A dying tradition: When soaring kites ruled the skies of Delhi

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The window of Jamaluddin’s top-floor house in the Walled City offers a beautiful view of the 17th century Jama Masjid, its majestic minarets rising into the sky. But Jamaluddin says the frame is incomplete.

“A few days before Independence Day every year, the sky is generally speckled with colourful kites. Nothing lifts my spirits more than the sight of a colourful kite floating freely in the sky,” says Jamaluddin, one of Delhi’s most famous kite flyers. “Kit flying on Independence Day symbolizes freedom and patriotism,” he says, showing the tricolour kites he recently made.

Old-timers say the tradition goes back to 1927, when many people flew kites with the slogan ‘Go Back Simon’ to boycott the Simon Commission.

Belonging to a family of kite flyers, Jamaluddin rues that it has become a dying sport. His father, Syed Mohiuddin, better known as Bhai Mian, had made several kite flying records, including one for flying 1,187 kites on a single string. Recounting with great pride the feats of his father, he shows an album with old black and white photographs of his father flying kites with top leaders, including former prime ministers PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

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  • In 1927, many Indians flew kites with the slogan “Go Back Simon” to boycott the Simon Commission. Ever since, kite flying has become a tradition to celebrate Independence Day
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  • Kite flyers say it is a dying hobby. The city has about 140 kite flying clubs, most of them inactive. Their members blame it on lack of grounds to fly kites
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  • Many old timers blame the growing lack of interest in kite flying on mobile phone games
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  • A kite costs anything from Rs 4 to Rs 15, depending on the size and material – paper or synthetic material
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  • A charkha costs Rs 80 to 800, depending of the design and the material used

The room has wooden boxes filled with hundreds of designer kites – shaped like snakes, pigeons, airplanes, peacocks – all designed by him and his late father, who had set up the Diamond Kite Club in 1964, one of Delhi’s oldest. “We practice kite-making and flying as an art. It requires perfection and precision like music. Our father was our Ustad,” says the soft-spoken Jamal, as he hangs on the wall a kite with the message, ‘I love my India.’

Jamaluddin, who has travelled to many countries, including Russia and Switzerland, to fly kites at events, says that while kite flying has declined as a hobby and sport, it has emerged as marketing tools for corporates. “They approach us for flying kites at their events, where we generally fly 150 kites with company messages and logos on a single string,” says Aminuddin, his younger brother. “Growing urbanization has killed kite flying. There was a time when the city had many open spaces where one could fly kites, but now the Nirankari ground near Burari is the only place left. “

Not far from their home is the residence of Manish Gupta and Sunil Gupta. Their top-floor room is a little museum of kites. There are about 8,000 kites, most of them over 50 years old and made by some of India’s most famous kite makers. Arranged on the floor on top of one another are dozens of big suitcase-like boxes filled with kites. Many trophies — including one in the shape of a kite cast in silver — won at kite-flying competitions stand on a table. There are framed kites on the walls-the ones that won their club many championships.

The two brothers run the Union Kite Club from the room. Set up in 1956 by their late father Ram Dulare Gupta, also a famous kite flyer, it is perhaps the city’s oldest kite club.

“For our family, kites have been prized collectables,” says Sunil, showing us the kites with the names of their makers: Usman and Farhan from Lucknow; Tinkori from Kolkata; Raees and Nawab Sahib from Moradabad. “These cities had some of the finest kite-makers in the country, and they were much sought-after by top kite flyers,” says Manish. Many of the kites have passport-sized pictures of the makers. “These people considered themselves craftsmen and liked to paste their pictures on the kites they made. Most of them are dead now,” says Sunil.

In fact, most of the kites, neatly packed in the boxes, have become shrivel, some even torn, but the two brothers have no intention of discarding them. “They are our most prized possessions,” says Manish.

But unlike Jamaluddin’s family, who call themselves kite flyers, Manish and Sunil refer to themselves as kite fighters. “It is a sport as unpredictable and exciting as cricket. “A good kite fighter can instantly appreciate the speed and direction of the air. You have to choose the right kite for the right weather conditions,” says Manish. “These days there are no places to fly kites, and kite flyers are often roughed up by police. Unfortunately, a lot of people use Chinese Manjha, which is completely wrong. It has brought infamy to the sport.”

Mahender (he uses only one name), another veteran kite flyer in the Walled City, blames the declining interest in kite flying on the recent controversies surrounding what has come to be known as the Chinese Manjha. “The government has done well to ban it. Kite fighting is not about the sharpness of manjha, there is a lot more to it,” says Mahender, who is a joint secretary at the Kite flying Association, Delhi. He hands us a business card that identifies him as ‘All India Kite Champion 1998’. Also a famous charkha maker (wooden spool), he blames the decline of kite flying on the mobile phone games and the increasing academic pressure on youngsters. “They do not have time for hobbies such as kite flying, which is now looked down upon. I guess no one outside the Walled City is interested in it anymore,” he says.

Nitin Gupta, a kite dealer at Lal Kuan, a wholesale kite market in the Walled City, blames it on the growing culture of what he calls ‘apartment living’. “People have roofs over their heads but not terraces to fly kites. The other day, a teenaged girl walked into my shop just to touch and feel a kite. She had seen kites only in the sky. I am sure the time is not far when kites would look like objects from another planet,” says Gupta.