Once upon a time, in a sprawling 18th-century palace in northern India, a nawab fell ill. Restless and anxious, he began to summon the royal doctor or hakim every day, hoping to be given some relief.
Tired of these futile visits, the hakim devised a clever diversion: using paper and wooden sticks, he created a pretty kite, launched it up in the air and handed the string to the nawab.
“Spend your days flying this kite,” he said. “It will improve your eyesight, strengthen your arms and restore you to health.”
Although most historical accounts state that kites were introduced in India by the Chinese more than 2,000 years ago, it is the legend of the nawab that Dongri’s community of Muslim kite-makers swears by.
“The nawabs grew fond of flying kites and eventually many families in the villages of north India mastered the craft of kite-making,” says Mohammed Yunus, 64, whose grandfather started the Ansari Ibrahim Patangwala shop in Dongri’s Imamwada lane in the early 1920s.
This shop — now managed by Yunus and owned by his cousin — is one of the four kite stores in Imamwada that attract customers from across the city every January. Twenty years ago, Dongri had twice as many stores, but as interest in kite-flying dwindled, they were forced to shut.
“There was a time when we would sell kites all year round. Today, business is restricted to the Makar Sankranti festival and even that is getting less profitable,” says Yunus, who spends all year in the cramped confines of his 100-sq-ft shop, making nearly 20,000 kites by hand with the help of three labourers.
At Indian Fighter Kites, a wholesale shop founded by kite-lover Shaban Khan in 1948, kites are made by a network of labourers that includes housewives, widows and craftsmen.
“All these kite-makers happen to be Muslim. We don’t know why,” says Khan, 82, who moved from UP to Mumbai as a young man, solely to pursue his dream of making kites. “Today, our businesses survive in a Muslim-dominated area like Dongri only because of a Hindu festival.”
Survival, however, can no longer depend solely on kite-making. Khan has started a seasonal umbrella business in his store. Mohammed Esa, who started the MD Esa Kite Centre in 1976, says he has kept his shop running only out of his love for kites. His sons and brothers have sought jobs elsewhere or started more profitable businesses and they bring in the money.