Soaring high: Makar Sankranti and kite festival of Gujarat
I struggled with the sticky sesame and jaggery mix in an attempt to make perfect spherical laddoos like my mother and kept failing at it miserably.
Childhood was simpler.
All I did, after touching the feet of every elder in house, was gorge on sweet til-cakes sprinkled with grated coconut or the til-gud stuffed roti. Every time we touched the feet of elders we were rewarded with a piece of homemade ‘til-gud wadi’ and a gentle reminder ‘til-gud ghya, god-god bola’ that translated to ‘eat sesame-jaggery and speak sweetly’.
Makar Sankranti, one of the few festivals observed as per the solar calendar marks the beginning of longer days with the sun transitioning into ‘makar rashi’ or the Capricorn solar sign. Celebrated across India as Pongal, Maghi, Bihu, Khichdi and Uttarayan, the festival denotes the harvest cycle of Rabi crops like wheat, mustard, sesame which would be ready for reaping come spring. These crops are celebrated in the form of khichdi made of rice and lentils or sweets made of sesame and jaggery for the festival.
While the evening may culminate with a bonfire, it is the day that sees a riot of colours across the bright blue sky with kites of all shapes and sizes.
As kids, my sister and I would often join our neighbour’s two boys on the rooftop for kite flying. We held the wooden spool with the sharp thread wound on it or sometimes the kite while the boys tried raising it into the air. Gradually the number of kites would increase in the blue clear sky, some floating so high that they seemed like tiny bits of paper. Soon the air would reverberate with ‘dheel de’, ‘paich de’ and ‘wo kata’ as excited men and boys got into the frenzy of kite cutting sport.
I never learned to fly a kite but I was not untouched by the whole excitement around it. I was as happy to watch a rival kite float down on being cut and much disheartened if a favourite went down. But then another favourite would rise if the one soaring highest lost the war. I would usually root for the most colourful rhombuses in the blue sky.
Years later my marriage to an Air Force pilot took me all over the country from Srinagar in Kashmir to Thanjavur in Tamilnadu and Barmer in Rajasthan to Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. But life in military establishments, usually farther away from town, mostly meant being away from the everyday hustle and bustle of cities, the daily street interactions or local life...we lived in the safe cocoon of Air Force stations. Gradually the sight of kites became a thing of the past.
I had forgotten what the sky looked like when kites swamped the blue stretch till a visit to the recently concluded International Kite festival at Ahmedabad brought back a flood of memories.
The International Kite Festival of Gujarat that began as an experiment in 1989 to claim place among other such festivals on the world stage was in its 30th year this time. With as many as 150 master kite fliers from 45 different countries and 450 kite fliers from across India vying for various categories, the kites on display varied from typical rhombuses on strings to kites shaped like tigers, turtles, whales, sea-horses, Rubik’s cubes, aliens, stingrays and complex geometric shapes. There was even a little ‘Ganesha’ floating around.
Kite flying had taken an entire new meaning on the long stretch along the Sabarmati River Front at Ahmedabad. It was grander and more enchanting than the festival of my memories. It literally bound people across cultures with a common thread of love for kite flying.
A Tunisian pair, Ahmed and his sister, excited as they were to get a ‘tasveer’ clicked commented in broken English ‘Happy in India, festival good’. The Brazilian team had made an effort to print ‘Makar Sankranti’ in bold letters on one of their kites. The Korean team had images of the Indian Prime Minister and the Korean First Lady attached to a string of more than fifty kites. A first time participant, Filip of Poland, while stringing a huge green-black alien bug like kite, was all praise for Ahmedabad ‘Ahmedabad good place, all people of Gujarat good’, he said.
While kite cutting sport is more popular among the kite fliers of India, the International Kite Festival was more about bonhomie and the joy of flying together. The usual kites used by Indians known as ‘Patang’ are made of thin paper with bamboo strips framework and a strong glue-glass powder-coated thin thread for cutting other kites. The kites of foreign participants however were heavier, made of parachute material mounted on hollow pipes and tied with multiple strong thick threads.
Gujarat celebrates Uttarayan with more gusto and flamboyance than other states of the country. Kite flying begins early and carries on till 14th January every year. People indulge in kite flying irrespective of religion. Till a couple of years back a certain Rasool Bhai (now deceased) of Ahmedabad held a record of flying 500 kites on a single string. In fact most of the kite makers belong to the Muslim community and it is the women who craft delicate paper kites. The growing popularity of the international festival has generated a 500 crore turnover and financial stability for the kite makers.
This year the International Kite festival that began at Ahmedabad extended to Surat, Rajkot, Baroda, Saputara, Dwarka, and Kevadia with the towering Statue Of Unity becoming a proud backdrop for the kites
And for every kite that swayed, rose up in defiance, and took to the skies that day I felt elated. The grin that spread on my face that entire day was proof of how much I had missed the sight all these years. Back then I couldn’t have imagined that I would yearn for such simple pleasures.
Indeed life is much like kite flying. We never know what direction the wind will blow and how many twists and turns there will be before the flight is over.
All photographs courtesy of Shoma Abhyankar