Home to well-known practitioners of various traditional art forms, Kathputli Colony’s wait for a better future seems unending

Heaps of garbage, dirt and squalor and a foul smell from standing water in open drains greet you as you enter the Kathputli Colony near Shaadipur depot in the Capital. But once one closes the eyes and nostrils for a while, one can hear music emanating from its narrow lanes and by lanes that house traditional artists and performers. Someone is seen practising songs on a harmonium for a kathputli (puppet) show that he is to present in the evening; a qawwal practising for his performance; a woman making bangles or a magician putting his wares together. Small children are seen playing with tiny musical instruments; for them, these instruments are their toys today and will be the means of livelihood in future.

A puppeteer Kishor Bhatt came to this place as a young boy of 12 years with big dreams from a village in Rajasthan. Today he is 60-years-old. “My life has not changed at all,” he says.

“It is to this place that I came as a young lad with my parents; I am living in the same situation even today. I have been hearing for more than a decade that we will be given a place to live and for our traditional arts to flourish. But nothing has happened so far, we are still living in the midst of garbage. I don’t know whether I will live to see that day. Yes, I have performed in Japan, Bulgaria, Moscow and many other countries but what did I gain? One day we are in a five-star hotel with well-dressed interpreters assisting and escorting us, the next day we come back to this squalor,” says Kishore Bhatt.

Dillip Bhatt, also a puppeteer, is the pradhan of the colony. There are between 1,200 to 1,400 traditional artists, puppeteers, natas, acrobats, jugglers, qawwals, madaris and practitioners of other arts living in this slum colony. They have formed an organisation named Bhule Bisre Kalakar Sehakari Samiti.

“The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) says they will make flats for us in this very colony after demolishing our present structures and accommodate us in some temporary place in the meanwhile. But we want written assurances that we will be rehabilitated here and not elsewhere. Also we do not want flats. We want plots and we will make our little houses on a place we can call our own. We can’t live in flats. We need space for our equipments and a place to rehearse,” Dillip says, adding that they want the DDA to disclose the names in the survey list of the colony to ensure that all of them our accommodated.

“We have filed an RTI to know the exact position but till today, have not received any reply,” he says while tying a pagar (turban) on a young boy who is to perform at a party in the evening.

Mangal Bhatt is a young lad of 17-18 years. He is looking forward to his first visit abroad to South Africa where he will perform as a ‘longman’ as part of a troupe of traditional artists. But he is worried about his own future as well as of the people in this colony. “Every day we hear a rumour that all our jhuggis and houses will be demolished very soon. I don’t know when we will be asked to leave this place. Where are we going to stay?”

Thirteen-year-old Rohit wants to become a musician when he grows up. He plays drums and also works as a domestic help to earn a living. Unlike Mangal, whose age has taught him to worry about the colony’s future, Rohit and his friends still have their hopes and dreams to become stars in the world of arts, even in the midst of despair.

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