Poush ends with Shakrain, the annual Festival of Kites. With its rooftop parties, soaring kites, and firebreathers, Shakrain is not only one of the craziest days in our calendar but also one of our oldest celebrated.
Aptly taking place in the historic old city of Dhaka, it remains one of the few “fests” here that don’t require a National ID, seven online forms worth of registration, or queuing through half-hearted security screenings.
Like many of our more primal pastimes, all you need is the right rooftop.
Ode to Old Town
I’m new to Puran Dhaka. Its history and grandness, up until now, eluded me. We have no idea exactly where to go or what to expect, let alone how to find a rooftop we could access.
Mr. Shakti, an old town local, kindly agreed to meet and guide us through our kite festival adventure. But here’s the catch: we had to find him first.
We wait for him inside the Puran Dhaka KFC in Narinda as directed. Except he is nowhere to be found. My compatriots restlessly try Shakti’s phone. Our photographer taps her DSLR.
We are losing daylight.
Shakrain takes place in a handful of Puran Dhaka neighbourhoods including Shakharibazaar, Lakkhibazaar, and Gandaria, where the Hindu zamindars once prevailed – joyously celebrating the spring harvest with ceremonious kites.
The zamindars of olden days are now long gone, but Shakrain lives on as glorious as ever. Of course, none of this matters with us confined in a Puran Dhaka KFC (which is actually exactly like any other KFC, frankly I don’t know what I was expecting).
One of us (I would like to think me) finally breaks the silence.
“Guys, we’re in Puran Dhaka, the skies are filled with kites and fireworks and we’re sitting here inside a KFC.”
The traffic has already set us back. Waiting around is not an option. In a jolt of proactiveness we leave KFC’s crispy confines for a dingy nearby stairway looking for a roof. A little scary, but we aren’t chicken.
Kites, Lights, and Love Songs
Climbing up the dark shanty nine storeys worth of steps with increasing panic I wonder if we are even allowed here. A string of characters both before us and behind us clamour up the stairs with violent enthusiasm.
What makes Shakrain so special?
Yes, it’s a celebration of springtime, but what does it mean to people personally? A group of lanky teenagers spot us behind them, and quickly hide an odd-smelling bottle. I grow even more uneasy, are we even welcome here?
We are on a relatively small roof with an impressively hefty sound and lighting system. Groups of friends greet each other, groove to the music, and let loose while kites soar, flying on taut lines.
The kites are simple. Plainly coloured. Timid patterns. Collectively, they bless the sky with complex patterns and hues. Cloth birds gone amuck.
A timid young man takes the mic. His rendition of Nitol Paye is the first thing we hear blasting across the roof on finally reaching the top.
Tumi ki amar bondhu, aaj keno bojhoni
Tumi ki amar bondhu, keno bhalobashoni
Another young man soon takes over, demanding the attention of both friends and strangers lounging around the roof.
“Hey everyone, I’ll be singing a song for my wife, we’ve been married three months. Look there she is!”
He giddily points at her and everyone’s eyes follow. She blushes profusely, scowling at him for bringing on the unwanted attention.
Throughout the song she gestures him to stop. And yet when he finally does after a few heartfelt verses she scowls even more.
“Why’d you stop, hm? Everyone was listening!”
The singer, Saem, runs a cosmetics business alongside his education.
“I don’t live in Puran Dhaka but my cousin’s house is nearby. I celebrate Shakrain every year, but this is my first time here with my wife,” he explains later with a big smile.
He introduces us to his wife and cousins. His wife is excited seeing him being interviewed.
“Look, you’re a celebrity now,” she grins.
The music, leisurely crowd, and lovely confessions of newlyweds leave us with an extremely relaxed sense of familiarity, as if Shakrain is the epitome of the living breathing impromptu rooftop adda.
Rooftops have a unique place in our culture. With time, our parks feel unsafe and coffee house hangouts grow overpriced, yet rooftops remain the simple and convenient solution to a good time – the literal height of urban Bangali recreation.
We fall in love on roofs, we reminisce, we rejoice. We bond, break up, contemplate life and sometimes death. Every roof with a gathering or even a single person tells a story no matter how mundane it looks like from a distance.
Absorbing the Old Dhaka skyline, you see every roof in the neighbourhood afire with colour, chaos, and sound, as if an ode to every rooftop all year round.
A few fly their kites with intense concentration near the edge.
“I couldn’t come here for the last few years. The building was closed because of some ganjam,” explained Niloy Sarker, a ninth grader from St. Gregory School.
Niloy can’t remember how or when he learnt to fly kites, it’s just something he does.
“Elders, kids, women, this comes as naturally to them as spinning a top or playing ludo,” another local later explained.
“This and pigeons. We’re really into pigeons too.”
Shakrain is the only day of the year Niloy gets any practice. With school and high school chores there’s never any time. Today he had rushed to the rooftop the moment school ended at 4 PM.
As big as Shakrain is in Old Dhaka, it’s no day off.
When our guide finally meets us, we follow him through the meandering old town streets, busy with city hustle. Life goes on, work goes on. Everyone celebrating makes time within their busy schedules. This is why the festival is celebrated both on Thursday and Friday for those who can’t get off before the weekend.
Shakrain isn’t extravagance. It’s not an escapist vacation. It’s finding the little moments of fire and levity within the platitudes of life.
“There’s been a change of plans. I’m taking you to a different rooftop” our guide says whizzing through the streets. I ask why, trying to catch up.
He turns back with a smile.
“We found a bigger party.”
The Roof is on Fire
Fireworks, fire breathers and fanush (which just sounds so much cuter than lantern), Shakrain only gets crazier as night falls. Some of the residual flames from the lanterns come down unexpectedly so I have to stay vigilant. One such fireball almost strikes me. Dodged a bullet there.
Speaking of bullets, there are men firing shotguns into the air on one side of the roof — actual shotguns blasting away merely inches from a group of elderly men hypnotically dancing.
Another side of the roof’s many semi-partitions host the more self-conscious teenagers and jolly children. This side’s high-end DJ set up plays Gangnam Style, item-song dubstep remixes, and Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life”. You know, the classics.
“That’s Shakrain 2016,” explains Hasib Ahmed pointing at the latter partition.
We have the perfect view of the entire roof from our elevated vantage point, the chhaader chhaad if you may.
“The kites can be bought ready-made now. Disco lights, sound systems, they’re just as important. And the neighborhood kids manage it all themselves.”
The making of the kites themselves was always a ritualistic meditative Shakrain tradition ever since the zamindar days. Kite fighting requires specific abrasive lines coated with shards of glass. These days the kites and kite fighting are only part of the festival.
“Upwards of 2 to 3 lakhs can be spent for each roof set up. This one? Probably more than 5.
“Our people spend more here than they do on Eid. The local politicians and leaders pay for it,” Hasib explains.
While many romanticise Puran Dhaka as unchanging and historic, Shakrain continues to evolve with the times. Yet you’ll be hard pressed to find corporate sponsors or big brands dominating this huge celebration. The festival has a distinctly incorruptible homeliness which remains at its heart.
Shakrain has upgraded without selling out.
“Whose roof is this?”
“We don’t know, none of us know.” Hasib and others around him break out into laughter.
“Today, it doesn’t matter. Every roof that stays locked up all year round is open tonight, and everyone’s welcome.”
Welcome. That’s the word.
The singular feeling that the open roof parties of Shakrain evokes. Shakrain is like Eid, but every roof is Westin. It’s like the crazy Gaye Holud you can’t crash, because it’s already an explosion.
Despite the gun-toting shows, the rampantly intoxicated old men, and clusters of dancing strangers, you can’t help but feel welcome in this secular communal celebration.
And it’s a welcoming glimpse into a magnificent part of town rich with history and booming culture.
“Where are you from?” Niloy, the little eighth grade kite-flier asked me, right before I left the first roof-party.
“Oh, uhh, I’m from Dhaka.” I wasn’t expecting a question back.
“This is Dhaka too you know,” he said, eyes never leaving the sky.
Photo Source: Rittika Ali.