A journey into the heart of the slums of New Delhi
By Martin Travers
Kathputli – Historically, these puppets were not only a source of entertainment but also provided moral and social education. The puppet shows were used to make people aware of the problems that everybody faced and also showed ways of solving them.
Shortly after my arrival to Delhi and my uncomfortable introduction to the world of art hipsters and the kind of street art that is as disrespectful to the locals as the gentrification that it beds,
I found myself on a mission to find the real down home community style art, the kind that has, well you know SOUL, a deep, positive connection with the people whose world it cohabits.
This is a very typical type of search for me and luckily I already had a hunch.
A year earlier I was on a layover in Delhi airport on my way to Nepal where I found an article in a magazine I randomly picked up whilst wiling away the hours, it told of a “colony” of artists living in a place on the outskirts of New Delhi where puppeteers, magicians, acrobats, dancers and musicians and other itinerant performance groups have settled since at least half a century ago.
So, a year later, I’m in Delhi on the trail, armed with what could be the name of the location; a strong sense of determination (some would call it madness); and a good friend who’s up for whatever adventure comes along (also mad). You’d be surprised how far one can get with these two things alone.
After a brief excursion into what we later discovered was the close vicinity of Kathputli I decided to do a bit more research before furthering our adventure. A few long hours on the web and I had a name and number.
The next morning we were met by a couple of well dressed lads, as Kailash had arranged, who guided us into the heart of the vast slum of west Delhi known as Kathputli Colony.
The ever-narrowing streets turn into even narrower dark alleyways with open sewage, tin roofs and homes were made of whatever materials people could find. Then we noticed the walls become varying shades of turquoise which look even more striking when contrasted with the orange glow of lamp light from inside a house and tinsel hanging overhead, somehow the place seems as warm and playful as the kids running around.
Kailash, our host for the day, is a puppeteer, like his father and generations before him. He explained that kathputli means puppet in Hindi and went on to tell me the history of it. Kathputlis are a wooden puppet native to Rajasthan and unfortunately now a dying artistic tradition in India.
He runs “House of Puppets” inside Kathputli Colony and told me over the phone that they would be having a performance that afternoon so we were not only greeted by him but most of the crew and half the kids from the area who were as eagerly anticipating the show as I was.
The House of Puppets teaches colony children the traditional ways of puppetry, music and performance art.
The adults and youth within the House of Puppets performed a cultural tapestry that fused gypsy music from the desert with an urban slum vibe. First the youth flexed their musical skills by blending Rajasthani folk rhythms with a Hip Hop feel, some of them clapped the air coming from their mouths, some used their bodies as instruments, one sang like a wailing gypsy in the desert and then rapped while they all danced.
The older guys then came in with some serious dhol drum beats raising the tempo a few notches while the kids added some more complex rhythmic patterns using any objects that might be found lying around their homes.
A garbage dump borders Kathputli Colony. As this area does not have a legal status whatsoever, the Government neither provides garbage bins, nor garbage collection. A lot of kids do not go to school, as they have to support their parents to earn a living sifting through waste and selling the glass, plastic or whatever else they can find.
Kailash explained to us the ancestors of most of Kathputli Colony’s residents were originally from Rajasthan. They were travelling performers and due to lack of work in their villages they ended up moving to and staying in Delhi. They make their living by performing at weddings, celebrations and various events.
When they arrived over half a century ago there was no slum here but over the years due to the influx of internal migrants and laborers, it has been built up around them.
Generations of performers have passed on their ancient knowledge keeping the arts alive so that now in the center of this vast slum on the edge of India’s capital city there are magicians, puppeteers, musicians, dancers and acrobats practicing their art. There are over 2000 artists living in the center of the slum that has close to 50,000 inhabitant’s altogether.
You may be able to see a fun performance put on for tourists or entertainment purposes in various parts of Rajasthan but historically, these puppets were not only a source of entertainment but also provided moral and social education. The puppet shows were used to make people aware of social problems of their times and show various ways of solving them.
The puppets are a tool to educate the youth, share stories and carry on the traditions. They directly use the puppets to tackle issues that are relevant to the youth growing up in the slums right now and all the problems that they are facing, especially health problems and the lack of education.
Now they face a new problem, the entire area of the slum has been chosen for “urban renewal projects” which means the inhabitants, including, the artists of Kathputli Colony will be evicted to make room for large shopping malls.
For the artists this move will be devastating because the new high-rise buildings that the government want to move them to will not be an environment they need to survive as artists.
On top of that it will destroy their networks and displace them from their work area.
It’s an uncertain future for the arts in Delhi as a new generation of middle class “street artists” paint stencils of cats, squids and rainbows or just write there name on walls making absolutely nothing out of everything they have, while others like the artists living in the slum of Kathputli will carry on making something beautiful out of nothing in the face of gentrification.
Photographs by Pooja Pant and Martin Travers