In a winter without festivals, kite flying on Makar Sankranti offers hope for a socially-distanced, eco-friendly celebration
With people engaging in customary duels of kite flying from rooftops of their respective places, COVID-19 restrictions like night curfews, curbs on public gatherings, and the firecracker ban will not rob Makar Sankranti of the fun and frolic it is associated with.
It has been a bleak winter without Diwali card parties, Christmas gatherings, and New Year's Eve bashes. But the advent of 2021 brings a festival that is a natural fit in the socially-distanced times of today. This ongoing crisis also allows me to be home after seven years on Makar Sankranti, when the Jaipur janta will engage in customary duels while flying kites from the rooftops of their respective homes.
When the countrywide lockdown commenced in March 2020, I witnessed a rare sighting in the sky during an evening walk in the balcony. A kite? In April? I could recall spotting a few of them flecked in the clear skies of February and March. But by April, as enthusiasts receded indoors because of the scorching sun, the kites consequently vanished. I realised then that kite-flying had become as much a lockdown activity as binge watching, cooking, cleaning dishes, and video calling.
"It was legitimately the only 'outdoor' activity I could enjoy during lockdown," says Prerit Sharma, who rediscovered his avidity for kite flying last year. "There used to be so many distractions like PUB-G, Netflix and hanging out, that kite flying took a backseat. I stopped visiting Jaipur for Makar Sankranti a few years, though it used to be an annual ritual I looked forward to in January. In March, I was surprised and relieved to find an old collection of kites while cleaning my place."
He adds that he plans to celebrate Makar Sankranti with more fanfare this year, particularly because the past two months have been devoid of any festival frolic. Diwali, Christmas and New Year's Eve celebrations were further tempered by the firecracker ban, Section 144, and night curfew in Rajasthan. But these constraints are not likely to affect the Makar Sankranti celebration to the same degree.
"Since we stay home all day or return before sunset if we visit close relatives, night curfew and restrictions on gathering in public spaces won't be an issue," says Saadat, who lives in the old, walled area of Jaipur. "The only issue I anticipate is neighbours parkouring over rooftops to assemble for the communal kite-flying experience we enjoy every year," he says, laughing. That is not such a remote possibility given the ancient conjoined terraces of hawelis in the walled area. "And my friends mentioned they'll also miss congregating in Ramleela Maidan, like they do every year on Makar Sankranti."
Indoo Maheshwari, former principal of a government school in Bani Park, Jaipur, tells me these kite enthusiasts are prepared to give a "moohtod jawab" to the COVID times rather creatively. "I recently judged a kite design competition over Zoom at a college and the young participants came up with such hilarious and heartfelt slogans to write on kites they plan to fly on 14 January." From the politically incorrect 'F*ck you, Corona' to witty ones like 'Catch me if you can,' Jaipur's youth is going all out to turn kite-flying into a political exercise. Maheshwari mentions there were even a couple of slogans in support of the farmers' protests (presumably because Makar Sankranti is a harvest festival), and philosophical ones like 'Can spring be far behind?'.
"Kite-flying has always been political. There's a reason why it's also a popular practice on Independence Day. Yes, it symbolises freedom to fly freely but (holds significance) also because historical slogans like 'Simon, Go Back' were written on kites flown during the British colonial rule. Even centuries prior to that, there are Mughal paintings that show a young man flying a kite towards a minaret, where his lover is isolated, as a gesture of expressing love and longing," says Maheshwari.
However, she hopes the rebellion associated with this activity does not become counterproductive, particularly at a time when India should not let its guard down against a pandemic and its lethal consequences. The firecracker ban was violated in several parts of the city on Diwali last year, and that may be the case again on Makar Sakranti, where the sunset is accompanied by fireworks.
Naushad Khan, who sells air lanterns at a shop near Hawa Mahal, is not too concerned about the firecracker ban violation. "There's been a surge in the sale of air lanterns not only during these past few months, but also the last few years. People are becoming increasingly aware of air pollution and restricting their use of crackers far more than what they did 10-15 years ago. Air lanterns have emerged as a great substitute not only on Makar Sankranti, New Year's, and Diwali, but also weddings and similar functions."
Makar Sankranti seems to be becoming a more eco-friendly festival, thanks to the ban on not only firecrackers but also the Chinese manjha. After years of reported injuries to birds and humans alike, the razor-sharp Chinese manjha now stands banned. Abhinandan Gupta, a former volunteer with Raksha, Jaipur, an NGO dedicated to protection of the fauna, offers an interesting insight into the city's renewed lens of looking at Makar Sankranti as a threat to birds. "All of us had our wings clipped during the lockdown. Nature decided it needs to get back at us for our callous ways so it forced us into our cages for months. I may be too optimistic to suggest this, but I do feel the decreasing use of manjha is somewhere a result of what we've been through this year. I'm glad birds will fly more freely this year on Makar Sankranti."
(Also read: Why the balcony is a socio-political tool for human communication — in isolation, celebration, rebellion)
All images from Instagram.
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