Flying kites was once a royal passion, reduced now to a plebeian pastime

As popularity of kite-flying waned after the Mughals, figures of women flying kites disappeared from paintings and art, writes Nilosree Biswas

Representative image
Representative image

Nilosree Biswas

Imagine a fine silk purse containing some gold coins stitched to a big kite, strung with a silken thread flying in the clear blue sky of Lucknow in the 18thcentury during the reign of Nawab Asaf udDaulah of Awadh (1775 – 1797).

The Nawab had come up with the quirky idea as kites dotted the skyline in winter and in spring. Whoever would bring back the severed kite, would be gifted with the contents of the purse and more– an inaam (prize) for bringing the royal kite back.

Two centuries later, colourfulkites can still be seen flying across India, as the Hindu calendar marks Makar Sankranti, a significant day related to the Sun’s rotary movement.

While the earliest mention of a kite was found 9000 years ago in a Mesolithic cave painting in Sulawasi, Indonesia, the more popular kite story originated much later from China. The legend held that a Chinese farmer had tied a string to his hat to prevent it from flying away and possibly to pull it back if it did.

Other sources credit its creation to a Chinese artisan, philosopher Mozi, a gifted carpenter by vocation, sometime in the late 5th century. However, the most well recorded documentation about kite flying was found in military records of Han Dynasty. Kites reached India a few centuries later, through Buddhist missionaries and traders from southeast Asia traveling through the silk route.

The word ‘patang’ found a mention in the Indian Sufi text ‘Madhumalati’ written by Mir Sayyid Manjhan in1545. Manjhan referred to flights of kites as metaphors of growing love in the Sufi context. Marathi poet- saints Namdev (13th century) and Tukaram (17th century) also mention kites in their devotional poetry as does Bihari, the well-known poet (18th century) who wrote in Braja Bhasha about the love story of Krishna and Radha.

While these are literary references ranging from devotional poetry to couplets of love, the game of kites or Patangbazi was popularised by Timurids (Mughals). The fervour of kite flying gripped nobilities,Hindus and Muslims alike, from the 17th century and has remained a popular pastime.

While it is doubtful if emperors Jahangir or Shahjahan actually flew kites, they did patronize kite-flying as a competition, amply rewarding the best.

Patangbaazi reached its pinnacle in later Mughal period with Awadh emerging as a major centre. Abdul Halim Sharar writes, in his ‘Lucknow, The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture’ how Shah Alam-I took to passionate kite flying.

“Great care was taken in the construction of a kite. It was composed of tukkals, paper kites, joined together back to front”, h e w r o t e. Shararbelieved that the Hindus’ interest in kites stemmed from the religious belief of lighting ‘akash deep’ (oil lamps in the sky).

Guddi (another word for kite in Hindustani) originated during Amjad Ali Shah's regime in the early 19thcentury. Rectangular in shape, Guddi was easier to make than the finest variant of Tukkal, the shield shaped Patang or even the huge human effigy like kites called Chang.

Kites became a metaphor for celebrations, good life, and pleasure during 18th and 19th centuries. They were used to deliver love letters for those who were otherwise forbidden to meet.

Artists took to featuring kites and patangbazi in their paintings. Artworks from Bundi in Rajasthan, KuluinPunjab Hills and Awadh were prominent among them. The paintings depicted different varieties of kites and often women flying them in gardens and from terraces.

The passion for kite flying waned with the collapse of the Mughal empire. When kites made their appearance again in Company School of Paintings were creatively different, styled for European markets and women had disappeared from them.

And so, it remains in the 21st Century, a male bastion.

(The writer is a filmmaker and author of ‘Banaras of Gods, Humans and Stories’)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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