Up in the air

February 2, 2020

How we celebrated Basant, and how a return to daytime event would be the right approach

Basant over Bengali Buildings that have been destroyed by the Orange Line Metro Train. — Image: Supplied

The first day of spring with clear blue skies, dotted with thousands of kites in all shades and hues of vibgyor is a most deeply etched memory of all older folks of Lahore. It is essentially the much-awaited festival of Lahore. On the appointed day, the whole city would wake up with loud, shrill voices in unison: “Bo kaata!

The artisans making kites worked all year round, yet they and their children starved because sales had to wait till the eve of the season. Making kites is a specialised job. The master craftsmen would shape bamboo sticks with aeronautical bends and flexibility to produce the required curves using special sharp knives, at the same time avoiding any injury to the hand. Once the armature was ready, kite paper was stretched on it without letting any warps and wrinkles. The delicate ends and points were further secured and reinforced with strong string. Very few kites were in a single colour — they were in two or more colours, and the combinations had also to do mostly with the size of paper available. So, the upper and lower portions were often in varying and contrasting colours.

Kites were given different names. Though the generic name was patang, or guddi, there were teera, tukkal, kup, all came with typical, curved large tops and small bottoms, pointed at the top. Once floated in the air, they were like powerful sails. The sharp twine could easily cut fingers of a novice. It had to be released into the air carefully, in measured steps: dammian! The higher it flew, the greater was the air velocity.

The fact that its very thin paper did not rupture was due to the skill of the craftsman who had calculated the tensile stresses at the curves and bends of the bamboo sticks. The bigger kites were for expert flyers only: khilarri(s)!

The other types of kites i.e. guddi, gudda, machher, pari, some with square designs and some with circular ‘eyes,’ were not that powerful, and wouldn’t require much expertise to fly them. They were largely used by the children and the ladies. But sometimes, a very large gudda, generally of black colour, with large eyes in gold or red, would appear in the horizon out of nowhere.

Making the string or dor was a specialist’s job. Pran Nevile, in his book, Lahore: A Sentimental Journey, which ran into several editions, talks about the cotton string of thickness graded 8, 10 and 18 of JP Coates, England, was used (our cotton was best in the world during the Indus Valley Civilisation days as seen in the Ajrak worn by the Priest king). The cotton thread was stretched tightly over wooden pegs and wheat flour mixed with finely grounded glass was applied (manjha) with a cloth and given a lustrous finish with an egg.

Winding this string over a ball stuffed with wheat husk was a hazardous job. Passing one end of the string through a detached neck of a glass bottle, the twine was wound with great accuracy. Changing the curved peerri at varying angles required the right frame of mind.

The Basant night was spent fixing talawaan, and finally at daybreak the whole city would hear loud cries of “Bo kaata.”

It was customary to wear bright yellow outfits on Basant, as it’s the colour of the mustard flowers. During the day every member of the teams had a critical role to play. The flyer, as well as the one who held the string ball (or pinna), was a specialist unto himself, and knew when exactly to rotate the ball to allow unwinding of the next peerri. Letting the ball drop unmindfully was an offence. If it caused interruption in releasing the string, which led to losing the contest, he could be ‘EBDO’ed for life.

Over some rooftops, on Basant day, the same khilarris who were there the year before, would appear, ready for a fierce contest. It was rumoured that there were heavy stakes and betting. Once the contesting kites got entangled, the long suspense was broken only by loud cheers, breaking the sound barriers. Some proclaimed their victory over bugles (I had one, made of copper, which required great skill and strong lungs; it sadly disappeared during my long stay abroad, in fact I needed it during the civil war in Uganda). As a vanquished kite drifted away, children holding sticks with thorny bushes ran after it creating traffic mayhem. The loser, all red-faced, would rarely dispute the outcome; he’d snap the string and let it go as it got entangled in foliage instead of slitting necks of motorcyclists.

Once the Basant was over, there would be lull. Only those who had accumulated some stray kites would be found flying for a few days. It was mainly looters’ activity, much frowned upon.

Once the Basant was over, there would be lull. Only those who had accumulated some stray kites would be found flying for a few days. It was mainly looters’ activity, much frowned upon.

Kite flying had certain perils, let’s admit. Many birds got their wings entangled in kites. Some people fell from rooftops, as is narrated by Pran Nevile in the same book — the champion flyer Shiba falls and dies. On a visit to Lahore, Nevile showed me the house on Nisbet Road that he had mentioned in the book. Sadly, it still bears a haunted look. My own brother, (Cdr) Imtiaz Anwar, then a child, broke his leg chasing a stray kite.

Kite flying is mainly a seasonal, cultural activity, specific to Lahore, and it has nothing to do with any religion. When we went to New Delhi to exhibit our old Lahore watercolours at India International Centre, back in 1997, we suspended a couple of dozen kites from the roof of the gallery. The people there were surprised at the variety we had got. Nevile also asked for some. I gratefully obliged, and distributed the rest after the exhibition. Dr Geeti Sen too was among the recipients.

Though Egyptians made paper out of papyrus reeds (hence the name), it was the Chinese who made kites with rice paper as early as BC 200. We find no such activity in Ajanta paintings where daily life is illustrated considerably. It may have travelled along the Silk Route. The earliest depiction of the sport is found in paharri miniature paintings where ladies are seen flying kites. Lucknow’s culture also promoted kite flying. In Lahore, it was an immensely popular, gentleman’s sport until it was banned. What went wrong begs a serious retrospection as well as introspection.

In olden times, one would snap the cotton string to test its strength. Later, synthetic as well as chemical-coated twines came to be used. People were even using metallic wires which if they fell over transmission lines and/or transformers could cause damage. Many a motorcyclist’s throats were slit when the twine got entangled.

Then they started celebrating Basant during the night which still got chilly. Searchlights were used in this energy-starved city. Professional kite flyers and aerial firing ‘experts’ were engaged.

Earlier, Minto Park was a popular space for recreation. Cricket lovers, wrestlers, and kite flyers frequented the park. As the so-called income-generating projects were initiated, the public stood to lose their spaces. Multi-national companies found night kite flying a public relations tool. Rooftops of expensive hotels were booked for the purpose. Havelis inside the Walled City were let out. Influential families who had left their ancestral homes long ago would return to the Old City to host Basant nights.

Then, a blanket ban was imposed. Thousands of kite- and twine-makers were deprived of their ancestral profession and source of livelihood. Resultantly, the masters who had struggled during the off-season, lost hope and their children abandoned the craft which was already dying. A crackdown followed. Even those suspected of kite flying were apprehended and punished. This was not fair.

A return of the event to daytime, and convincing the wrongdoers would be the right approach. Awareness is stronger than law. The many kite flyers’ associations have repeatedly offered cooperation. Basant is a vibrant cultural festival of Lahore and is eligible for UNESCO’s Intangible World Heritage list. However, even the ones on the tangible list such as the Lahore Fort and Shalamar Gardens are already at the risk of being declared ‘endangered.’

This dispatch is dedicated to “my friend Arshad Durrani who played the lead role of a kite maker in an Ajoka Theatre production”

The writer is a painter, the founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and the former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at ajazart@brain.net.pk

Note: Free art classes at the House of NANNAs on Sundays. No age bar. Benches are provided. Bring your own lunch. Guest of the week is Dr Aurangzeb

Basant: How Lahoris celebrate spring festival