“I need the best recipe for the deadliest manjha (a coated kite string) so that I can trump the sky,” Dr Rahul Verma, a kite enthusiast, posted on a blog that claims to know the ‘manjha’s dark secrets’. Many like Verma want secret tips from the blogger called ‘Manjha’ -- ‘a retired fighter kite champion’ who claims to have figured out ‘a perfect formulation’ for a razor-sharp kite string.
Kite-flyers say manjha is the key to win a kite battle. Over the years, the string has become sharper than before and so has the demand. But most people are either oblivious of the danger involved or simply ignore it.
The result was there for all to see.
On Independence day, two children and an adult died after ‘Chinese kite strings’, coated with powdered glass, slit their throats. Many injuries were reported from across the city, though figures were available.
“Until a decade back, a good quality manjha would be strong enough to cut another kite but weak enough to break when it gets entangled in the human body,” says Aftab Ahmed, whose father, Zahoor Mian, was a famous manjha maker of Bareilly in UP, the hub of manjha and kite manufacturers.
Bareilly’s manjha makers
Aftab, 67, was in Lal Kuan in Delhi, the capital’s oldest kite and manjha market, to collect payment from shopkeepers. This year, he says, business of Bareilly’s makers dipped by 90% due to the popularity of Chinese manjha made of synthetic fibres and coated with chemicals.
Aftab, whose family has made kite strings for over 80 years, says good manjha is handcrafted and made of natural substances. “It involves creating a concoction of ingredients such as sirus, rice, dalchini eggs, saboo dana and the right amount of glass powder depending on the manjha maker and then applying it with hands on the cotton threads.”
“Only the manjha makers of Bareilly can achieve the right smoothness, toughness and sharpness. Unfortunately, the most famous ones are dead and the quality of cotton manhja has suffered over the years,” says Aftab.
The reels and spindles of strings made in Bareilly are named after individuals. “Each labourer making the manjha is a brand, and it sells because of the craft of the man who makes them,” says Md Arif, whose family has sold kites and manjha for four generations. The manjha spindles in his shop at the Lal Kuan market have names such as Jafari, Shanna Rizwan, Shabir Beig -- the men who made the manjha.
Most sellers swear by the names of Bareilly’s makers such as Wazir Ustad, Chunnan Ustad, Pyare Mian, Riyasat Mian, Lala Ram Mohan and Zahoor Mian. “Most of them are now dead. Each one of them had their own manjha recipe and their own technique of applying it on the cotton thread to achieve the desired toughness and sharpness,” says Md Jafari, another manhja maker from Bareilly.
What is Chinese manjha?
The Bareilly manjha is now losing out to the Chinese one in popularity and sales.
But many kite-shop owners in Lal Kuan say there is nothing Chinese about the so-called Chinese kite string. ‘Chinese Manjha’ is a market name for synthetic kite string coated with chemicals, they say. Many shops have posters of ‘Mono Kite’, a Bangalore-based manjha brand. “This has been a best-selling manjha but most wrongly think it is a Chinese brand,” says Sachin Gupta, a wholesaler.
Nishant Kumar, 23, who came from Ghaziabad to buy ‘Chinese Manjha’, wants to see some. Arif offers the Bareilly cotton manjha. “It is useless, I want the Mono Chinese manhja, nobody can cut my kite with that,” says Kumar, moving to the next shop.
But two days after the ban on Chinese Manjha, most shopkeepers in Lal Kuan stopped selling the Mono Kite brand. “These days a lot of people prefer synthetic manhja because its one spindle costs just Rs 250, while that of the Bareilly cotton manjha costs Rs 500,” says Arif.
Mohit Kartikeya, head of sales and marketing at Mono Kite, says unfortunately their manjha has been branded as Chinese.
The contention against ‘Chinese manjha, he explains, is that it is harmful because it does not break, is made of metallic powder and toxic chemicals and is non-biodegradable.
“Our string has none of these qualities. We have the safest breaking strength and instead of glass and metallic powder for sharpness we use non-toxic chemicals. Our manjha packaging says it is made in India, but kite traders have failed to explain to buyers that we are not a Chinese company,” says Kartikeya.
What is the non-toxic chemical used to achieve the sharpness? “It is a trade secret. Our company produces not just kite strings but various polymer products,” says Katikeya. “We started producing Mono Kite manjha in 2010 to revive the dying game of kite flying.”
A kite trader who does not wish to be named guesses: “Chinese manjha is called so because the synthetic polymer it is made with is imported from China.”
Kartikeya denies it. He says the government should come up with standards for kite string strength, bio-degradability and material. “We came up with our manjha after two years of research, and we have been dubbed as Chinese, though we have nothing to do with China,” says Kartikeya.
The art of kite-flying
Jamaluddin, 35, an ace kite-flyer from Delhi who represented India at festivals abroad, says that the strength of manjha lies in its fineness, not in its unbreakable nature. “I know many people who got severe infection after they were injured by the Chinese manjha. The Bareilly cotton manjha always breaks under certain force. Besides, kite flying is essentially about making beautiful kites and how elegantly you fly them,” he says.
His father, Bhai Mian, 85, is the godfather of many well-known kite-flyers in the Walled City and has several records, including one for flying 1,184 kites on a single string.
“In kite battles, manjha is not everything. A kite-flyer should know when to pull, when to loosen the string. In fact, the quality of a kite is more important than the string. If it does not obey your command, you cannot win, no matter what manjha you use,” says Bhai Mian, who set up Diamond Kite Club, one of Delhi’s first.