When Manzoor Ali Khan represented Rampur in an All India Kite-Flying Tournament in Gwalior in 1996, he didn’t know it would end up in being an attempt on his life. With the prize money being a 1 kg silver kite, a rosary of rubies, and three TV sets, the stakes were high. The home team, he claims, lost the semi-finals, but then connived with the organisers to cancel it on some frivolous ground. “I was not going to give up without a fight. So during the confrontation, a rival put a poisonous plant kes ki phali on my neck,” Khan tells us in his home in Qazi Gali area in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, surrounded by his collection of kite flying apparatus.
The plant led to immense pain and a swollen face. That’s when Khan asked his driver to bring some gobar (cow dung), and applied it on his neck as it absorbs the leaves and nullifies its poisonous/allergic effects. “I rushed back to my hotel room and washed my neck thoroughly,” he continues, while showing us kites and charkhis (spools) with his name inscribed on them. After being cheated of the match, Khan lodged a case against the organisers and became an ‘Enemy No 1’ of the Gwalior kite fraternity. “I went for a hearing in Gwalior, and some goons chased me to my guest house. I got in touch with the security and they managed to save my life.” He shows us the court documents, as well as photographs of him with various dignitaries after winning kite tournaments across India.
Khan, 65, is a veteran patangbaz (kite fighter) and the founder of the town’s only remaining major kite club, the Golden Kite Club. In 2016, after the police banned kite flying inside the city after two fatal accidents, his club began organising local tournaments on the outskirts. The move, though, did little to curb the enthusiasm of the town almost obsessed with the sport. Kite-making as a household industry employs close to 5,000 residents, exporting its products to Europe and US. Almost every boy or man we met knew how to fly a kite—few still doing it from their terraces (post ban), and others travelling to designated sites to take part in tournaments.
Nicknamed ustad (maestro) by the locals, Khan was instrumental in helping Rampur win two national trophies in 1989 and 1992, also walking away with the ‘Player of the Tournament’ title in the latter. “We beat the home team Lucknow by a whopping 13 points. There were veterans in the audience, who had tears in their eyes after our victory.” Though a lot of betting took place on their matches, Khan says he never played for money. “The bets would often go into lakhs.”
A kite tournament in north India begins with a toss, and the winner chooses the side according to wind conditions, the most important factor in the sport. Every team has three players, and each get three attempts to ‘cut’ their opponent’s kite. There are three umpires: Two crease umpires and a centre umpire who blows the whistle to start the match. The first team that ‘cuts’ 9 opponent kites is declared the winner, though different rules are followed in different cities. In Rampur, the biggest feat is chakka when a player ‘cuts’ six kites consecutively, after which he retires from the game. The team collects all the kites they ‘cut’ during a match, leading to an oft used insult, ‘Tumhari saari patang le lenge hum’ (We’ll rob you of all your kites).
Though the culture of kite-flying has been waning in most Indian cities, it’s still the most popular sport for Rampur’s youngsters. When Mohammed Umar, 24, was six, he fell from his terrace while flying kites, leading to a broken left hand and leg. A year later, he nearly died when he fell in a well while kite-flying. “I would have died if there was no water. I ended up taking two deep dives in the water, crying for help, then using a water pipe as a rope to climb out myself.” At one point, his ‘kite accidents’ became so common, his family took him to a priest because they thought that he was cursed by a spell. “A doctor once advised me bed rest, so I flew kites from a chair with my left leg in plaster.”
According to Umar, who plays for the Nagina Kite Club, kites designated as ‘lucky’ are kept in families and cared for like their own children. “Sometimes more.” He’s even heard of murders taking place in the name of the game. “There was a guy, who after losing a kite match, arrived at his rival’s home with a desi katta (homemade firearm) with the intention of killing him.”
A unique aspect of Rampur’s patangbazi is the range of humorous insults directed at opponents. Manzoor Ali Khan says he would often challenge or tempt his opponents with promises of roast chicken. “I would dare them by saying we will feed you 50 chickens if you defeat us, while you just feed us 10. We never lost.” Others would say ‘phat rahi hai kya?’ (Are you afraid?) If any of his teammates weren’t up to the mark, he would chide them with accusations of being bribed by rivals. “In Delhi, our rivals often try to kiss us after a good pech (spar), as a joke. .They’d say “lao, ek pyar do” (give me a kiss). Khan sometimes goes to his terrace and destroys his neighbours’ kites whenever he gets bored.
Rashid Miyan comes from a family of kite makers in Rampur and owns a kite-making shop, exporting his merchandise to the US. “My grandfather received an award from the Indian President Gyani Zail Singh for his kite-making in 1985. Our decorative kites are regularly used for government functions and events like the Surajkund Mela in Delhi.” He has also flown 100 decorative kites on a single string.
Miyan, a kite fighter himself, says that flying kites is as much a game of the mind as it is a physical exercise. “In a kite fight, the most important thing is how good your kite is. The second is the player’s talent, while manjha (the glass-coated sharp thread) is the last. At the end of the day, you have to fool your opponent using your mind.” He thinks that most tournaments are won by players who are unpredictable. “A good patangbaz can guess how far his opponent’s kite is flying, read the curvature of the thread while keeping a close eye on the playing style of the rival kite fighter.” The key, according to him, is to attack only when you’re not vulnerable to an attack yourself. “Most players lose while trying to be too aggressive.”
A steady rush of customers looking for Bareilly ka manjha (famous sharp thread from Bareiily) and Miyan’s famous fighter kites keeps his shop alive throughout the day. Two young men check out a finely made kite before leaving for the Kosi bridge ground for a match with their friends, while 8-year-old Abdul Moois comes to the shop to get the best kite available within his budget of Rs 5. “I will fly kite with Salman, my best friend. I am still learning,” says the shy boy before hiding behind a kite.
As the prayer for asr namaz from a nearby mosque fills the air in Rampur’s central market, Rashid Miyan bids me goodbye. “Nothing stops a man in Rampur from offering his prayers. Not even patangbazi.”
Follow Zeyad Masroor Khan on Twitter.