Nawabs vs Gandhis: The Legend of Lucknow’s Kite Warriors

Social Commentary

Nawabs vs Gandhis: The Legend of Lucknow’s Kite Warriors

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“P

atang nasha hai,” Mohammad Aslam tells me, his eyes glinting with excitement in the dim winter sun. We are on the tiny terrace of the sexagenarian’s modest home in Lucknow, where he is sunning his freshly hennaed hair. A cage full of fighter pigeons coo about in a corner, waiting for Aslam to begin their daily training, but right now, their master is busy with the thought of the sport that’s his first love and obsession – kite-flying.

Aslam looks up at the free-floating kite above us, and tells me that he was once part of the Nawab Kite Club, one of two formidable groups at the Lucknow Kite Flying Contest. Since the 17th century, the sport had been a favourite among the rulers of the city, who could afford to invest money and time in it. Over time, the club began to grow, and the Nawabs began to cultivate talent from whatever quarter they could find. They included people like Aslam, a fruit and vegetable seller by day.

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The only real challenge to the Nawabs was from the Gandhi Kite Club, a group of common folk without any royal lineage. “There was a healthy rivalry between the two teams,” says Aslam, “but sometimes it got a little rocky. Then, instead of kites, sparks flew!” About thirty years ago, a legendary conflict was ignited between the two clubs that were locked in battle four months and four days.

The seeds of the fight were sown at the Lucknow Kite Flying Contest in the last week of March 1984. It started at a local tourney at Buddha Park – then known as Patang Park – in the old city area of Daliganj Colony. Aslam was then in his early 30s, and the most enthusiastic of his six teammates.

Mohammad-Aslam-showing-his

Aslam, then the youngest member of the club, was entrusted with the responsibility of winning the contest.

Courtesy: Saurabh Sharma

Patangbaazi competitions follow rules that mirror those of cricket: Creases are drawn, kites inspected, and three umpires deputed to ensure fair play. After a tussle for supremacy in the skies, the Nawabs felt their kite had been cut off in violation of a rule. Things grew heated and in the ensuing verbal clash, the Gandhis challenged the Nawabs to a year-long kite-flying duel.

In the days that passed, Patang Park – then just a big unmanicured ground on the bank of the Gomti River – swiftly became a mela. Spectators filtered in from across the city, eager to witness the two clubs’ kite-flying chops – and get a whiff of Lucknow’s royalty. The Nawabs, dressed to the nines, would turn up in their shining Impalas and Fiats and buggies, accompanied by their uniformed attendants, who would wait on them hand and foot. Aslam recalls that one of the members, Nawab Masaudhi Agha, used to come to Lucknow from Delhi every weekend via a special flight to fly kites. Every afternoon, the drama would unfold.

Aslam, then the youngest member of the club, was entrusted with the responsibility of winning the contest and had to tweak his daily schedule. “I would wake up every morning at 3 am, and be at the vegetable market by 4 am,” Aslam said. “I’d wrap up business by noon so that I could be at the park.” From then until sunset, the Nawabs and the Gandhis went at each other.

Aslam’s team insisted upon using a special maanjha made of cotton thread, crushed egg shells, Belgium glass, and organic colours. They were purists to the extent that they refused to use binoculars or panna stone spectacles for the sake of fair play. As unrelenting as the two sides were, there was little animosity between them off the field. As twilight gathered, everyone stuck around for tea, samosas, and chatter.

Aslam-receiving-the-trophy

An old picture of Aslam receiving the trophy.

Courtesy: Saurabh Sharma

On the field, however, the story was different. Days turned into weeks which turned into months, but neither side was able to declare a clear winner. And there was no question of quitting, even though the duel was taking a toll on the health and finances of some of its members: The Nawabs were too proud, and the Gandhis, who had set the challenge, could not back off. It became a game of who would blink first.

Left to themselves, the Nawabs and Gandhis would have carried on for an entire year. Finally, two elderly kite-flyers – Anand ji and Miya Munna – who commanded immense respect among the members of the club intervened. They brokered a truce and finally, after more than 120 days, the competition of aerial manoeuvres came to a close.

But has it really come to a close? Even today, Aslam insists that the Nawab Kite Club won the challenge. Even though he quit kite-flying in 2013, he has preserved all of the kites flown in the competition in three big trunks. All Aslam really needs, is for one of the Gandhis to set him a challenge.

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