In this interview, he provides a personal account of Uttarayan. He discusses what the festival means to a resident of Ahmedabad, the kite-flying hub of Gujarat, and how it has evolved over the years.
Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted with Ashna Patel on September 26, 2018.
Ashna Patel: For how long have you been celebrating Uttarayan in the old city of Ahmedabad?
Sanal Thathapuzha: For 35 years. I started celebrating Uttarayan when I was three years old. We used to stay in the western part of Ahmedabad, a neighbourhood called Kendriya Karamchari Nagar in Naranpura, close to Ranna Park and Bhuyangdev. I stayed there till 1992.
Naranpura is a very old area. So, the kind of architecture there was then was very different from that in the old city. But our connection to the old city was very strong. We used to buy vegetables in bulk from there for daily consumption. All the festival clothes and kites for Uttarayan were bought from there. We knew the old city as a place where one could go shopping. Some of our friends stayed there, so there was this connection.
In 1987, I joined the school of architecture at CEPT University. So, our exposure to the old city increased. We would go for site visits there and revive the connections. There were students who came from the old city as well, which really pulled us back to the old city.
AP: In what ways has the festival evolved?
ST: Back in the day, before Uttarayan we would celebrate katal ki raat (the ultimate night), the festival eve, on the 13th of January. In those days, we would buy kites in bulk. It was an event. We used to live in an apartment block with about 12 families. A group of enthusiasts would go to the old city together to stock up on kites. Kids would go there sitting on their fathers’ shoulders to get a good view of the whole place amidst the crowd. All the mothers in our building would get together in one house and start preparing chikki and other snacks in bulk.
The following day, the whole society would be on the terrace from five o’clock in the morning. We went to the old city less often because the neighbourhood at Sola, with its lower, higher and middle-income group housing, was huge and resembled the old city. These older neighbourhoods were like small replicas of the pols except that the streets were laid out and planned differently. Uttarayan went on this way for us until 1993 when we moved to Vastrapur.
These days, we do not buy kites from the old city. There are markets here (in the new part of the city) and it has become difficult to go to the old city because of traffic. Things have changed since the 1980s. Earlier, Uttarayan would start a week earlier for children. It would be announced by the availability of sugarcane. These days, sugarcane is available throughout the year. People have started getting everything all year round which has made things lose their relevance.
When we were children, we would buy kites from the local market a fortnight before Uttarayan and fly them every day after coming back from school. Although the festival is celebrated on 14th and 15th of January, kite flying, for us, would begin before and extend beyond these days.
Nowadays, people are busier and buy snacks from small cottage industries that have cropped up. This change happened over 2000 to 2004. This preparing for festivals such as Diwali and Uttarayan beforehand was a tradition that was there till the 1990s. After that, it faded. I do not see it anywhere in the newer areas of the city.
AP: What are the activities other than kite flying that are typical in the old city during Uttarayan?
ST: Uttarayan is not only about kite flying. The whole climate changes. The winds change. The food eaten also changes. Culturally, the month before Uttarayan, i.e. from 15th December to 15th January, is considered as a ka-mahurat [inauspicious time] for weddings. People usually use this time to prepare for the wedding season that follows the ka-mahurat and are typically seen shopping in the old city during these days.
December is also a time when people settled abroad visit their loved ones. So, in many ways, Uttarayan is not just kite flying. Many of these layers get added.
AP: How important is the physical setting of the old city for the celebration of this festival for you?
ST: When during non-festive seasons you go to the old city, terraces are generally empty. But during festivals such as Diwali and Uttarayan, it is transformed with food and celebrations. Whatever you need is close by. In the new city, even if you go up and fly a kite you do not feel like you have taken part in any activity. But in the old city, the whole environment resonates with festive fervour. The neighbourhoods are like streets. The terraces are connected and become sort of elevated streets, with people jumping from one terrace to another. Of course, there are accidents and issues but those accidents happen during Uttarayan in the new city as well, where these concerns have made the celebrations exclusive to families. The old city has still managed to remain more public—openness and acceptance is much more. The tolerance for noise levels and people messing up the neighbourhood during festivals is also more. People are more accepting and accommodating. Expats come back during Uttarayan. NRIs extend their holidays till Uttarayan. Outsiders are easily included. So, this is how the old city becomes a magnet for us despite issues of space and safety.