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Puppet on a string

Georgina Maddox | Updated on April 17, 2014

Livelihood matters: Puppeteer Jagdish Bhatt, a resident of Kathputli Colony, who has performed across the globe. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

This land is my land: Residents of Kathputli Colony express their anger in logans and protests. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Few takers: The Kathputli Colony transit camp in Anand Parbat. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

As the residents of Kathputli Colony defy bulldozers, we examine what the redevelopment plans would mean for this community of artistes

Walking down a winding lane in west Delhi, where the puppeteers live, a little girl runs to us and says in English, “My name Savita”. Wearing a worn out kurta and two pigtails tied with red ribbon, she was initially happy with all the attention her neighbourhood of artistes, better known as Kathputli Colony, was getting. Walking through, one can hear the dhol play, watch puppeteers at work and children somersault. Home to magicians and puppeteers, craftsmen and tailors, this unique area in Delhi, may no longer be the seven-year-old’s home.

Kathputli Colony is said to be the world’s largest community of street performers. The shanties, some of which are close to 60 years old, are small cramped quarters equipped with water and electricity. However, like any urban slum, drains overflow outside the homes, and garbage lies in unattended heaps. But this has been the home of Delhi’s grassroots craftspeople for the last few decades.

On February 27, Savita and her mother, along with the NGO Hazards Centre and other residents of the colony, defied the bulldozers that entered their colony threatening to move them to the transit camp in Anand Parbat, following Delhi Development Authority’s (DDA) redevelopment plan. A few days after that, Savita’s mother and aunt were called by a policeman and asked to sign a document, written completely in English, which they could neither read nor understand.

The DDA plan that came up in 2007, states that the 3,200 families living in this colony will be moved to the camps, till Raheja Developers construct a multi-storey complex in the same area. After the initial uproar, the documents are now available in Hindi.

Indian marionette

The art of the puppeteers goes back close to 1,500 years. They were an essential part of every mela and festival in Rajasthan. The Rajasthani Bhat community are said to be the pioneers of this storytelling form.

Jagdish Bhat, a famous puppeteer, who has performed in the US and Europe says, “This used to be jungle land. When we moved here it was not an important junction. We needed a place to create our music, our sculptures. Our livelihood depends on this.” Bhat adds that their homes have “been sold to builders for a throwaway price of ₹6.11 crore, though the national auditor’s report has valued the land at ₹1,043.2 crore.”

In the transit camps, the voices of dissent are loud and clear. “We are a family of seven, when we put our beds down in this cramped hut there was no room for our dhols and puppets. We had to keep them outside and keep watch so that they do not get stolen. What will we do when it rains?” says a distressed Kamat Bhai, a resident of the transit camp.

In response, Dimple Bhardwaj, spokesperson for the Raheja Developers, clarified, “We have tried to make the transit camp as comfortable as possible. Baseless fears go against the cause of making Delhi slum-free.”

A few days ago, when I visited the Anand Parbat camp, walking distance from the Kathputli colony, I found 60 families had moved so far. The presence of CCTV cameras across the colony did make it seem spooky. But the quarters, though clean, are tiny and there is no room for musical instruments or the puppets.

“The relocation policy states that the transit camp will have spaces for recreation and livelihood. But the houses are made of toxic waste material, windows are falling apart, drains are getting choked, electricity plug points and switches are not working. If it is like this now, imagine how it will be after two years?” alleges Dunu Roy, director of Hazards Centre. The policy document has an eerie resemblance to the one that was handed out to the workers when the mills were shut down in Mumbai. However, as one glitzy mall after another came up, the land promised to the workers continued to shrink. The schools and the hospitals promised to them completely disappeared from the document. It took years of fighting in the courts on behalf of the Mill Workers Union for the mill workers to get what was promised to them. Many are still homeless and continue to live in shanties.

“It is convenient to use these people as cultural mascots but when we mistreat them, we erode India’s culture,” says Myna Mukherjee, director of an arts collective and gallery, Engendered, who has created both art and magic with Bhat and his group.

Georgina Maddox is a Delhi-based art writer

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Published on March 14, 2014
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