When Nirav Patel was a little boy, he’d sit on his grandmother’s roof and reach out for the millions of kites that fluttered in the sky at the start of spring in January. That’s the way the season is welcomed in the Indian state of Gujarat — a two-day festival known as Uttarayan, where kites are flown by millions of natives and tourists to express joy for the new season.
The word Uttarayan comes from the Sanskrit words “uttara,” which means “north,” and “ayan,” which means “movement” — a reference to the path of the sun as the seasons change. The festival is celebrated in many cities but the one that draws most tourists has taken place in Ahmedabad since 1989.
Patel, who’s now 33 and a San Francisco-based photographer, went back to Gujarat this year to document Uttarayan in Ahmedabad. He was struck by the beauty of watching a blue sky engulfed by kites of all sizes and shapes — and by the way the festival coaxed those in the streets and on their roofs to put aside religious and socioeconomic differences, even if only for a couple of days. “Whether you are Hindu or Muslim, it doesn’t matter. Everyone enjoys their time,” he says.
Uttarayan celebrations begin as early as 6 a.m. As day breaks, attendees fly kites. There’s food and music in the streets. When the sun goes down, candle lit-lanterns and fireworks replace kites in the sky.
Patel said each family flies about 30 to 40 kites over the course of each day. His photographs document men and women in the streets carrying wrapped bundles of kites that have been made two to three months in advance of the festival. A couple of weeks before the event itself, whole streets are transformed into rows and rows of kite shops.
Patel arrived in Gujarat a week before Uttarayan this past January and documented the buying and selling of the kites, which he says is an economic boon to residents, who not only sell to fellow Indians but to thousands of tourists who come from all over the world.
Along with the joy there’s a bit of cutthroat kite-flying. Patel’s theory: “Kite-flying was a simple pastime and someone had the idea to make it a competition and the fighter kite was born.”
Men known as manja-makers add glue to the strings of kites and, with fingers wrapped in tape, spread ground-up bits of glass on the twine. In a battle of kites, one kite’s string can cut incisions into the body of nearby kites, which then fall to the ground.
Patel remembers one scene of two families standing on opposite rooftops, with one family cheering loudly when the kite of another was cut down. During the two days, children roam streets that might normally be considered dangerous to walk down, Patel says, with their eyes concentrated on the sky. When a cut kite plummets, the kids run after it. In one photo, two young boys with huge grins push each other away and reach toward the sky like wide receivers ready to catch a touchdown pass.
Capturing the joy of children during the festival was a big motivation for the project. “Moving to the States at such an early age, I felt like I lost touch with my culture,” he says. “This was an opportunity to go back and document that and get a sense of what this was like as a child.”
Andrew Boryga is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications.