Ajay Prakash
From Discourse 14

Rajasthan has played host to many a kite festival in the past, suppor ted by royal families who have opened their hearts and their palaces to domestic and international kite makers and flyers. Today, such festivals have become a relic of the past, as government and private support has dwindled. MARWAR brings you a first person essay from Ajay Prakash, chief executive of Nomad Travels, who has conceived and organised many national and international  kite events all over the country, with the one at the Umaid Bhawan Palace being among the most majestic. Read on as this veteran writes about the sport that knows no barriers of caste, colour, creed, race or social status.

Ajay Prakash is the founder and chief executive of Nomad Travels, Mumbai, a company that specialises in organising corporate travel and custom-designed leisure tours in India and overseas. Previously,

he worked in the commercial department of Air India for eight years. He is the immediate past president of the Travel Agents Federation of India and was the deput y chairman of the World Travel Agents Association Alliance—a non- profit organisation based in Belgium, which serves as a global alliance of travel agent associations from Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. A kite enthusiast, Prakash has been a regular at tendee at kite festivals overseas. His passion led him to organise various kite festivals in India, such as the Desert Kite Festival in Rajasthan, the Taj Kite Festival in Agra and the Goa Kite Carnival. He holds a Bachelor’s degree with honours in History from St Stephens College, Delhi, and a Masters degree in English Literature from Universit y of Rajasthan, Jaipur.

There are only three kinds of people who look up at the sky—children, madmen and kite flyers. The rest walk around with their heads down, and the difference is there for all to see—looking up opens your eyes to the beauty of the earth; it changes your perspective. Growing up in Jaipur, I discovered the magic of kites at an early age, and since then, I’ve never stopped flying them. I believe that the sky is the only space that seems devoid of the borders that keep people apart. Romantics, idealists and visionaries have looked up at the heavens for inspiration, and the kite is one of the most powerful symbols of man’s desire to break free of the shackles of the earth. With a kite line in our hands and our eyes to the sky, we are all equal. It is truly a freedom sport—a great way to bring people together in a spirit of celebration, peace and communal harmony.

Makar Sankranti is a huge festival in Jaipur, when the colours usually visible on the ground are splashed across the skies. Routine life comes to a halt, and everyone— from little kids to 60-year-olds (and older!)—rush to their terraces at daybreak with just one thought: to fly! It’s a day of fun in the sun with lovely treats like gazak, til ke laddoo, hot moong dal ki pakoris and steaming hot chai. The sky is soon filled with kites, and riotous shouts of “Kati patang!” resonate everywhere. This continues long after sunset, until it’s too dark to see your kite and until finally, after having fed you all day on the terrace, your mother’s patience runs out and she tells you it’s time to come down.

(Clockwise from L-R): Babu Khan, a famous kite maker from Jaipur; kites being flown during the Festival; Bina Kak with Ajay Prakash at the Kite Festival

For many years after I moved to Mumbai in 1980, I’d go back to Jaipur with my old friends during Sankranti for my kite fix. Then one day, when my friend and I were in Normandy, France, we happened to walk into the Dieppe Kite Festival, and I was transfixed by what I saw! Kites like I’d never seen before—birds, bees, dragons, geometric shapes—filled the air with gorgeous colours. I just knew I had to do this back home.

The opportunity came soon enough through a fortuitous meeting with HH Gaj Singh II, Maharaja of Jodhpur, at the Internationale Tourismus-Börse, Berlin, one of the world’s leading travel trade shows. Bapji, as he is fondly known, was then the chairman of the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation. When I proposed that I’d like to organise an international kite festival in Jaipur, he said, “Why not at

Jodhpur? We can do it at the Umaid Bhawan.” That was it! The majestic dome of the Umaid Bhawan would provide a spectacular backdrop for kites from across the world, and who could ask for a better host than Bapji, the epitome of gracious Rajput royalty!

We organised the first Desert Kite Festival in Jodhpur in January 1997. For the first two days, it was held at the Polo Ground, moving, on the last day, to the fabulous Umaid Bhawan Palace. Jodhpur had never seen anything like it! The public turned up in droves and we had our hands full keeping the crowd under control. Bapji graciously hosted the 20 or so flyers from overseas at the Umaid Bhawan, and we made arrangements for our Indian flyers at a hotel nearby. The Ministry of Tourism gave us about four free international tickets on Air India, which we used to cross- subsidise our international participants. Nomad Travels pitched in for the travel and stay of our Indian flyers and our meals and hospitality were taken care of by Bapji.

We ran the festival on a shoestring budget, but we made a splash. Doordarshan broadcasted a film on it, the BBC carried a short video clip, a photographer from National Geographic turned up unexpectedly and we even got a mention on the homepage of Lonely Planet. The Desert Kite Festival was soaring high!

No one had ever done what we managed to do that year in Jodhpur—an amalgamation of the Indian fighter kite tradition, where the object of the sport is to cut down an opponent’s kite, with the Western kite scene, where kites are seen as expressions of art in the sky.

We managed to create distinct flying zones and even had an international fighter kite competition. We proved to organisers across the world that manjha—the internationally feared glass-coated Indian cutting line—can coexist peacefully with ripstop nylon and mylar!

The next year, we took the festival to Jaipur on invitation from Rajasthan Tourism. Many of the participants from the first festival came back and brought more friends with them. This time, we had participants from about

There are only three kinds of persons who look up at the sky—

“children, madmen and kite flyers. The rest walk around with their heads down, and the difference is there for all to see—looking up opens your eyes to the beauty of the earth, it changes your perspective.”

a dozen countries. Among them was a phenomenal kite maker from New York, Tal Streeter, who’d written a fascinating book called A Kite Journey Through India. Once again, we were provided with a few free tickets by the Ministry of Tourism, financial assistance of a couple of lakhs from

Rajasthan Tourism, and again, Nomad Travels stepped in to take care of the rest. For the first time, however, we got a private sponsor, The Hindustan Times. The festival was inaugurated at the old Chaugan Stadium in Jaipur by Chief Minister, Shri Ashok Gehlot, in the presence of Rajmata Gayatri Devi and the Minister for Tourism, Smt Bina Kak, who was really proactive and hugely responsible for bringing the event to Jaipur.

But flying at the Chaugan Stadium in Jaipur on the day before Sankranti was a tense affair. Some of the foreign kites are very expensive—retailing for a few hundred dollars—and we couldn’t afford to lose a single one. But every kite in the sky is a fair game at Sankranti, and though the flying line foreign flyers use for their big kites is often strengthened by Kevlar (a synthetic fibre of high tensile strength), it’s still no match for the Indian manjha in the hands of a mischievous 10-year-old, which will slice through the Kevlar effortlessly! So we recruited a bunch of local kids, gave them manjha and our colour-coded kites and turned them into our defensive ‘fighter kite squadron’. Their job was to cut down any ‘outside’ kite that came too close! But we still had some tense moments. One big kite was cut down and floated away over the old town, sending us on a hot pursuit on an old Vespa. If you’re driving on Makar Sankranti in Jaipur, you’d better watch out for kids running wildly across your path in pursuit of a kite! Sankranti has a different meaning for kids from less prosperous sections of society, for it is the day they loot kites that they will fly for many days to come. The essence of the Indian kite is very basic—a little tissue and two sticks of bamboo costing just a few rupees; Yet, it is capable of giving such joy! Even a street kid who can’t afford to buy one can still capture a kite that’s been cut—the finders are truly the keepers!

So, you can imagine that I had quite a job reasoning with the family who’d captured our kite that this wasn’t a kite they could keep just because they’d caught it. Finally, I got it back after offering to take them to the Chaugan Stadium and having them return the kite in person to our French participant, whose kite it was, and who in turn would present them with a small foreign kite. All was finally well. We continued with the festival in Rajasthan—Jodhpur and Jaipur—for another two years, before we were invited by UP Tourism to Lucknow and Agra. For two years we did the Taj Kite Festival on the banks of the Yamuna with the exquisite Taj Mahal as a backdrop.

Kite making is a traditional skill passed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately, today it’s a skill that’s in imminent danger of dying out. Babu Khan of Jaipur, for instance, is one of the finest kite makers in the country, and it’s a delight to fly a kite made by him. It responds to the lightest touch and is truly a fine fighting machine and a connoisseur’s delight. Babu Khan is also an amazing artist who makes incredibly beautiful appliqué paper kites with pictures of gods, goddesses and intricate geometric patterns. His kites look like fine paintings. He cuts patterns out of the main sail and then glues them in small pieces on the reverse to produce incredible detail. These kites are akin to cross stitch embroidery—the back has all the work and the front is the final result. I have never seen such fine work on an ephemeral paper kite! But Babu’s children don’t want to learn his skill because they see no future in kite making. And this is what is happening to many traditional skills. While I organised the festival, I would bring in a manjha maker from Bareilly. We would do live demos of manjha making and kite making along with workshops for kids.

For seven years, we kept the festival alive. It grew from being a small festival in Jodhpur to later include Jaipur, Lucknow and Agra, and finally we took it to Goa as the Kite Carnival, which we organised in collaboration with Goa Tourism. But finding sponsorships was becoming a bigger challenge every year. In the past, we’d had sponsorship support from The Hindustan Times, Sonora Tiles, Pidilite Industries, Kingfisher, Action Aid, the Fundação Oriente, the Ministry of Tourism and various state tourism bodies. But when a tourism body reneged on its commitment to pay us the decided amount, simply because of a change in government, I decided to call it a day. We had built up a fantastic brand value

for the Desert Kite Festival in a few years and kite flyers across the world heard of it and yearned to come, but it couldn’t continue without multiple sponsors.

Since then, I’ve organised one big kite event—a night fly with spotlights for a Marwari wedding at Osian—which was absolutely fabulous. We also brought in two friends from France who performed their signature kite ballet, and we flew gigantic kites with pictures of the bride and the groom. The guests loved it! The combination of beautiful kites lit up in the foreground against the backdrop of the desert stars on a crisp clear night was sheer magic.

I would love to do another international kite festival, especially in Rajasthan, which has so many incredibly beautiful locations. But for the moment, until I can find sponsors, I’m happy to fly my kites at my farm, a couple of hours out of Mumbai, and enjoy the unity and peace it offers.

(L-R): Rashmi Prakash and French lady flyers at the Kite Festival; a speciality kite against the Umaid Bhawan at the Jodhpur Kite Festival