The residents of Kathputli Colony in West Delhi, performers all, wage a battle against their resettlement in the way they know best.
The place is a claustrophobic’s nightmare. Hordes of people —Indians as well as foreigners — are seated on the green carpet waiting for the event to begin. The curious locals, who couldn’t find space inside the small compound, climb atop trees, houses and walls. Never before had their locality seen so many benefactors gathered to watch them perform.
An iron pole, in limbo style, divides the 60 guests (those ‘delegates’ who bought tickets worth Rs.50 each) seated in front and the throng of locality’s residents embellished in colourful dresses, eagerly waiting for their friends and kids to perform in front of the city’s elite. A bunch of SLRs works overdrive, capturing the usual assortment of colours, filled with innocent smiles and genuinely excited faces. A reporter from a prominent news channel urges people to shift so that the cameraman can affix his device at the best possible angle to stream the event — the Kathputli Colony Festival — live. There are two police officers positioned to monitor the crowd, but they are sitting comfortably on chairs specially reserved for them. Unlike other days in the past that have kept them on their toes, today is one of those days when they can relax.
Kathputli Colony is a world-famous but relatively-unknown colony in West Delhi. Only a month ago, in an unprecedented display of courage, the simple people of this colony stood along with life-sized puppets in front of bulldozers that came to shred their shanties to give way to multi-storeyed apartments. Over 3000 families of the colony of puppeteers, magicians, singers, drummers, dancers and acrobats from 13 Indian states have been protesting against the Delhi government’s move to flatten their homes of the past 40 years into a 54-storeyed behemoth with a mall and luxury flats.
According to a deal between the civic body Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and a private developer Raheja in 2007, the government has taken a community-friendly stance to resettle the families, in which residents are to be shifted to transit camps three kilometres away from their current homes until the promised multi-storey one-bedroom flats are constructed for them. However, the agitated residents complain that they were not consulted. The promised flats are less than 25 sq. m. each, a unit so miniscule for a family of six or more that it will be impossible for them to live in, practise their art and for their kids to study in peace at the same time. Most of the residents who are open to shifting don’t want the flats, but just the land, so that they can build more floors for the next generation, besides using the little roofs to practise their art and store their numerous props without disturbing their neighbours. Consider a drummer whose riyaz goes on for eight hours a day or a puppeteer with a 30 ft tall puppet or an acrobat who requires 15 ft stilts to practise; where will all of them find space in an apartment to do what gives them both pleasure and their livelihood?
On March 20, 2014, the Delhi High Court (HC) disposed the petition filed by the residents and an informal organisation ‘Friends of Kathputli Colony’ against the resettlement plan, asking the petitioners to approach the DDA instead. The HC instructed the land-owning agency to re-consider and take a decision within four weeks, besides urging the DDA to take care of the community’s special needs. Seated right in front of the stage, I am amazed at how the residents have channelled their disappointment into what they are best at, their art.
Bhagwan Das, an old man with a dense moustache and a colourful Rajasthani pugaree — reminiscent of Picture Singh, a memorable character in Rushdie’s Midnight Children — takes on the makeshift stage with his harmonium. At 60, Das is a master qawwal and has performed in more than 60 countries across the globe, even having shared the stage with the virtuoso Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on one occasion. In the middle of the song, with one hand playing the harmonium, Das says, “Having migrated from Rajasthan, I have been living in the colony for over 40 years now. Every country I have performed in has welcomed me with open arms; it’s unfortunate that my own country is kicking me out of my home,” and breaks into Amir Khusro’s Chaap Tilak. One of the guests around me, a well-dressed and smartphone-endowed young man in a neat checked shirt, urges me to click a picture of him with the performance in the background. ‘It’s my first time in West Delhi,” he says. I oblige.
Nestled between the Shadipur metro station on one side and the reasonably well-off Patel Nagar on the other, the West Delhi colony, overloaded with colours that once inspired the magician’s ghetto in Midnight’s Children, now stands in complete oblivion from the rest of the city. While the rest of the capital saw meteoric economic and technological rise, the only source of earning for these performers was street performance, which plummeted with the advent of the cable television in the 1990s, followed by the hegemony of the Internet of late. The fortunate ones with better networks managed to find audiences abroad, while the rest struggle to make their ends meet on the streets of Delhi, performing for the usually indifferent crowd.
Today is their day; they have never had so many spectators before. The sight makes them nervous when they are asked to speak but, when it comes to performance, they are jaw-dropping. The performers range from excellent dancers Rahul Bhat and 15-year old Kusum, gifted khartal (two wooden pieces used for percussion) player Kailash Bhat, acrobats Maya and Lakhan to the Guinness Book World Record-holding magician Azeez Khan who regurgitates plum-sized iron balls from his mouth, one after the other, holding the audience hooked with his funny English. The change that the capital underwent has found way into their colony as well, with the younger generation playing the Spanish guitar to accompany popular Bollywood numbers. Poornima Sardana, a NIFT graduate and the mind behind the Festival, says, “The idea of the festival is to make people of Delhi aware about the cultural capital of this colony through the beautiful means of expressions of the artists.” The local artists are complemented by foreign artists who voice their support for the cause bolstering the morale of the locals, despite the inevitability of the eviction.
The unmatched talent of Kathputli Colony makes me envious, and I leave to take a walk through the colony. Little girls in saris, who performed a folk dance a little while ago, surround me, asking in broken English, ‘What’s your name?’ They have been primed by their parents on how to greet the visitors, knowing that many foreigners who support the cause will turn up. The journey from the fragrance of branded perfumes worn by the delegates seated next to me to the nauseating stench of the squalor inside the colony is rather unpleasant. Walking past the lanes infested with flies and the dingy open drains that runs by, I encounter small dark homes hidden by curtains that seem unwashed for years. I wonder why anyone would want to live in this mess.
I look over their terraces where puppeteers, acrobats and musicians rehearse; there are gigantic set-ups of drums and puppets lying there. It is deserted right now, since most are busy performing at the Festival. The houses are conjoined and generally inhabited by joint families, who are in the same business, thus aiding each other. I peer inside one such puppeteer’s house; a curious kid comes out and starts following me, a small puppet limp in his hand. I can imagine two futures awaiting him. One has him pursuing puppetry at peace in this sordid locality, living next to his kin, learning from the masters of the art who live next door. Two, he is constrained by the one-bedroom flat of a small but clean household: a clash of identity that makes him a misfit, embarrassing him every time he goes out to perform on streets.
No wonder, he doesn’t want to become a puppet in the hands of the society.
Harsh Snehanshu is an author and, currently, a Young India Fellow.