Zoe Richards recalls a time when kites flew high over Lahore and Basant was celebrated by everyone.The colourful mosaic of kites against a clear sky is a sight that is vividly imprinted in my mind. Going through old photographs, I chance upon one of myself (from when I was 12) clad in a bright yellow traditional shalwar kameez with matching yellow and gold khussas adorning my feet, wrists encircled by multi-coloured glass bangles and a cobalt ‘charkhi’ clutched possessively under my arm. Clearly I was ready for Basant.
There were other photographs too of the entire family enjoying the kite flying festival of Basant which used to coincide with Jashan-i-Baharan (Spring Festival) celebrations in the cultural city of Lahore. The photographs told a story of cobbled streets in the Old City and rickety staircases leading to roof-tops. Recurring themes were the bright colours; of the kites and of the outfits captured and the laughter and sheer joy evident on everyone’s faces.
With the advent of early February the sky would be ablaze with a myriad of bright kites, many days before the actual date of Basant.
Lahore used to be a riot of flowers and colour. Young, old, rich, poor, none of it mattered as all of Lahore joined hands to make merry and rejoice at the arrival of spring. Each individual roof-top came together with the ones around like blocks of a well oiled unit and provided a large playing field for the kite-fliers. “Cross roof conversations and friendly challenges to the neighbours ended up bringing communities closer,” recounts 32-year-old Sana. Old buildings swayed to music and the titillating notes of “patang baaz sajna se” would invariably be played out from every sound system.
I remember being in Anarkali and gazing at the ghostly white kites flown at night with floodlights pointing towards the sky to guide the enthusiasts. Small twisting lanes and precarious roof-tops added to the spirit of adventure. The competitiveness was evident with talk of the size of the kites being flown and the quality of string used, coupled with the single-minded determination to take down as many kites as possible for the night. The blare of the distant horn and ensuing loud cheers meant that a kite had fallen; that the “paicha” had been made.
Hearty yells of “bo kata” would follow suit with the “dhol walas” pounding out rhythmic beats for people to dance the bhangra to. The city was lit up from within, the air thick with excitement.
Come Sunday morning and a glance outside would show a bedazzling patchwork quilt blanketing the sky. The usual haunts of the Old City like Paisa Akhbar and Haveli Baroodkhana would be full of music and people dressed to the nines in all shades of yellow reflecting the warmth of the sun. A light wind would blow every now and then eliciting groans from the seasoned flyers. Aunties, sisters, brothers, uncles, cooks and maalis; everyone had an opinion on how best to string a kite. If you were good, they’d let you hold the string once the kite was air bound. For the less initiated, holding the ‘charkhi’ was as close to the action as you could get. Finger-tape was mandatory. And I’m sure everyone remembers the rogue child walking around with a pair of scissors snipping every string that dared cut his path much to the dismay of all the ‘zinda-dil’ guests.
Along with the kites, the supply of food would continue throughout the day like a roof-top picnic. In the streets below, sweetmeat vendors would push their carts peddling their wares; the aroma of barbecue would entice the senses. As the day’s festivities continued, the anticipated flight of the big kites would monopolise conversation. I remember being fascinated by the fact that it took eight people to hold one such kite upright.
I remember tracing the descent of a lone kite as it broke off from the rest of the confetti show and made its cyclic way towards the market below. I remember it vividly because this kite’s fall from grace was accompanied by yells of “bo kata” from a group of very young street children collecting their loot. They zeroed in with military precision and snatched the kite before it hit the ground and erupted in peals of laughter. As I watched them make off with their new treasure, my eyes chanced upon a grown man in a tree trying to pull a kite loose for his expectant daughter waiting at his tea shop below. His customers sipped away at their tea and offered advice on how best to get the kite dislodged. It was truly a festival for, of and by the people.
Fast forward to today where Basant is but a mere whisper in the brisk winds announcing the prelude to spring and all the kites have been cut down.