The word Uttarayan may have become fashionable lately but the celebration of Mahasankranti, with which it is associated, has been going on in Delhi for innumerable centuries, ever since the time when it was ruled by Hindu rajas, though now Gujarat and Rajasthan are the main centres. For the past 100 years the festival has been falling on 14 January but from 2019 the observance will be either on 15 or 16 January because of a subtle shift in the position of the sun when it enters the Tropic of Capricorn or the Makara rashi in its northward march and thus start the process of the end of winter. The recent kite-flying competition in Dwarka gave a further fillip to the age-old sport, which is as closely linked to Sankarat as the ritual Magh Mela bathing and propitiation of the sun god Surya.
Independence Day, Rakshabandhan and Republic Day also witness interest in kites and even grown-ups, including the white-collar ones, are not averse to trying their hand at a nostalgic tangle in the skies. There was a time when Basant was also among the kite-flying days, the main venues being the shrine of Hazrat Turkman Bayabani and later the grounds of Bhuli Bhartiyari-ka-Mahal on the Karol Bagh Ridge (where patang manja, or string, too was made). But now one only sees yellow kites being flown at the Yogmaya Mandir to gauge the weather until Holi. However, Lahore is also known for its Basant kite festival despite a Pakistan government ban on the popular celebration but not because of Chinese manja. A welcome change is the introduction of huge weird-shaped Chinese, Japanese and European kites at competitions in places like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Delhi, whose biggest kite market is in Sadar Bazar. Incidentally, Ghalib in his boyhood flew kites at Agra's Kala Mahal, along with Raja Chait Singh's son.
Eighty-plus Bhai Mian is regarded as the oldest kite-flyer (patangbaz) of Delhi, but he only took to the sport seriously in 1970 at the age of 37. Before him also there were expert kite-flyers, among them Shah Alam's son, Akbar Shah, and grandson Bahadur Shah Zafar. One of the Shah Alam's temporary successors even lost his "kingdom" for being tempted to fly a "patang" outside the Red Fort rather than attending to his newly-assigned duties, by the invading Rohilla chief Ghulam Qadir, who even blinded the old emperor.
Before Partition some of the noted patangbaz (not to mention those who flew kites to send messages to their girlfriends) were Langra Hafiz, Mullah Nadir, one-armed Kabir, Salim Habashi, Manu gambler, Razak Jebkat (pickpocket), civet-faced Biju and strongman Shahabuddin, who could also twirl a lathi alongside Phoonsi Khan. This diminutive street-hector, as his name indicates, was a distant relation of Munshi Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria's Urdu teacher. Phoonsi Khan would tie a tawa (griddle) on his head and armed with a lathi, fight with rival ruffian gangs for wangled money when not passing the evening in flying kites on the roof of his ancestral house in Deori Begum locality.
Came 1947 and he migrated to Karachi and the police heaved a sigh of relief. Manu once won a fortune at cards, along with Salim, which made him change his attire to silk shirt and trousers. But Salim continued to wear his pyjama-kameez and stay in a discarded stable (hastabal), decorated with kites, which he flew from Nawab Sahib's kothi. He was supposed to be hawk-eyed, which made him win many bets, a trait he could not pass on to his gay teenaged friend Lachoo. One-eyed Razak once tried to cut the boy's neck with razor-edged manja but the patang got entangled in his shirt collar, which was just sliced off like a melon-piece.
Mullah Nadir sold his thela cart to participate in a kite competition in Bareilly and Langra Hafiz was said to have wagered his young wife at a patang-flying contest. Luckily, he won but his wife divorced him all the same and returned to her parental home in Rampur with her two little children. As for Ustad Shahabuddin, Partition meant the end of his ustadi days in Tehraha Bairam Khan, from where he often rode on a bicycle with an iron rod tied to it just in case some jealous patangbaz attacked him on the way to the Jama Masjid, where his favourite kite shop was situated and where he courted the company of good-looking boys. The most attractive of them was Iqbal Bhai, who went along with him to Lahore, where he began to participate in Basant kite-flying.
Now for the history of patangbazi: Kites may have been invented by Archytas of Tarentium in 4 BC and known to the Maoris since times immemorial yet the art of kite-flying found its fullest expression in India ~ with Delhi being the main centre. True, we might not have the singing kites of the South Seas, nor the ritual kite songs, which warded off evil spirits. But the singing part of the kite was probably due to the special reed employed to make it rather than to spirits ~ good or bad.
Good, clean kite-flying was what Delhi was famous for. There were no rituals or charms attached to the art, but just the sport. And here came in the question of kite-tangles. Nowhere else did it reach the zenith that it did in the Capital. Came Partition and Delhi lost a good many of its traits and with them some of the arts it was famous for. The Mughals had nurtured kite-flying with great care and mastered it towards the decadent years of their empire.
A nephew of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who lived to be 90, is supposed to have been the greatest kite-flyer of Delhi. Whatever little property was left to him by the British was sold bit by bit to buy kites and fly them in the competitions held then in Delhi, Lucknow, Bareilly and Agra. Mir Sahib, as he was known (no one seems to remember his real name), became a pauper and the residents of Matia Mahal, in the Jama Masjid area, had to raise funds to help the prince open a shop. Of course he sold kites at his shop and, more often than not, gave them free to urchins, whose love for the sport he encouraged. They nicknamed him Mir Patang and he enjoyed that title for the rest of his life.
The Mughals, it seems, were fond of prefixing the word "Mir" as an honorific. Thus there was a Mir Macchli or master swimmer, Mir Bakshi or head of the royal kitchen and Mir Ashiq, after whom a kutcha in old Delhi is named and Mir Jafar, which has come to denote traitor. The word was probably borrowed from Afghanistan or Sindh, where it was used for the nobility. The Mirs (actually Amirs) of Sindhs once "rebelled" and were defeated with great severity by Lord Napiar. Now the word has been replaced by "Ustad" and so the ace kite-flyers of the Walled City are known as ustads, besides the heads of swimmers, Akharas and leaders of other such groups.
But ustads of kite-flyers seem to hold a higher place, along with those who are experts in Kabutarbaazi or pigeon-flying. Both sports were highly prized by the Mughals, especially Emperor Akbar who called pigeon-fencing "Ishqbaazi", or love-play. Kite-flying was also considered close to it.