The rules of the game are simple, explains Naveen Kumar (21). There are two teams of two people each. In Delhi, they assemble on a ground, often the DND park near Okhla, and unfurl their manjhas (strings) before floating their kites — six to a team — high into the sky. One game typically lasts three to four hours because, as Kumar puts it, “it does take that long to cut six kites of your opponent.” Whoever reaches that target first, wins.
Such competitions go on for more than a month during kite-flying season, which in Delhi is during Independence Day and Rakhi celebrations, and Kumar has been avidly participating in them since he was eight years old. Kumar has been to many all-India tournaments with his team over the past seven years, most recently in Jaipur, Aligarh, Mathura and Lucknow. And he isn’t alone.
Such tournaments, in which young and old jointly compete, are an Independence Day tradition in Delhi, that has seen kite markets spring up in Lal Kuan in Old Delhi, and the skies flutter with multi-coloured and eccentrically designed kites for decades. As Salauddin Quareshi (42), a resident of Sadar Bazar and renowned patangbaaz in his locality, says, “Once you start playing, you don’t eat or drink till the tournament ends. Ye junoon khatarnaak hai.” Even a century ago, when India was protesting the Simon Commission, slogans like “Simon, Go Back” were penned on kites and flown in the air.
But if enthusiasts and sellers of the city are to be believed, this culture that was once a hallmark of the freedom struggle of a colonised nation, birthing heated rivalries and bleeding fingers, is on the wane. Today, sellers are struggling to get rid of piles of unsold stock; seasoned kite-flyers lament a falling interest in learning the craft of patangbaazi over the years.
As Delhi Police takes the help of such flyers, like Kumar and Quareshi, to stop Delhiites from flying kites during the Prime Minister’s address at Red Fort on August 15 due to security concerns, The Indian Express speaks to kite-sellers and kite-flyers to understand the withering of this once-cherished tradition of Delhi.
“I used to take part in many local competitions growing up, and my grandfather and father taught me how to fly kites,” says Vikas Chaudhary (41), a resident of Sadar Bazar, who was approached by police for the Red Fort security arrangements. “But the craze has decreased a lot. Children are only interested in mobiles and the internet these days. Plus, it’s very costly to buy kites nowadays, one costing up to Rs 100-150.”
Kuldeep Sharma (43), who also lives in the same area, says he flies kites with his eight-year-old son and used to enjoy the ritual of tying the manjha around the charkha and chasing kites when they would fall on rooftops. “I’ve flown kites on Independence Day all my life, my father taught me,” he says. “There is definitely a dip in interest.”
Over in Old Delhi, the skies are no more the “riot of kites” as described by Ahmed Ali in his work Twilight in Delhi. The long lane of Lal Kuan that is packed every year with kite shops and shoppers, has seen a fall of nearly 75% in the number of kite-sellers that have arrived to set up shop this year.
“There would be 100 shops here every year in August, this time there are only around 25,” says Sachin Gupta, president of Hatkardal Lagu Patang Udyog Samiti, who also runs a store in Lal Kuan. “We are a 150-year-old store. We’ve seen interest in kites fall year-by-year, and the pandemic was no help.”
Other sellers also say the disruption caused by the pandemic to the economy led to rising costs across the board and increased poverty, which means low sales for indulgences like kites. “Stocks come from all over India and transport has also become more expensive, so naturally kites are more costly,” says Utkarsh, who runs a wholesale kite business with his family in Lal Kuan. “Business isn’t what it used to be. When people’s basic needs aren’t being met, will they put food in their belly or fly kites?”
“All of August, you would not see birds, only kites in the sky. Phones are more entertaining for people and patangbaazi is not promoted in our country as a sport. It’s a wide cultural effect over the past 5-6 years,” he says.
Another seller whose family has been selling kites in Old Delhi for three generations says the increase of GST on kites from 12% to 18% has also harmed business, adding that earlier, there would not even be room to move in the store given the number of customers.
“Sales were low during the pandemic but still not as low as this year,” says Mohammad Waseem, a kite-seller whose store has been in Lal Kuan for almost five decades. Another seller says his sales are 30% of what they usually are this time of year.
“I’ll come and buy more kites after Rakhi,” says a retailer at Kallu’s wholesale kite shop, shoving a packet of kites into his polythene bag. Kallu asks him why he has come to buy stocks so late. He is usually in Lal Kuan by May. “There’s no demand. People are poor. The craze is finishing,” says the man, walking away from the shop with a sad smile, his promise of returning after Rakhi ringing as empty as the sky above.