If Ahmadabad is the kite’s capital of India, one of its citizens is a walking encyclopedia on these wriggling wonders in the sky. RANVIR SHAH profiles Bhanu Shah who has also made and created what is perhaps the world’s single largest collection of sky sculptures.
AHMADABAD could easily be called the kite capital of India. Every year on January 14 is celebrated the great Kite Festival of Uttaran. A month and a half before the festival, craftsmen from Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Agra, Mathura, Rampur, Bareilly, Lucknow and other places come to Ahmadabad specially to make and sell kites. Forms are cut from paper and pasted, bamboo pieces attached to stringed outlines for stability, and tassels fixed to produce elegant kites of distinctive appearance. Buying kites and strings is an activity that continues till the morning of the great day. And on that day the roofs in the city resound with cries of victory or defeat depending on whether one’s kite had cut somebody else’s. The sky teems with kites till the evening. Then little lights are added to the strings and the kites are flown again at night to look like twinkling little stars.
Bhanu Shah’s life has been possessed by kites. In the late Fifties, as a young man he admired the kites in the city shops during the festival. “I recollect my excitement at seeing those beautiful kites. I could not control myself. I said to myself, ‘These are like paintings,’ and bought eight which I hung in my hobse.” That was the beginning of a huge collection that Shah made till the late Eighties when he donated it to the Kite Museum he helped found and design. The museum run by the Ahmadabad Municipal Corporation is a tribute to the zeal of Shah. Themes political, based on animals and birds, on ancient Indian designs and on abstract art., all form part of the collection. So vast is the stock that the museum regularly changes the display to show the themes it has. Bhanu Shah has many interesting facts about kites in Indian culture and in those of countries nearby. In China, where the first kite is believed to have been flown around the second century B.C.,kite flying is an old tradition. The first kite ever was believed to be rectangular. It was made of soft bamboo sticks and of paper or silk with painted scenes from folklore.
Kites in China are also made in the shape of hawks, butterflies, bats, dragonflies, lanterns and fishes. Those with flexible wings look like real birds in the sky. A dragon’s head in front of a chain of 24 kites moves across in a circular fashion when flown. A monstrous fish head with long silk tassels gives the impression of a swimming fish when up in the air. In China, the Day of Kites is celebrated on the ninth day of the ninth month to banish evil.
In Chinese history kites were used for many purposes. Gen. Han Hsin used a kite to estimate the distance of an army from his palace while Gen. Yu-Sin flew a special kite at night with a fire ball on it to boost the morale of his troops which had seen a falling star. Gen. Chang Pei used a kite to seek his friend’s help when he was beseiged in the city of Lin Ming. Relief came and he was rescued. Bhanu Shah pauses and smiles as if he knows much more. ‘Did you know the largest kite in the world was made in Japan? It was 200 meters in diameter, 2,550 kg in weight and used 3,000 sheets of paper.
Japan was introduced to kites by Buddhist monks from China during the Tang dynasty. All the leading painters of the Edo period painted pictures of kites. The Japanese believe that the cord of a kite connects the earth with the heaven. It is customary to fly kites there for a bumper crop, for the safety of the family or an individual’s bright future. A ‘Yako’ kite is kept in the kitchen for safety from fire. A carp kite is symbolically flown during the Boys Festival. Many artists there have enriched contemporary kites with their work and the Japanese take pride in displaying them in their drawing rooms as works of art. At a corner of the museum are displayed photographs on how kites are used in the Pacific islands, Indonesia, Polynesia and Micronesia. In these countries, kites are used for fishing. Large kites of one or more leaves attached to a wooden frame are flown from sea roasts or from boats. A string attached to the bottom of the kite touches the water surface. Up to 10 fishes can be caught one by one in the spider web at the end of the line. The bark of trees and straw decorated with conch shells and feathers are also used to lure the fishes. What about kites in India? That, of course, is a topic close to Bhanu Shah’s heart and which he has researched thoroughly. “The Moghul emperors and other royal dynasties patronised kite flying allowing kite makers the freedom to give fulr expression to their artistic abilities. The maharajas of Jaipur were fond of kites. In their kite workshops skilled craftsmen gave lifeless pieces of paper a variety of shapes by joining them together. It is believed kites were flown to please Indra, the king of gods.
They were flown throughout the year and also during festivals. Special kites and lines were prepared for competition between the royalty. Gold, silver or bronze bells were hung at the end of such kites Anyone who caught the golden kite could live on the proceeds of its sale for a year. Jamnalalji, a master craftsman of the kite workshop was given a shop in Jaipur in 1936 at a token price of one rupee. His grandsons still carry on the age-old business.” Images conjure up in my mind of times gone by and of a royal lifestyle when informed that kites figured in Indian poetry also. In the famous verse of Biharilal, Krishna says to his beloved: “No object in this world can separate me from your heart. Though a kite may fly and soar up and down, its line is firmly held in my hands.” Saint poet Eknath of Maharashtra refers to the kite. It is also mentioned in the epic poem “Madhumalati ” Narndev “efe-n to it in his works as “guddi.”
Indian kites these days have many forms and Part of the display at the Kites Museum in Ahmadabad; 320 kites on a single line and a close-up of a single one — Bhanu Shah’s (left) latest triumph. brilliant colours blended with exquisite taste that display the maker’s skill. As the Europeans travelled to the Orient, they too took to kites. The first authentic description of a European kite was in an illustration by Kyeser in 1405. It was described as a “wingless, windsock with three bridles.” Later-day European merchants brought back kites for their children. In 1752 Benjamin Franklin using a kite proved to his son that lightning was the same as electricity. In other experiments kites were used for signalling, telegraphy, photography, meteorology and for powered flight. Alexander Wilson used a kite to measure the temperatures in various heights of the atmosphere. Smugglers used kites to transport illicit liquor over the city walls of Paris! Bhanu Shah is also an artist who exhibits his work.
After kites became a part of his life, they influenced him in a subtle way. In 1981 he met eminent French kite flyer Jacqueline Monnier, a painter who flew a series of kites with long tails in subtle lines, creating what she called “action painting on the sky canvas.” Working with her on a film, Shah was influenced too. He started making his own cloth kites in abstract designs and with long tails, contemporary kites of a startling variety. They are monumental sky sculptures, giant graphic paintings in the sky. Bhanu Shah displays them at the International Kite Festival in Ahmadabad which coincides with the local festival. He was instrumental in starting this festival where kite flyers from all over the world participate Shah’s latest triumph: flying 320 kites on a single line, bringing alive the saying: the sky truly is the limit.