“Zameen Hamari Jaan Hai”, a play performed by artists from the Kathputli Colony, highlights the struggles that this slum faces today

We’ve praised them, sat in the audience and gasped at their talent, and we’ve steeped them in trophies, certificates and interviews. It's strange then, how our very applause seems to have drowned out their voices.

Last Friday, though, the artists from Kathputli colony spoke, and this time, they didn’t put up a play about kings and queens; didn't entertain us with their magic tricks and music. They spoke about themselves, and they spoke about a city that has served them poverty and hardship on a deceptively shiny platter. The play, “Zameen Hamari Jaan Hai” (This Land is our Life) presented facts instead of fiction, and spun reality instead of dreams. Performed by a group of young performers from Kathputli colony, and directed by Dakxin Bajrange from the Budhan Theatre in Ahmedabad, the play showcased everything that the colony’s artists have to offer, and fear losing.

Presented in May Day Bookshop & Café’s Studio Safdar, the play underlined the daily dilemma, confusion and fear that now clouds life in the colony. For 50 years, these travelling artists — traditional puppeteers, street magicians, acrobats, jugglers, contemporary dancers and rappers — have made Shadipur’s Kathputli colony their home, and today it teeters on the brink of demolition.

Under the Delhi Master Plan 2021 and its in-situ rehabilitation program, residents of slums are moved to transit colonies while the Delhi Development Authority, along with a builder, reconstructs the area. These slum-dwellers are then supposed to be rehabilitated in their new, improved houses. Kathputli Colony was selected as the first site to undergo this transformation and transit camps built at Anand Parbat.

And while the deal seems simple and even beneficial, it's translation to paper has been anything but, with numerous fine print clauses. A few families have already shifted to the camps, but a large number of residents remain unsure of the move, and suspicious of getting their land back. A large number of them also find their names left out of the survey that lists out the residents eligible for a space in the transit camp.

Highlighting the near opaque processes, behind the scene bribes, daily heckling and the residents’ baffled helplessness, the play was composed of vignettes — a wife's argument with the husband who won’t move to the transit camps, the barging goons who threaten and bully, the overarching figure of the builders and contractors, symbolised as a giant, black-robed puppet. It’s interesting how the word perfect performers had no real script to work with, relying solely on their own experience and 10 days worth of rigorous practice.

“Not a word has been put to paper. The last part I improvised during the performance,” said Bajrange, adding that it was the end of the play that threw him and the actors. “Till May 7, there was a lot of confusion about what would happen in the end. I talked to the actors and the artists, discussing it with them. The play is an attempt to say the things through art that we can’t seem to say in real life. It’s a play that needs to be performed multiple times within the artists’ community, as well as outside it.”

And while inconclusive, the play’s end spelt both revolt and strength. The slogan, “Ladenge, Jeetenge” (We will fight, and we will win”) echoed, the fists hit the air, and the grim, determined faces of the young people from the colony were the last thing you saw before the lights faded. This is probably the only way the play could have ended, pumping more hope into a struggle that still continues, its own end nowhere in sight.

It is this struggle that people such as Dunu Roy of the Hazards Centre have joined, offering both expertise and on-ground help. Roy, in a discussion that followed the play, said that the paperwork involved in the demolition process has been confusing, with different versions of both demolition receipts and agreements in circulation.

Puran Bhatt, the colony’s resident Sangeet Natak Award recipient and a renowned puppeteer explained the reason behind the artists’ reluctance to move to the camp. “Someone who doesn’t know who we are and how we live will probably think us stupid and uneducated. We live in small, cramped houses in slums, and we get offered high rise flats instead. Why won't we move? Our problem is that our art, our livelihood, travels with us wherever we go. In the small space the transit camps offer, in those 30 metres flats with their fibre walls, we won't even be able to fit our equipments and tools.”

Offering a solution, Bhatt said that converting the Kathputli colony to a heritage site will offer both protection to the residents, as well as a destination for tourists to observe traditional artists at work. “Instead, you want us to move for 2 years, and you don’t care about our art form. Fine. We will move, but then offer us jobs so we can sustain ourselves without our craft.”

A job is not on the list, though, and neither is a small stage for practice, or a school for the over 7000 children from the colony. “Those camps offer us spaces that our art can't survive in. But already they have started misguiding our people. They offer us money, tell us that we will get 20,000-25,000 rupees if we put our thumbprint on receipts that say we are demolishing our houses and moving out. But these papers don't say where we are going, and who is taking us there,” Dilip Bhat, the colony’s head, said.

With its open drains and narrow lanes, the crowded houses and potholed roads, Kathputli colony has not been the most comfortable home to these artists. But it has been a home, one where they have created a life for themselves and their work. Its demolition is technically supposed to spell a better life for its residents, and yet, it’s their voices that have risen to protest the move, and their art that is under threat.