Urban Kites

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Urban Black Kites of Delhi: SWLA Out of the Frame Exhibition 2018, Mall Galleries

In the Winter of 2018, I spent ten days between December 3rd and 13th painting the urban Black Kites of Delhi. My aim was to observe how this medium sized bird of prey has adapted to Delhi's urban environment and hopefully witness the stories of the people who live with urban black kites in their lives.

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The ever present Black Kites, common in the skies above Delhi, were for me a rare constant in a city of many contrasts. Searching for Black Kites to draw, could in one instance lead me into the commotion of Old Delhi's traffic swamped streets where they circled and jostled for space overhead. In another instance, I could find myself in a tranquil city garden, watching them float over the crumbling ruins of Mogul tombs, crossing flight paths with huge fruit bats in the dusk sky. Travelling to the sprawling concrete outskirts of Ghazipur where Black Kites congregate in their high thousands around the sectors vast markets and slaughterhouses, led me to the furthest extremes of the capital. Here teenagers and children work to salvage what they can from the same piles the Black Kites scavenge. As a distraction they used to inspect the progress of my painting, suggesting improvements for the sky or where to add more 'cheel'; the name used all over India for a Black Kite, taken from the sound of its mewing call. Above Ghazipur's markets, a landfill overfilled and grown into a hill 200 feet high cut an imposing landmark on the skyline. Distant specks of Black Kites powdered off it's peaks and ridges in a way that evokes memories of seabird islands in summer. Its summit is like another planet, swamped in a cloud of noxious smog and dust, Black Kites drifting silently in the oxygen-less soup.

In Delhi a sketch book and pencil is useful for drawing conversation from inquisitive passersby. For this reason my favourite place to work in the capital was around the great mosque, Jama Masjid in the heart of Old Delhi. Members of the community here shared my joy of watching the Black Kites and maintained a tradition of feeding them, which for one man I spoke to was his way of giving back to God.

A Delhi family giving back in a big way are two brothers Nadeem, Saud and their cousin Salik. I visited  them at their family home, a city apartment from where they also run a rescue centre for the Black Kites. Being the guardians of these birds is no mean feat, since Delhi's Black Kite population is in conflict with an altogether different type of kite, the popular paper ones flown competitively all over the city. The low flying, slow manoeuvring Black Kite has a problem with avoiding paper kites. When they collide, the razor sharp string especially designed for competitive kite flying slices their wings. In the early years, Nadeem and Saud struggled to find vets who could treat these injuries, so they began to teach themselves. They have since completed hundreds of wing operations independently, unwittingly becoming authorities on the procedure. I visited the brothers in what they called the slow off season and watched Saud operate until ten at night. Nadeem showed me their rooftop aviary housing 72 injured birds; nothing, he told me, compared to the peak competitive kite flying season when it will house 300 recovering Black Kites at any given moment and, he adds, we never get time for sleep.