites if it rains? Who’ll buy kites if it’s always cloudy?”

For now, though, the monsoons have departed, and the cool evening has brought a few schoolboys to Dutta’s shop, which soon vibrates with shouts and giggles as kites are picked up, scrutinised, discarded.

“He cuts coaching classes every day to fly kites,” says the smallest one, pointing to one of his friends. He adds proudly, “I never cut class.”

Some of the kids rush to rooftops, others to the little park opposite, where they’re joined by children from the neighbouring slum. Soon, there’s a yellow diamond in the sky, in a pas de deux with a bright red one. The boy who never skips classes is there, the string sliding through his fingers deftly as he tries to keep his kite in the air. He turns and winks at me: “Today I’m cutting class. I really want to fly a kite today.”

This essay is from a National Geographic Society and Out of Eden Walk journalism workshop.

The writer teaches American literature and worries about climate change in Kolkata.

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Printable version | May 22, 2020 3:32:15 PM |

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