Travel Story Artisan colony digs in

Meet the locals battling to retain their home and heritage in Delhi’s Kathputli neighbourhood.

It's a David v Goliath story with an artistic twist. 

For more than 60 years, one impoverished neighbourhood in Delhi has been home to hundreds of street performer families — puppeteers, singers, dancers, musicians, fire breathers and snake charmers.

Now their artistic enclave is set to be bulldozed to make way for new apartments, forcing its residents out of their homes. 

But the performers of Kathputli Colony are not going quietly. Rajinder Kumar, 51, is the patriarch of one of these clans, a puppeteer and dancer who has showcased his skills across the world on tours with Kathputli performance troupes. 

Mr Kumar and his son Arjun welcomed me into their home and spent hours showing me around Kathputli and introducing me to its plucky residents. There is no way to sugar-coat the description of Kathputli. Jammed between a railway line and a busy highway, it is a terribly dirty, dilapidated neighbourhood marred by open sewers, piles of rubbish and exposed electricity wires which hang in reach of children.

Large families of often up to 10 people are wedged into ramshackle homes where they either sleep on the floor or atop thin rubber mattresses beneath jagged tin roofs. Barefoot children in well-worn clothing wander its labyrinthine network of alleys, stepping over broken paving blocks, shattered glass, animal faeces and patches of mud.

It is a run-down, poverty- stricken place you would assume its residents would be desperate to escape. Yet there is fierce pride here. The performers value the camaraderie they have built and the work their predecessors did in forming the community.

While they acknowledge the dire state of their surroundings, they do not believe their circumstances would improve were they to be forcibly relocated. Mr Kumar said his friends and family think that if they were moved they would land in a similarly poor neighbourhood, while losing the strong community spirit which existed in Kathputli.

This is why many of its inhabitants do not want to leave and for years have fought the plans to raze Kathputli. The government agency which controls the land on which Kathputli was built, the Delhi Development Authority, made an agreement in 2009 to allow a property developer to demolish the colony and erect new apartments.

Kathputli residents variously have been told they either would be given new apartments for free, or that they would get favourable rates should they wish to buy or rent one of these new apartments. But first the residents would be required to leave Kathputli for a relocation camp while the apartments are constructed.

Like many people in Kathputli, Rajinder Kumar is sceptical. “You have walked around (and) seen Kathputli now, how poor it is,” he said. “Who can buy or rent a new apartment here? Who has this money? Nobody here. If they give for free, OK, but we don’t believe that. They want us to move away so they (can) build. But maybe they never let us come back ever, so now we don’t leave.”

Kathputli is a Rajasthani word which refers to the string puppet theatres which are famous in the desert state of Rajasthan in India’s west. In the 1950s a group of Kathputli performers moved from Rajasthan to Delhi and set up a makeshift neighbourhood on the western outskirts of the Indian capital.

This became known as the Kathputli Colony and grew steadily in size, slowly transitioning from a cluster of tents to a dense area of concrete buildings. Among the early residents of Kathputli were relatives of Mr Kumar. His family has been involved in performance arts for 65 years.

His father and grandfather both were renowned performers and Mr Kumar shows me the newspaper clippings to prove it. Both were “puppet masters” — the elder man back in Rajasthan, while his father’s skills took him across India as well as to Dubai, France and Italy.

Mr Kumar’s six children have followed suit. Saifu, his 22-year-old son who speaks excellent English, told me he was a drummer and dreamed of touring with bands in the US and Australia. 

Arjun is a drummer too, although he said, in a hushed tone, that he aspired to be a photographer.

“I love Delhi and (my) family but I want to see the world,” Arjun said. 

“That is (my plan) for the future. Now I just help my family and try to keep us happy. This place (Kathputli) doesn’t look nice but it’s home to us. We are proud of Kathputli.”

This sentiment rings true as we meander through Kathputli’s alleyways together. Continually I am stopped and greeted with smiles and handshakes by locals. 

They invite me inside their homes for chai tea or ask me to photograph them. Although I’m carrying a bulky and clearly expensive digital camera, not once does anyone request money from me, as happened commonly in other parts of the city.

Instead of being harassed for “donations” I’m hugged by excitable children, waved at by elderly women and witness to several impromptu performances by puppeteers and dancers. These few hours long will be imprinted in my memory.

Fortunately, it looks as though I may have the opportunity to return one day.

 Almost seven years after it was first slated for destruction, Kathputli is alive and thriving. The project has stalled, according to Indian media reports, because of a lack of trust between the residents and the Delhi Development Authority.

It is a rare victory for people power in a country where developments often are bullied through with no thought to those displaced. “This is our place, not their place,” Mr Kumar said. “We made Kathputli. It is a home for artists. I hope it stays like this.”

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