As people from supposedly the world’s largest street performers' colony shift to the transit camp at Anand Parbat, R.V.SMITH relates the story of their ancestors arriving there
The Kathputli Colony at Pandav Nagar, off Patel Nagar, is in the news because its inhabitants are being “temporarily” uprooted so that 2,800 small flats could be built there for them and the rest of the area used for other development projects. The Kathputli colony, which bears a striking resemblance to Kathputli town on the way to Jaipur, came into being in the 1950s when the longest route bus no. 9 from Kingsway Camp used to end in the vicinity at Shadipur after its extension from the original end-point, Reading Road (now Mandir Marg). It is worth recalling that the ground occupied by the colony was once part of the Chauhan Rajput stronghold as it was there that the remnants of Prithviraj’s clan had holed up during the initial years of the Delhi Sultanate following Rai Pithora’s defeat in the second battle of Tarain. In those days there was no Karol Bagh but the area beyond the Jhandewalan temple was protected by the Ridge, which served as a barrier to the expansion of the Sultanate. It was from here that Prithviraj Chauhan’s son-in-law marched to engage the new rulers in a ferocious battle near what is now Pusa Institute and in which he was unfortunately killed, after which his wife, Bela committed sati. Bela-ka-Mandir was one of the famous temples built by her father in Jhandewalan but the exact spot of her samadhi is not known though it is believed to have been on the mound above the Panchkuian Road cremation ground.
When the nomads from Rajasthan occupied the vacant land that was to become their colony some 60 years ago it was not as if they were trying to reclaim the places associated with the Chauhan Rajputs, who ruled from both Delhi and Ajmer. The reason was that there was no hindrance to their camping there as it was outside the city limits. However one attraction was that trains to Jaipur and other Rajasthan cities passed that way and fed the nostalgia for their erstwhile habitation. One remembers cycling to the colony — not known as Kathputli then — from Regharpura, where the Reghars or dealers in skins engaged in shoe-making, had settled down. The Reghars were the camp followers of armies engaged in internecine battles during the twilight of the Mughals, though some think even earlier. After the battle they would skin the carcasses of animals and also allegedly plunder whatever they could. The Reghars like the residents of Kathputli colony, also had a Rajasthani link. The puppets were not all Dhola-Maru and the blind camel stuff. There were those of Rajput rajas and chieftains like Alha-Udhal, also those of Pathan and Mughal rulers and of Anarkali and Salim. Comic characters in the form of the dhobi and dhoban and the Tees Mar Khan (who killed 30 flies and gained the hand of the king’s daughter as her father thought that he had slain 30 warriors.) A touching scene was of the washerwoman weeping for her husband, carried away by a crocodile.
At dusk the puppeteer arrived with his wife and child, still not weaned, and set up a cot covered with a sheet, placed a lantern in front of it and the tamasha began, with the audience seated all around and the wife playing the dholak, while her husband played the flute or tateeri, besides juggling the puppets. One of whom kept up the refrain, “Thodi, thodi aur bajeygi” (I’ll play a bit more). The most popular puppet was Amar Singh Rathore, who had defied the might of Shah Jahan at the royal court by slaying Salabat Khan, Nur Jahan’s kinsman through he lost his life too, along with that of the horse on which he had jumped over the walls of the Agra Fort.
There was a comely daughter of a puppeteer who was much sought after by young men of her tribe with a roving eye. She eloped with one of them but he ditched her and so also two others after him. Eventually she married an elderly man and had children but lost the voice she had become famous for. Meena, sans beauty and her honeyed voice, used to blame a filmmaker. “He stole my ‘awaaz’ while recording the (rehashed) song “Taqdeer ka fasana”, she lamented.