Shadipur Depot in Delhi, the landmark Kathputli colony of puppeteers, musicians, magicians, jugglers and other folk artists and performers from Rajasthan who have participated in and represented India’s art and culture in practically every Festival of India all over the world, is in the process of being handed over by the Delhi government to real estate agents. They, in the name of development, will demolish the whole area and rebuild. Puran Bhaat, the much famous master puppeteer and puppet theatre director hailing from the Bhaat community of Shadipur Depot says that this would spell the end of their art for they earn their living out of daily tourist visits to Shadipur Depot to watch them perform.
The question then, development for whom and how rebuild? Development of the land and the area for one, since in place of an urban slum posh high-rises and apartments for sale will come up. Development of the community of artists as well, since they will be placed in flats and apartments in chawl-like spaces surrounding the posh high-rise areas, along with ownership rights where they now have none. From horizontal to vertical, from a village-like sprawling living area of one storied buildings in an area of bad sewage to flats and apartments—though still along the model of the urban poor.
This, a fall out of land greed, cannot be called development for the community of artists that live in Shadipur Depot, says Anurupa Roy, the General Secretary of the India chapter of UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionette). Real development, she says, would have been the fixing of the bad sewage and improving the sanitation of Shadipur Depot, planning education programs for the young (many of them are still illiterate) and giving them managerial training in running their own shows. The traditional or folk arts of India and much of South Asia are in a disappearing mode because of the loss of environments that can sustain the artists. Eight villages in Odisha have lost all their traditional puppeteers. Of a once thriving community of puppeteers in Tamil Nadu, now only one survives. This is the story of many other parts of India as well. Sustainable development for the artist means the sustaining of his or her environment of work and living space. Building the colony into an art village would be real development, and its very doable, says Anurupa Roy. Watching a Kathputli show in Shadipur Depot, she says, is not the same as watching a Kathputli show in a five star hotel. Shadipur Depot as a performance space is irreplaceable.
Shadipur Depot is a livelihood space for the puppeteers and other performance artists. It combines the living space and the work place. Foreign tourists come here to watch them perform on the rooftops of their one storey houses, in open spaces within Shadipur Depot and in the large workshop where they make their puppets and hold performances. When they are not touring abroad for any festival or not organising a rare show in Delhi or other part of the country, the performances they hold for foreign tourists within Shadipur Depot is their sole source of income. For them, like many surviving folk performance artists of India, government grants lacking and their value in local markets being low, foreign tourists continue to be the prime source of income. Save for Roysten Abel’s film and plays (Love, a Distant Dialogue, A Beggar’s Opera amongst others) there is not much engagement with this aspect of our folk even though it is such an overwhelming reality of their lives.
Moving into flats, apartments, high rises would thus mean for the Shadipurwallahs the death of their living space and their environment that sustains their art by drawing their audience. There are other reasons too why Puran Bhaat would not want to see himself and his fellow artists move into apartment buildings. In a June 2013 interview with art journal Marg Puran Bhaat says that not apartment buildings, but an open space like Dilli Haat conducive for living and performing is what the Shadipur Depot artists and other artists who come from villages need to survive as artists in urban areas. He too, like Anurupa Roy, supports the idea of an artist’s village which, besides living areas, performance spaces and large workspaces, eateries and restaurants for tourists as small businesses run by the youth will have an exhibition hall of photographs, stories and videos featuring the extraordinary lives of the community’s artists and their performances all over the world. The 45 five years old history of Shadipur Depot itself is unique, with gypsy artists having pitched their tents first in Delhi, followed by make-shift structures built by their own hands and years later the one storey buildings coming up.
The artist’s village is not such an impossible thing to build. In Tagore’s Shantiniketan such a place thrives, providing art markets for bauls and other arts and crafts, drawing people from all over the world. More artist’s villages would provide art markets and environments for our traditional artists or folk artists who are unable to survive in a world looking at a uniform idea of development. And if Slumdog Millionaire, the billion dollar shame India project could give rise to slum tourism or shame tourism in this country, why not give art villages as sites of great nurturing and more imaginative spaces of tourism, a chance? An art village in the middle of Delhi would be such a unique thing says Anurupa Roy. It would draw many, locals as well as foreign tourists. Besides, as in the case of Shadipur Depot, why will it not be treated as a place of history and why will its inhabitants who have through their art represented our country all over the world, not be treated as valued citizens, the survival of whose art should be especially considered?