Those who last, come first: A weekend of kite fights & the ‘kai po che’ war cry

Those who last, come first: A weekend of kite fights & the ‘kai po che’ war cry

By AKHIL SOOD | | 17 January, 2015
The Ahmedabad skyline was filled with floating colours.
The first Red Bull Kite Fight 2015 was held in Ahmedabad to coincide with the annual Uttarayan and Makar Sankranti celebrations. Akhil Sood discovers the complicated art of kite flying and making the cut.

Outside the Diwanji haveli we were at, a few metres away, I met a good-hearted chap named Soni, somewhere in his late 30s, who had his own silver business nearby. We were in Manek Chowk in the old city of Ahmedabad, the destination for the final day of the three-day Red Bull Kite Fight competition (you fly a kite and eliminate others by cutting their attached string with your own string; the last man standing is the winner). I asked Soni about the area we were in. Smiling, he pointed to his chest. "This is the heart of Ahmedabad." Really, the old city has an inimitable charm; hundreds of shops — wedding bands, vegetable shops, silver and gold stores, street food — are all huddled close to each other, with residential spaces integrated within the same space. (It's apparently one of the largest jewellery markets in the country, a fact revealed by Soni and corroborated by the internet.) Narrow bylanes intersect each other periodically to fashion a mazy map to the area, frequented by pedestrians, cows, scooters with middle-aged ladies riding their husbands around, dogs, bulls, the odd out-of-place car, and bikes with a thin metal wire contraption attached to the handlebars, framing the front. This, I learnt, is because Makar Sankranti and Uttarayan were just around the corner, festivals which traditionally serve as the kite flying season in Gujarat. There's the regular cotton string that's used for flying kites, and then there's the manja, an abrasive string coated with powdered glass to battle other kites and cut them off. And then, you have the far deadlier Chinese manja which, according to locals, can slit your throat if you're riding around on your bike in the city. The wire frame was protection.

Chinese manja was banned at the competition because the tensile strength of the string used (apparently nylon) has an unfair advantage. More importantly, this Chinese manja has also been responsible for killing hundreds of birds since its introduction onto the scene, and petitions are on to ban it. Kite flying is about flying only for the rank amateurs to the sport (such as this writer); the real thrill is to cut another kite. It's a victorious feeling, accentuated by an emphatic utterance of "Kai po che!" (translated to "I have cut the kite!"), preceded by the war cry "Lapet" (roll it in), when one smells enemy blood.

At the grand, multi-storey haveli that was the hub of the competition on the final day, there were all kinds of people (mostly men) registering: bright-eyed young kids with their dads in tow, dudes with earrings and stylish clothes scoping the scene, kite auteurs wearing gym gloves to protect their fingers from the cuts the strings might cause (nevermind the birds), guys with protective doctor tape around their flying thumb and fingers, the nerds with their comfortable clothes and multiple spools. There was even Kaka, a man on the wrong side of 60, on whom male pattern baldness had had its way, leaving behind a trail of shimmering grey hairs... and he wasn't even the oldest contestant there.

Kaka managed to make the day three finals, with an imperial air about him as the string slipped gently through his fingers, but he was eliminated before he could make the cut. Each day had a prelim session; hundreds of kiters were allocated a total of five kites to manage; the prelims lasted for close to four hours with a lunch break thrown in. The winners from the prelims would engage in a heated duel to compete in the finals. The first day was held at Manek Chowk — across multiple terraces, 11 in total in the neighbourhood, as locations for contestants to park themselves and compete — day two at the open grounds at the H.L. College of Commerce, with the final day again placing the haveli as the axis.

You can’t just throw a kite down from a terrace, tug at the string and expect miracles; a lot of precision goes into the process. And what do you do with the spool? Some guys tucked the thing between their legs in a most ungainly fashion. 

Kite flying is inherently graceful and complex. Each of the terraces had a couple of big speakers on them, while the haveli terrace had a DJ playing contemporary dance music throughout. It's what made me notice the rhythmic elegance of kite flying, as contestants swayed to the music while staring deep into the screaming January sun, peering in to locate their kite, their string. The gentle maneuvering tugs — to ensure smooth flight and remain in attacking positions — started inadvertently getting coordinated with the music in the background.

Flying a kite is no child's play; there's no set method or technique to the craft, largely because it's a skill that's acquired on a very local level, each benevolent teacher with his own myths and tricks. Because of the apocryphal nature of the teaching of kite flying, it's geared towards right-handed people, though a certain ambidextrous ability does seem necessary.

Dropcap OnYou have to bend the kite by placing it on your head and then pulling it down toward your ears. Getting it in the air and floating requires patience and an understanding of wind and speed. You can't just throw a kite down from a terrace, tug at the string and expect miracles; a lot of precision goes into the process. And then, what do you do with the spool? Some guys kept it behind them, picking it up to extend or retract the manja; a bunch of them tucked the thing between their legs in a most ungainly fashion. Once in full flight, a certain understanding of aerodynamics — wind velocity, the lift- and drag-coefficient, the centre of pressure, the angle formed, even if not articulated as such — seems essential to gauge distance between rival kites and the trajectory of your own. A strong spatial awareness is necessary too: you're focusing your vision on your kite single-mindedly, but swift movement within the cluttered space is essential, so one needs to trudge backwards or sideways fairly often without running into furniture or another human. Plus, you're staring straight at the sun, so your eyes (and sweat pores) naturally take a healthy beating.

The terraces that served as locations for contestants actually belonged to residents there. The haveli itself had some four flights of narrow, tiny, unlit, rickety stairs, one without the luxury of even a quivering banister. The trick was to walk sideways, hold on to something, and hope. The other terraces had much the same provisions — one particularly challenging railing-less staircase had a little rope running along its axis, which you could grip on to for support or in case of a tumbling emergency. I passed through several floors of strangers' houses — greeting them with embarrassment as they lounged in their Sunday clothes in front of the TV — but each family was beyond polite, guiding everyone to the terrace. All announcements about the contest were made in Gujarati, and the number of locals engaged in the whole thing was quite high.

In fact, while the competition began across the 11 terraces on the last day, very soon there were at least a dozen more terraces where the residents of the areas began their own kite flying adventures. Some of the residents got on their balconies and started jiving to the music, while others got on to their terraces with friends and families, whipping out their own kites and joining in the kitefest happening above them. They weren't eligible for the prize, but they were very much part of the festival, and contestants losing any of their allocated kites to the non-competing flyers was a legitimate and frequent occurrence. Life went on as usual downstairs, five storeys below, but on the terraces it was a different world altogether.

This was possibly the highlight of the entire initiative — Red Bull may be making waves with an aggressive marketing strategy. They own multiple football teams (Red Bull Salzburg, New York Red Bulls), alienating fans in the process, a whole F1 racing team, a concert bus that tours India, and a very average tasting drink. But such endeavours — where a noncommercial sport/activity and all the connotations of the local, cultural traditions of the place it brings alongside it are preserved and encouraged, while also including the locals in the activities without the added gain of "eyeballs" (how many people from across the country would have travelled to Ahmedabad to witness the Kite Fight? A handful, probably) — provide a sense of valid groundwork. This was the first ever edition of the competition, and as it establishes itself, I'm sure many more women will sign up too.

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