I made my way through narrow, twisting alleys, stepping carefully over open sewer drains, as I tried to keep up with the young man who was leading me to the home of Puran Bhatt, one of India’s best-known puppeteers. Neither GPS nor google could guide me. I was in the Kathputli colony – the magician’s ghetto of Delhi – and I was most definitely off the map.
I rounded a final corner and entered a low-roofed building where women were cooking over an open fire and washing clothes in buckets. Water sloshed across the cement floor under my feet as I ascended a tiny staircase up to a spacious and airy terrace. There sat Bhatt, puppet master and lord of his domain. Large and round, with a commanding presence despite his outfit of baggy sweatpants and a mended sweater, he was a man on a mission who was determined to save his home and workspace from bulldozers.
When Bhatt and his family, along with the other artists of the Kathputli colony, originally settled here 50 years ago, the land was fallow and vacant. But as Delhi grew around them, real estate prices surged and they found themselves on a desirable piece of land just a few blocks from a shiny new metro station. It was only a matter of time before developers would start eyeing the artist's colony, depicting it as an undesirable slum, and offering to build the residents a gleaming, hygienic alternative on a portion of the site after turning the rest into a shopping mall, office tower and condominium for the upwardly mobile middle class.
"I'm a traditional puppeteer, and I also do contemporary theatre," Bhatt said, as he introduced himself. "It's all I have ever known, I was born into a family of puppeteers and I have no other skill."
As we talked, I noticed the world of Kathputli around us, with laundry lines more numerous than tree branches, rooftop structures pieced together with plywood and the cries of children playing. It was a crowded, noisy and gritty world that thousands of residents call home.
There are about 3,000 families living in the Kathputli colony, and most work in the performing arts as puppeteers, magicians, acrobats, dancers, musicians and even fire-breathers. "We are artists, not poor people, not servicemen. Our work starts in the evening, finishes late at night. We live like gypsies," Bhatt explained.
Bhatt told me in no uncertain terms that he believes the developers’ plan to move the Kathputli residents into transit camps, and then modern flats in the same area, will kill their arts.
"Definitely after one year of living in these flats, the art will be finished. Everything will be clean, egos will develop, styles will change, flat prices will go up, they will sell the flats and there will be no need to work as artists,” he said. The colony offers the artists a freewheeling lifestyle, away from the pressures of trying to live up to the standards and conformity of the modern middle-class world. It also affords them room to build and house their work – such as storing large puppets – and practise their arts.
This is precisely why Bhatt and other artists have been fighting back. A contingent of outspoken residents circulated petitions and sought legal advice to stop the forced relocation to a transit camp, and encouraged others in the colony to resist voluntarily moving.
The Kathputli cause has also attracted considerable media attention and ardent supporters both in India and around the world. For example, a couple of young American filmmakers, Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber, made an award-winning documentary in 2013 about the battle called Tomorrow We Disappear, starring Bhatt and some of the other Kathputli artists. At a screening of the film in 2014, Weber said that Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie's masterful novel that immortalised the Kathputli colony – was his favourite book and inspired him to explore the colony.
I ask Bhatt if the film had helped his cause. "Tomorrow We Disappear definitely helped, and so has all the media attention. People are not calling it a slum anymore, but an artist colony." As people began taking the colony more seriously, the Kathputli residents gained respect and became empowered.
Bhatt is just as passionate about preserving the traditional Indian arts as he is about saving his community from demolition. "We would like to see an artist village developed where we can live and many different traditional skills can be preserved and taught, with performances in the evenings. A lot of kids don't even know what a puppet is today. So we also need to educate people."
He got excited when we started talking about a showcase centre for visitors that he was planning in central Delhi and proudly showed me a design and blueprint. As he was laying them out, one of his sons served us tea in small china cups, remarkably delicate for such a rough-and-tumble place.
His design included a school and hostel – “a proper global centre”, he said – so people could come and learn the traditions, such as puppet-making, music, dance, acrobatics and crafts. He wanted to create a village-in-the-city, where the artists live, teach and perform. At the centre would be a large theatre where people could come and watch the performances. After seeing the drawings, I remarked that it looked like London’s Globe Theatre, from Shakespeare's time, and he laughed heartily, "Yes, same idea!"
Bhatt was sharing his dream with me, a dream he had thought about, planned, loved and showered with detailed attention. And as he did, he glowed with ambition and pride.
Though he has not yet found enough funding and support to build his artist centre, Bhatt's home is safe for now. The forced relocation and demolition of Kathputli was halted in the spring of 2015 due to potential corruption regarding the sale of the land to the developers, and because the governmental land-holding agency, Delhi Development Authority, proposed a new requirement that 70% of the residents must have buy-in before any rebuilding can move forward. Previously, local authorities could simply evict slum residents, bulldoze their homes and banish them to the city's outskirts.
After I said goodbye to Bhatt, one of his sons took us on a tour of the colony. I now saw Kathputli differently. Instead of dirty drains and dank alleyways, I noticed busy people living in small but often very tidy homes – some decorated with traditional designs – and a community of artists working together to preserve both their arts and their lifestyle.