Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Kites: Aviary, Operations and Release

Saud operates on a black eared kite

Nadeem and Saud have invited me home to observe their days work at the kite rescue centre. The day starts on the roof, cleaning the open aviary. I barely have time to make a quick sketch before Nadeem hurries me downstairs past the rooms where Saud lives with his family and to the basement. The basement garage is also the heart of their family business, I greet a couple of men squat on the floor merrily constructing soap dispensers before Nadeem beckons me into his office. I find a space behind the door, and a chair below a white board displaying a chart of details for the latest inpatients. At a desk below a window looking onto the 'factory floor' sits the vet. He has come to carry out autopsies, but is presently writing in a large ledger that the brothers keep for recording all the birds that pass through their doors. As I wait, my attention is drawn to a soft mewing coming from a plastic lidded cat box. Opening it I find a black winged kite, half the size of it's black cousin. The office is cramped and when Saud and Nadeem enter the kite gets passed around to make more space. Once settled, I draw it, a juvenile brought in 10 days ago and needing regular feeds through a syringe. The autopsies begin, two kites and a brown fish owl, the former died from food toxicity. As Saud leads me out I notice another cage in the office, three kites, one has died over night Saud explains, as he removes the rigid paper light corpse.

After lunch with the family, we are up in the rooftop aviary again. Nadeem, Saud and cousin Salik are assessing the fitness of some kites they hope to release. Saud measures the birds and assesses general look of fitness, before Salik lets them fly from his hands. 4 flop to the ground after a limp flight, 3 make it with powerful flight to the end of the cage. Nadeem videos them, an important documentation of how treated kites recover their ability to fly. We drive three cardboard boxes, each containing a kite to their release site. A tranquil spot near a meandering river on a still evening with a pink blushed sky, music wafting from a nearby temple. The kites are one by one placed on the ground and fly up into the sunset. I thought this would be a fitting end to the days work, but was soon to discover Saud and Nadeem's work had barely begun.

Back at home, we are in the office again and Saud is preparing to operate on 6 kites and a barn owl rescued that day. He tells me this is a normal intake during this the slow off season time of year. 3 of the kites are euthanased another three have a good chance of recovery after operation. Over the years the brothers have struggled to find vets with the level of expertise to operate on bird wings, since there is little commercial call for such work. Instead the brothers have learnt to carry out operations themselves. Five years ago they made the decision that Saud should focus on this work, gaining the most experience to now do all the operations. Their expertise in operating on bird wings, is now greatly valued with professionals seeking their advice on best practice. It is 7pm when the first bird is anaesthetised and Saud begins work. Each bird has a wing injury caused by collision with manja kite thread and each operation takes about an hour of hard concentration. Saud describes the injury of the last bird to be operated on, a black eared kite. Tendons and one of its two biceps in the right wing have been severed entirely, the wound is about 12 days old and the bicep has dried up. Saud deftly stitches the severed bicep muscle, hopefully once recovered it will have enough power in the remaining bicep to fly. The wing is bandaged closed and numbered before the kite is placed in a small cage to recover. The days work complete at around 10pm, we head out to attend a family wedding ceremony near Jama Masjid. Saud stays home, to recover from an illness he has struggled with all day.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Ghazipur Kite Roost.

Returned to the fish market today with M. My main focus is the road outside the market entrance in the afternoon. Here the sheer number of kites crisscrossing the sky as they fly to and from roosts and feeding sites mirrors the buzz of activity around the road. There is an impromptu market of food stalls and livestock sellers drawing a busy crowd whilst rows of taxiwallas spill out onto the busy Delhi suburb commuter roads at this major junction. Painting draws a mammouth crowd and most of my work is done looking over heads and gaps between waves of fresh onlookers.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Kites of Ghazipur

Ridge of 200 foot rubbish tip in Ghazipur

Today I met Nadeem and Saud, two remarkable brothers who have dedicated their lives to rescuing and rehabilitating Delhi's injured black kites. They save many of the huge number of kites injured daily in Delhi, the majority from collisions with toy kites used in the hugely popular game of kite flying and fighting. In kite fighting, flyers have traditionally used manja, a thread coated in powdered glass which enables opponents to slice loose each others kites. This practice has proofed lethal to birds, especially kites, since they fly at low levels through the streets scavenging for food, making them especially prone to collision with the manja threads. Nadeem and Saud found their first injured kite as young boys. Overtime their compassion and determination has led them to grow a rescue centre caring for hundreds of injured birds within the 3 rooms and rooftop of their home, which also houses their small family business. The use of manja was outlawed in India two years ago after several people, including two toddlers were killed by loose threads. Its use however remains prevalent on the streets of Delhi. During the height of the summer kite flying season the brothers expect to house on average, 300 injured black kites in their rooftop aviary.

Nadeem and Saud pick me up in Old Delhi and we make our way out of town, heading East in Saud's Golf. It's an exciting half hour drive for me as I look forward to visiting a place I've wanted to set foot in since my first tantalising glimpses of it from the highway, on first arriving in India. The most obvious landmark in this place is a rubbish dump which has grown into a staggering 200 feet high. A reasonable sized hill in a flat landscape, a Bass Rock built of rubbish. Directly to the North at the foot of the dump is Delhi's main fish market. A little further East, there is a meat market and processing site, the largest in India. With India remarkably being the largest exporter of beef in the world this site is huge. The whole area, unsurprisingly is a magnet for avian scavengers, especially black kites as well as most noticeably, Egyptian vulture and egret in far fewer numbers. Kites in their thousands powder off the distant ridges of the dump, playing with the thermals. A sight no different at distance to the majestic spectacle of a Celtic seabird colony in the height of the breeding season. Kites at a nearer distance swirl in shoals that tighten and dissipate, then reform again in an unfathomable yet fluid dance; an avian tribute to the silver bodies now lying in lifeless regimented formation on the market slabs below. On the ground, every space on every substrate, pylon to rooftop is taken up by the dark body of a black kite. All in all the number of kites visible is in the tens of thousands. This number is at its highest around now as migratory birds swell the local ranks, even so, Nadeem tells me this market complex built 10 years ago to replace the burgeoning markets of Old Delhi, is most likely a major factor in the boom of Delhi's kite population over the last 20 years (concurrently the resident vulture population has crashed).

Morning: Ghazipur Fish Market

We park the car in a far corner behind the main fish market, beneath the shadow of the vast landfill. The market compound is set lower than the surrounding area, concrete walls hold back the steeply rising dump beyond. The roughly tarmacked ground beyond the car is saturated with oily blood slick puddles, heaps of discarded fish waste glisten pink, silver and lime green. The floor slippery with a film of grainy fish oil as I step from the car. Inside the market men (it's all men) deftly clean and fillet fish on cleavers planted at right angles in the ground between their crouched knees. There service is apart from the sellers who are numerous, there wares spilling out onto the narrow single file walkway around this maze of aquatic bounty; huge rows of tuna, alien headed dolphin fish, glittering blue barracuda, pretty star shaped fish, milky white ones, piles of bait and barrels of riving catfish and the sad sight of limp foot long sharks amongst many more unidentifiable produce. I leave Nadeem and Saud searching for tonight's supper and fish for a recently rescued painting stork, to head back to the dumping site where we parked. Amongst the constantly replenished fish waste, scavengers, human and avian pick their opportunity to salvage what they can before diggers scrape the site clean. A teenage boy tears scraps of flesh from fish spines that others see no value in dealing with. He carries them away, perhaps to re-sell or simply for his own sustenance. A dozen kites swoop and dive between this activity, choosing morsels on the wing. Many more kites and a good number of egret languidly survey the gluttonous feast from perches along the wall and undulating market rooftop.

Afternoon: Ghazipur Landfill Summit.

We drive to the summit of Ghazipur's 200 foot dump, Saud's golf sliding on the hairpins as the tyres break the dry crust and slip on the decomposing rubbish. Two thirds of the way up we pass through a smog and dust cloud entering a new and strange environment, an apocalyptic wilderness with its own microclimate it seems. All along the barren moon scape ridges and craters of the summit, perch black kites and vultures, hundreds more soar along the updrafts. I paint a privileged areal view of Delhi in this throat clogging atmosphere, between rise and fall of dust clouds kicked up by passing dumpers. The truck drivers wear an expression of constant amazement and amusement, a reaction I think to the terrifying, dystopian world their work occupies. A monument to the madness of humanity.

Evening: Open Aviary

Saud and Nadeem invite me home. We sit in the family home as Saud's two year old presents Mark and I with a welcoming parade of his entire fleet of toy trucks and cars laid out on the mats in front of us. After coffee in the cool room, I am taken for my first look at the aviary on the roof. Around sixty black and black eared kites as well as half a dozen Egyptian vultures and a painted stork are in residence. The brothers clean the cage, water and feed the birds. The painted stork takes the fish, feeding for the first time since its arrival without assistance. As dusk falls a couple more kites fly into the aviary through its open roof. Once they can, the kites are free to fly in and out, eventually they are taken further afield to be released.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Delhi Kite Residency

I spent the first week of my eleven day residency in Delhi, exploring and locating places to work for a project documenting the natural history of urban black kites. In particular the unique bond between Delhi's kites and the multifaceted communities of this richly layered city. Painting in Delhi is a challenge in itself, magnified beyond anything I have previously dealt with by the intensity of the crowds, streets exhausted of all space, the unfailing curiosity and regular confusion or angst of the locals who happen upon me. These are however, elements of the overwhelming chaos that appeals. Every direction I look in this city I find another big subject crammed with information, not least the skies of wheeling kites in their hundreds even thousands. I arrived imaging large paintings and drawings, attempted several, some with success such as in the relatively peaceful space of Lodhi Gardens. Here a dead tree stands majestically filled with roosting kites, as spectacular and precious a relic in my eyes as the Moghul tombs that give this space its name. Other key locations, such as Jamal Masjid proofed harder, since large canvases create a spectacle, turning quiet observation into performance and expectation. I tried several strategies, at one point I located to a hotel roof where I thought I'd find peace, but became hostage to the manager who expected me to paint his mosque in beautiful detail for his website. I collected only a few sketches of tantalising street views and kites close enough to touch (some swiping my head expecting food) before escaping.Two significant developments came mid to me at this time, first when I made contact with two brothers who were to help me access incredible insights into the Delhi kites. The second came as a simple realisation to work small.

I set out today lighter than recent after making a decision last night to standardise the format of my drawings to an equal size, roughly A4. I thought this should proof more manageable on location and it also fits my new ideas for exhibiting the project. Keen to get out early, way before the served breakfast, I fortified myself with kettle boiled eggs and bread. Walking down the long tree lined drive, prepares me for the days onslaught. The traffic of course, as ever, was ceaseless when I reached MG road, though I have started to notice a few regulars around this time who brighten my dawn march down the dual carriageway to Arjangarh metro. The determined jogger in respiration mask pounding through the mist, he overtakes me around about the lonely furniture shop each morning, the bikes that travel the other way, so deeply laden with potted plants they appear rider less, steered by marigolds and powered by helaconia quivering on the back seat. Sometimes there is a Nighal (large antelope) or chital grazing behind the wall as I climb the metro station steps. That's the thing about these southern outskirts of Delhi; a few steps away from the clogged highway, conglomeration of hurriedly constructed buildings along it's way, shade of the Metro's looming concrete overhang and shroud of exhaust fumes, the urban decay gives way to large tracts of dry scrubby jungle and settlements resembling village like communities.  

9/12/17, Early Morning: Chatterpur. Painting from the raised Metro station.

A few stops down on the metro, the sun rises over Chatterpur. Black kites lift with the gradually warming air. Commuters emerge onto the street and the roads slowly fill as shadows retreat, noise levels increase. I pass this view every day I travel on the Metro into central Delhi. Invariably I see up to five kites circling this spot, maybe a roost nearby. This Southern area of Delhi, though busy and built up along the arterial road is deeply wooded between the concrete. From above, dry forests seem to stretch vast distances into near wilderness; scrubby trees and bare trees that kites seem to favour as roosts. The impressive temple is Adya Katyani Shakti Peeth, nearby a bright orange Hanuman statue rises above the trees, visible for miles around.

9/12/17, Midday: Meena Bazaar from Jama Masjid.

Looking down and across Meena Bazaar from the steps of Jama Masjid. Food sellers push and park their carts, salesmen spread out their wares on blankets, beckoning crowds. The steps plunge deeper into the permanent market, leading to packed alleyways covered overhead with plastic sheeting that tints the bright sunlight hues of blue, red, yellow, green as it floods the stalls of shoes, clothes, cooking utensils and household products. Beyond these claustrophobic meanderings that sink several levels, cooks line the busy streets leading to the mosques four gateways selling Moguli treats; kebabs of perfectly cubed mutton, biriyanis stirring in huge steel karahis, more mobile sellers hawk sweets, popcorn, kolfi and chai.
Black kites circle above, several hundred strong. They congregate here, since it is where people come to feed them at semi-random locations around the mosque as well as from private rooftops throughout the surroundings of this predominately Muslim area of Old Delhi.

9/12/17, Evening: Lodi Gardens. Sheesh Gumbad Tomb

Black kites lift out of a dead tree to join thousands more flying out of urban areas to roost in Delhi's green spaces. This mass exodus, happens every evening at the moment dusk switches to night, which at this latitude is a clear transition, instantaneous as a blink.