Everything else.. A Tale of Colombo’s Kite Culture

A Tale of Colombo’s Kite Culture

2020 Aug 5

Weekends in Colombo can be quite eventful and amusing with the city’s weekday energy being transformed into something much more jovial. Among its numerous malls, cafes and other attractions that cater to mostly bourgeois patronage there is one landmark that beckons everyone with a promise of a delightful afternoon.

What started off as a literal playground for the elite, the Galle Face Green has now transformed into one of the most popular locations in the city which attracts thousands upon thousands of visitors to enjoy its cocktail of rich experiences. The aroma of decadent street food, the kites fluttering in the sky and the sound of the crashing waves mixed with the screams of a hundred or so little children make this an experience which is both comforting but at the same time exhilarating. 

However, today my attention tunnelled into one figure who usually blends into the background. Even though he camouflages well into the landscape he is anything but discrete. On the contrary, he is overflowing with colour and attracts a lot of attention, especially if kites are in your mind. Galle Face Green is notorious for being one of the best places to fly kites and these colourful gentlemen are the gatekeepers to an exciting afternoon.

I happened upon Galle Face Green on a Sunday which meant that the local kite (and other knickknacks) vendors were constantly being swarmed by a stampede of eager kids and parents which in a way must have been good for business. That being said, if there’s something I know about business in recreation it is that nothing is constant and with a lockdown inducing pandemic looming all around us I couldn’t help but think what lies inside the kite seller’s wallet.

I knew there was a story waiting to be uncovered. 

A little history

The history of this stretch of land stretches all the way back to the Dutch occupation of the island but it was the British who established this stretch of land as a public space in the 19th century.

Source: http://www.ft.lk/article/493107/Old-world-charm

What we know as Galle Face Green existed through many iterations over the centuries at one point known as the Colpetty Race Course and later being utilised for golf, cricket, tennis and rugby.

Later on, in the 20th century, after a plethora of development projects, the Urban Development Authority preserved this promenade as a public space making it what it is today.

The kites come flying in

Galle Face Green is known to be THE kite flying destination in the city and this is a legacy that has been thriving since the 70s. The annual kite competition was one of the most anticipated and entertaining attractions in the city at the time and to this day kites and Galle Face Green go hand in hand. 

Business has its way of melding and morphing with the tides of society so it’s no surprise that with the public who came to enjoy flying kites came the vendors who sold these to them. One such vendor was Anura with whom I managed to strike up a conversation.

According to my new found acquaintance, kite sellers have been in the Green since the 90s and he himself has been in the business on and off since the early 2000s. For Anura, selling kites on the weekend helped fortify his income with the rest of the week being spent as a janitor. 

The tides of business

“This is not a business I can trust. Everything changes all the time. Sometimes if it rains or if people are scared to go out no one comes here.” – Ismail, kite seller.

According to him most of the vendors who sell kites and other toys have other work and this is mainly due to the fact that business is constantly volatile.

Ismail reminisced of a time where there were vendors who were able to make a living in this trade but for the past decade or so those who do that are few and far between. My visits to Galle Face Green confirmed this statement as I was not able to locate a kite seller when I visited on a weekday.

The sellers usually purchase their items from suppliers in Pettah. So, in a way, they are independent and aren’t bound by any time constraints. From what I was able to gather, this is not their only mode of income but it plays a crucial role in making ends meet. 

The scary ‘C’

Having spent close to three months indoors and only venturing outside for work, the sun and the breeze at Galle Face Green was a nice change but during those months no one really thought about flying kites. According to Anura, last year’s easter attacks and the public unrest that followed created a similar effect and in a way, making them more resilient. That being said, in a time where every penny makes an impact, the loss of income is still felt by these vendors. 

Looking towards the rising sun

The unexpected changes in the last two years are unfortunate, but in the grand scheme of things, they are forces that propel change. And as the way people live and relax, change so will the way these kites sellers do business.

It was noted that a majority of kites are sold to little children and if the young adults of today are an indication, a decrease in interest is inevitable. That being said, I admire the spirit of these men and deep down, I know that they will find a way.

As the sun sets and the promenade gets darker, as the families pack up and start to leave, the kite sellers pack up their merchandise preparing to come back the next day or the next week. Behind the colour and the excitement, there was an intriguing tale and I was glad that I was able to hear it.

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