Issue 8: Desert Kite Festival

From royal splendour to riotous egalitarianism – the 3rd Desert Kite Festival held at Jodhpur and Jaipur between 10 and 14 January, had it all.

The Festival was inaugurated on Sunday 10 Jan 99 at the Barkatullah Stadium in Jodhpur, a change from the venue for the last two years – the sprawling but dusty Polo Ground. The army band played, the Minister for Tourism, Govt of India and H.H. Gaj Singh II, the Maharaja of Jodhpur and the Chief Patron of the Festival met the fliers after hoisting the Festival flag, the errant breeze decided to put in an appearance and soon the sky was full of fantastic shapes.

The fighter kite competition continued in another part of the stadium – Teams from Calcutta, Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur competed against each other and the international fliers. Nicolas and Sylvain Grez discovered the thrill of kite fighting. Allan Lim from Singapore progressed into the second round. Frank Coenraets and Marc Herzog, who are members of the Manjha Club International and have some experience of flying fighters, gave the Indian fliers some tense moments.

A welcome dinner with the Maharaja on the lawns of the exquisite Bal Samand Palace brought the excitement of the first day to a close.

The Festival continued for the second day, 11 Jan at the Stadium. The wind kept playing truant and the only kites that could stay in the sky were the Indian fighters – all the big kites kept going up and coming down, and the coming down seemed to generate as much excitement in the kids as the going up. Martin Lester’s red Torso and Legs, the Scuba Diver and Shark were big hits with the kids – there’d be a dozen willing hands ready to help Martin carry the back to the tent, or to help relaunch.

The fighter kite competition hotted up with the entry of the 4 teams from Jodhpur. Fierce battles were fought in the sky – unfortunately too far away for the audience to really appreciate the nuances. Ultimately Unique Kite Club from Delhi and the Biplabi Surya Sen Club from Calcutta emerged as the two finalists – their fate to be decided the next day on the lawns of the spectacular Umaid Bhawan Palace, the regal home of Maharaja Gaj Singh of Jodhpur.

The awesome dome of the Palace, rising into the clear blue sky provided a terrific backdrop for the kites – Tal Streeter’s variations on the Japanese bee kites, Werner’s bats attracted the local hawks to investigate this invasion of their skies, the Grez twins with their stack of Revolutions and their stunters flying in perfect harmony, the rokkakus built by Klaus and Ugo as a tribute to the legends of modern music – Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Bob Marley, Frank Zappa – Dom Martin and his creations, Jean-Michel Petit with some really beautiful kites – the Palace took on a light, airy quality as the kites soared above.

The finals of the fighter Kite Competition turned into a tense affair – the Calcutta and Delhi teams were tied at 2 each. The next tangle would decide the Championship. Everybody crowded around the two competing fliers who would have been much happier for a little more space! Suddenly the flier from Calcutta went into action, his hands a blur as he pulled in line at a surprising speed. The kite from Delhi floated away and the Calcutta team went into a series of cheers and war hoops!

Mah. Gaj Singh and the Chief of Army, Gen. Subramaniam gave away the prizes and everybody went in for a leisurely lunch. In no time, it seemed, Stuart Franklin who was on assignment for the National Geographic magazine was there, urging the fliers to come back for a last fly so that he could get his pictures in the late afternoon light. Manfully, everybody trooped out again and, wonder of wonders, the breeze picked up beautifully. This afternoon session, after the pressures of the Festival, was probably the most satisfying. And Stuart got his pictures, too!

One big party that night to wish the Maharaja a Happy Birthday meant that all of us were partying till after midnight –and we had a train to Jaipur next morning at 5 o’ clock! Well, we made it – just about!

Makar Sankranti in Jaipur was to be the high point of the trip and couldn’t wait to see how our friends would react to the sight of a whole city gone kite crazy.

On the morning of the 14th we did a demonstration of the big kites for the local populace – and they’d never seen anything like this before. Martin and the Grez brothers achieved instant stardom – photographers, reporters, even the BBC film crew – everybody wanted a picture or an interview. Frank Coenraets, of course, took it in his stride. Frank is an old India hand, having attended all three Festivals and quite used to being a TV celebrity!

Then came the moment I’d been waiting for. We went up to a terrace in the heart of the old city and everybody gasped – the sky was full of kites ! Everywhere the eye turned there were kites in all colours jousting. The terraces around were packed with people and shouts of “Woh Kata Hai!” filled the air along with the sound of drums beaten in victory every time someone was cut. Nobody had had the time to really appreciate what was going on while we were flying but now, with the Festival finally over, it was time to participate in the joyous riotousness of Makar Sankranti – a free-for-all kite madness when any kite in the sky is fair game; your sole purpose is to cut down everybody else.

The manjha, kites and beer were ready and we took to the skies with fighters – Frank had cut seven kites and was still flying; his “Yes.Yes.Yes.Yes!” matched the “Woh Kata Hais” in intensity, Martin and the Grez brothers discovered the thrill of kite fighting, Allan Lim from Singapore had a big smile as he did battle with three kites at a time, Ugo and Klaus set a record of sorts – a perfect amalgam of drinking beer and flying kites! Even I got to fly, finally!

As the sun went down the sky turned a lovely gold and the thousands of kites silhouetted against this glorious sky prompted Martin Lester to say, “You know we’re told to live every day as if it were our last. So, if I die today, it’s all right.”

It’s not all right, my friend. I hope to see you back in India next year for the Festival from 9th to 14 Jan.

Ajay Prakash