The Kite Runner of Bengal
If you are fascinated with those colourful kites fighting amongst themselves in the autumn sky on Viswakarma Puja, then you must be also knowing how these paper-kites became popular in Bengal. It was Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who ruled a land far away from Kolkata, who made kite flying popular in Bengal. And well his passion still reverberates in the autumn sky that hovers above us today.
Awadh was a princely state as prosperous as London or Paris. But the Nawab’s stars didn’t favour him, as he ascended the throne when the British East India Company was determined to grab the coveted throne of prosperous Awadh. Wajid Ali landed in Kolkata under strange circumstances.
The British greed to grab more, resulted in the annexture of Awadh on a false charge of maladministration. Wajid Ali Shah had heard a lot about British sense of justice and fair play, so he decided to place his case before the then Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, who was stationed at Calcutta. The Nawab reached Calcutta on 13 May 1856 and was given a 21-gun salute. As he did not get any justice from the Governor General, he even decided to go to London and place his case before the British Queen and the Parliament. However, due to illness he had to stay back in Calcutta and his mother, brother and son went to England.
While negotiations were on in London between his representatives and the Queen, mutiny broke out in India. All hopes of getting back Awadh were dashed and the British decided to confine him at Fort William. They feared the rebel forces might rally around him and strike back. In Fort William, he was held for twenty-six months. After he was released he decided to spend the rest of his life in Calcuttaand chose Metiaburj as his new abode. This phase of Shah was an equally remarkable one.
Wajid Ali Shah had left Lucknow but the city never left him. He proceeded to build a mini Lucknow in Metiaburj and revived the same old thriving culture of Lucknow along with the pastimes like wrestling, kite flying, poetic symposium and cock fighting. The game of kite flying very soon caught the imagination of rajas, maharajas and zamindars of 19th-century Bengal and eventually became the favouritesport. Seeing the tremendous response of the local population, the expert kite maker of Lucknow Illahi Baksh came to Calcutta and started his business in Metiaburj.
Great care was taken in producing kites. It was made with one and a half bow and a back-stick. It had a small paper tassel, usually of another colour at the bottom. Interest in kite flying spread like wild fire and some flyers mastered the art of cutting down the strings of other kites. The dragging-pulling style of kite-flying was considered to be the best style. It is interesting to note that as the popularity of this game rose, kite-fighting instead of kite-flying became the vogue. Many kite competitions used to take place and it became a big money sport. Numerous enthusiasts squandered away large sums of money but achieved prominence and were revered in kite-flying circles of Calcutta.
Different types of kites were produced and the best was known as patang.The back-stick of this kite was made of bamboo from Murshidabad and was the most expensive.Wajid Ali Shah used to fly kites and he would tie a sum of money with his kite. Anyone who would be able to retrieve after it got cut and bring it back, would be paid twice that amount.
The Nawab’s legacy vis-à-vis the sport he pioneered is still alive in many lanes and on rooftops of Calcutta. In Metiaburj, it is an important cottage industry, employing about 3,000 men and women directly or indirectly. The kites produced here are sold all over the country. It may not be the best trade in returns because the backbreaking work fetches only a meager amount but nevertheless, it has helped keep a very poor neighbourhood gainfully employed