FLYING into oblivion?

THERE WAS a time when the Chennai skyline used to teem with kites, from November to June. The kite festival Lakri (pronounced Lakdi), celebrated around Deepavali by Muslims, would add to the heavenly resplendence.

But today kite-flying is at a low. The causes are many. Till the late-1980s, kite flying was a rooftop sport. Then Chennai grew vertically with high-rises. These became a "stumbling block" to kite enthusiasts. They had to leave the rooftops. But the "ground reality" was no better. Open spaces had dwindled. What probably struck the last nail in the coffin was the law enforcement agencies' decision to keep kite-flying "on a string". Restrictions were slapped - kite-flying "in spaces that will put the public to inconvenience as well as put people's (that includes the kite-flier) limb and life in jeopardy will invite penal action". (It is known that the manjha or the thread with an abrasive coating can cause grievous injuries to the exposed neck, throat and face of pedestrians and two-wheeler riders. Boys chasing kites sundered from their controlling strings run the risk of ending up under the wheels of passing vehicles).

This rule amounts, in effect, to a ban on kite-flying. The salutary effect of this restrictive action is the reduction in the number of kite-related mishaps. Stray cases do get reported from time to time. As recently as on October 12, an eight-year-old boy fell to his death from the terrace of his house at Vyasarpadi, while flying a kite.

FLYING into oblivion?

Despite such setbacks, kite-flying is alive and kicking. Nevertheless, the best years seem to be behind this activity. Kite enthusiasts in the city say that the halcyon days of kite-flying were between the 1940s and 1970s.

Many of Chennai's legendary kite fliers happen to belong to this period. One of them was Bodi. A Bradman among kite fliers, he would challenge others around the city to duels. Heavy wagers would be placed on these skirmishes in the skies. In these competitions, he invariably bested his opponents with disdainful ease. It is said that when he undid his bag of tricks, the kite did just about everything - sideslip, dive, zoom, loop or straighten up. He was second to none in the preparation of manjha. Legend has it that once his manjha sliced through a copper transmission wire.

A little way down the totem pole, there was M. Rajabadhar. Son of a businessman who had made his pile in what was then known as Malaya, Rajabadhar had the resources to procure "made-to-order kites".

FLYING into oblivion?

Bodi was clearly a cut above Rajabadhar, who was a "high-flier" in another sport as well - he was an expert carrom player. He rose to be the official coach of the South Indian Athletic Association (SIAA).

Another legendary kite flier was G. Lakshmanan. He is said to have been an ideal foil to Rajabadhar. Nimble-fingered Lakshmanan could wind a 400-yard reel of thread into a perfect sphere in a few minutes, with the tiny paper core visible through the interstices. He had other feathers in his cap as well. He was one of the well-known Tanjore brothers, veena maestros of the 1950s and 1960s. He bagged a Kalaimamani award from the State and was a professor of classical music at Tirupathi College.

Among the renowned kite makers, Kolzhithalayan stands head and shoulders above others. Living in the middle years of the last century, he sold his kites, which were renowned as "aerial marvels", at the old Jandah Market in Triplicane. A congenital micro-encephalic, Kolzhithalayan (or hen-headed fellow) earned this sobriquet, thanks to the abnormally small size of his head. To this day, mystery clouds his real name.

Never known to cut a corner, Kolzithalayan would fastidiously select the best bamboo splints and the most colourful tissue papers before hunkering down to the actual production work. His knowledge of kites - the critical size for maximum thrust, accurate trimming of bamboo splints for perfect balance - was phenomenal.

Today, Chennai is not devoid of expert kite-fliers and kite-makers, nor of occasions for kite-related activities. DakshinChitra regularly conducts workshops on kite-making. The city also has a kite-fliers' association. Be that as it may, kites may never again soar as high across the Chennai skyline as they once did.

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