Kite Flying in Lahore!

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The sight of a whole city caught up in a `Basant' frenzy startles an Indian ignorant of customs and traditions in Pakistan, says C. RAMMANOHAR REDDY.

YOU wouldn't think that a public festival in Lahore goes by the name Basant. A Hindu name for a public holiday in Pakistan? One which falls on more or less the same day as Basant Panchami in India? Yes it is. Basant is one of the biggest festivals on the Lahori's calendar; a mammoth social occasion that does not revolve around a religious ritual but around putting thousands of kites into the sky. The sight of a whole city caught up in a "Basant" frenzy startles an Indian ignorant of customs and traditions in Pakistan.

Ahmedabad has its kite flying ritual in January on Makar Shankranthi. Other Indian cities and states too have their annual seasons, if not particular days, in which kite-flying is a big event. But none is likely to match the scale and fervour of Lahore on Basant day.

Like in North India, Basant in Pakistan's Punjab is a spring festival. It heralds both the approach of the harvest and the end of winter. This year the festival was celebrated on February 17, but Lahore began its party the night before in the walled city. The real celebrations took place the next day. The Lahoris' involvement in Basant is like our involvement in Deepavali. The big difference is that in Lahore's Basant, kites replace crackers. From the morning onwards, the roofs of Lahore were full of young and old keeping their kites afloat. By early afternoon, the sky was peppered with kites of different colours. They come in different sizes as well some have to be transported on the roofs of cars, others are small enough to be carried on bicycles. Yellow is the predominant colour. "This is the colour of the mustard ripening in the field," says a gracious Lahori host, as he drapes a yellow dupatta on the shoulders of each visitor. The fun of Basant does not preclude the intense competition that is a uniquely south Asian phenomenon cutting each other's kite lines. Like in India, manja is used to give that "cutting edge" to the twine and each time a kite's life-line is severed, a cheer, "Bo-Kata", (loosely translated as "a kite cut off") is sent up by the victor. The beauty of Lahore's Basant is that every one rich and poor can enjoy it since all that is required is a kite and a ball of string. The wealthy Lahoris may have their huge kites with intricate patterns, but in the end a kite is, well, a kite. By evening, the overhead wires are dotted with kites which have been trapped during their flights. So many are sent up that in certain areas the regulators have to suspend power supply to save on possible short-circuiting of the electricity lines. But tragic accidents do happen, like this year when the papers reported that six people died, either because they fell from the rooftops or died from electrocution.

"We in Lahore have over the years taken to Basant and kite-flying," said an elderly Lahori, "while for some reason Amritsar has given it up," referring to the rather lukewarm celebration of Basant in our Punjab. Lahore's Basant is such a social event that it attracts people from the rest of Punjab even from as far as Karachi. The popularity of this Lahori festival has grown so much that other cities in Pakistan too have started to organise their own versions, "copy-cat" Basants as a parochial Lahori will tell you.

For the wealthier Lahori, Basant is not just about flying kites. It is also a time to get together, to host family and friends and to celebrate with a lavish meal. The growing popularity of Basant has naturally meant the entry of corporate hospitality. Companies host their guests on Basant even by "renting" roof-tops in the walled city at exorbitant rates for just the evening. The inevitable question on the mind of a visitor from India is how have the Lahoris taken to an event whose name suggests that it is a Hindu festival, even if there are no religious rituals to accompany it. The answers you hear are interesting. Some see the public embrace of a secular Basant as a way of striking back at the fundamentalists who want to constrain their lives. Some say that during the Zia years of the 1980s there was a stifling of celebrations as it was labelled "a Hindu" festival. Even later, Nawaz Sharif, who was beholden to the religious right, was less than open about his visiting social events on Basant. The near frenetic celebrations of Basant today are seen as a reaction to past controls. And yet others perhaps rightly tell a visitor from India that Basant does not belong to the Hindus or the Muslims. "It is a festival of Punjab. You in India may not be too excited by Basant. But for us in Lahore it has become a passion." The extremists among the mullahs have not given up. Every now and then they still raise their voices about this "Hindu" in recent years. This year there was even a suit filed in court seeking a restraint of public celebrations! Fortunately, the petition was allowed to collect dust. For now, Basant has taken root across the border.

Article taken (with Thanks) from The Hindu



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This page was last updated on June 14, 2003 .