Stink, flies and mosquitoes accompany you wherever you go. Children play in heaps of garbage. A tiny lane bisects Kathputli Colony in New Delhi, where magicians, acrobats, puppeteers, jugglers, folk singers, snake charmers, bear handlers and other street performers—largely hailing from different parts of Rajasthan—reside.
The colony, which is now considered prime real estate in the Patel Nagar area of the Capital, is like any other slum in terms of its lack of infrastructure and cramped living quarters. The density of the population—about a thousand families live here—is such that dead bodies have to be carried over roof tops because the alleys are too narrow. Overcrowding, lack of water and sanitation are threatening the health of the population.
But the residents are proud to call it home and rely on the cooperation of their neighbours to sustain their various traditional art forms.
Kathputli Colony is among the Delhi government’s first experiments in the so-called “in situ” development strategy. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has planned a housing scheme which involves temporarily resettling the residents while a high-rise is built where the colony stands now. The artistes have been told that they will be shifted to a nearby transit camp in three months time. But, not all are enthusiastic about this. “It is good if this is being done to improve our conditions,” says Jagdish Bhatt, a puppeteer, “But we’re afraid to let the roof over our heads go.”
Like Jagdish, many others too have doubts whether they will get what has been promised to them. Since the artistes perform in groups, they are also concerned that the demolition of the colony will mark the end of their community. Mukesh Bhatt, a fire-eater, voices his concerns. “I like the idea of having a new home with running water and electricity, but I worry that when the new flats are built there will not be room for everyone or we will have to sell them off and the community will get broken up. People know about this colony and when they need performers they come here to find us. I worry that if we split up, we won’t be able to attract our clientele,” he says.
Thus far, the artistes have been served a bad deal by all concerned, including their tour operators. “We travel abroad often but the remuneration we get is peanuts,” says Ravi Bhatt, a fire-eater who learnt the art at the age of 15. He has travelled the world to perform like several others in Kathputli Colony.
However, given the slum’s poor infrastructure, some are looking forward to the prospect of moving. “The people who visit are surprised that I live in such a place,” says Ravi.
Mukesh speaks for his community when he says that he is unsure what the future holds for them. “I’m hoping this is not the end,” he says, in between puffs of fire.
Photographs by Katharine Sidelnik