Sunday, January 16, 2011

All of the Kites

Editor's note: This post has background music, which is embedded below. Before you start reading, start the music and let it play as you read. Background music is the latest in the line of blogging innovations we have developed here at TOI. I have been waiting for the right moment to debut this one; the time has now come.

INSTRUCTIONS: Everywhere you here the word 'lights' in the song, substitute in 'kites'.

Last weekend India celebrated Uttarayan, the festival of kites. Gujarat, and especially Ahmedabad, go all-out for this holiday.

The celebration kicked off on Friday when there was an international kite festival on the Sabermati, bringing together people from 45 countries. As crazy as it sounds, people came to Ahmedabad from all over the world to fly kites. There was some sort of tournament, since kite flying in India is a competitive activity. You fly your kite and use your string (usually coated in crushed glass) to cut other people's kites (which I will refer to for the rest of this post as 'kut').

Virenbhai, one of Manav Sadhna's co-founders, is a die-hard Uttarayan reveler. He and other MS volunteers had hundreds of kites made to distribute to MS kids and others. Each of the kites had a message of wisdom about health or hygiene, like how tobacco can lead to problems. A clever way to educate since those kites will be all over the city, having multiple owners as they fly and are kut many times.

One MS staff member, Rahul, is a kite maker extraordinaire. He makes big 6-foot kites, but here he showed off a micro-kite he had made:

The thing I like best about Uttarayan is how pretty much everyone collectively participates. Kite-flying seems frivolous, but it is an ingenious activity for a festival: it gets everyone outdoors, it is highly social, it appeals to young and old alike, it has a whimsical and optimistic characteristic, and it is affordable enough that people from all strata of society can participate. That said, I found out that some still find it expensive, like my regular rickshaw driver who told me he couldn't afford the ~Rs.100 (Rs.45 for a batch of 20 kites, plus string which goes up in price based on quality) for his kids to play. But even if you can't afford to buy new, you can always scrounge fallen ones from the streets, etc.

To me Uttarayan's charm comes from a combination of the mass appeal and the cultural richness. The latter is what separates it from something like the Super Bowl. The event comes with its own little quarks and special traditions. There are foods associated with the event, like Sevsar, Undhiyu, and the official sweet, Chiki. All are served on the terrace of your house where you fly from. Friends and family get together on the choicest rooftops. Across the way your neighbors are having their own flying parties. You bond without words by trying to kut each other's kite, everyone in good spirits, smiling. The radio is blaring old Bollywood hits. You set your kite up with string and run it over the curvature of your head to bend the frame slightly to help it fly. Your fingers are taped for smooth string handling without cutting your fingers, though cuts are like badges of honor. Another badge comes from staying up on the roof, some remain day and night for two straight days. Kites of all colors drifting everywhere to the horizon.

Anarben made the comment that kids get a type of cultural education from such festivals that can't be provided in schools, and those are the most valuable lessons. In India another festival or holiday is always around the corner, and each has own quarks and traditions. As you get older, you participate and those little quarks are what let you time travel back to when you were a kid. Remember Mom's Undhiyu on Uttarayan? Most Indian festivals have a nostalgic quality.

I woke up in the morning to the homicidal screams that boys make while flying their kites. My sense is it's for when you are kutting someone or someone is kutting you. Then a little one came in bright and early asking Nimo for help getting his kite mended. He sent him on his way ready to go:

Later we went over to Virenbhai's where bunch of MS friends and volunteers were getting together. Virenbhai is an expert, he is deep in the kutting game. For about an hour I tried unsuccessfully to fly one, it's really tough. But I did eat a lot of chiki, which I now associate with rooftops and paper kites.

Turn on the Kites in here baby,
Extra bright, I want y'all to see;
Turn on the Kites in here baby,
You know what I need, want you to see everything,
Want you to see all of the kites.
All of the kites, all of the kites

Amazing photos courtesy of Neerad Trivedi

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