India, Kathputli, displaced, street performers, Bismillah Geelani

65-year old Puran Bhat is among India’s most famous puppeteers.

Sitting in a small room on the roof of his house, he is busy giving final touches to the preparations for an upcoming puppet show. 

But he looks worried.

Like other residents in the area, he has recently received a notification that his house will be demolished soon. “We have been completely kept in the dark about all this; it’s only recently that we came to know that this land has been sold to a builder. They have been deceiving us all along. The notification calls us encroachers while in fact we have been living here for 50 years.”

Bhat lives in Kathputli Colony ….a slum area in the capital New Delhi. 

The Delhi government has given the area to a private builder for development. 

It is a huge construction project that includes multi-storey apartments and a large shopping mall. 

The government says the project is part of its plan to rid the capital of slums and insists that the residents will be rehabilitated at the same site. 

Omvir Singh from the Delhi Development Authority explains the detailed plan for the area. 

“We are temporarily shifting them to a transit camp for two years and after that they will be brought back and they will be accommodated in the buildings that will come up here. We have given the builder less than half hectare of the total land what he does with that is his headache but what we want to do is to give them a better living. They will have facilities like electricity, water, wide roads and proper drainage system.”

But the residents are skeptical and are strongly resisting the move.

“These are all excuses, they are misleading people, they just want to displace us, they will throw us into the transit camp and we will all rot there, nobody is coming back, there’s no such agreement.

Megician Aziz Khan is among the most celebrated artists here. 

He holds a Guinness World Record for the great Indian rope trick. 

But he’s upset with the way artists like him are being treated in the country.

“When the government wants to showcase Indian culture to the world  they look to Kathputli colony and we are presented as the cultural ambassadors but when they have to make notes and dollars they conspire against us and displace us, culture is of no consequence for them when it comes to profit making.”

More than 3000 families of puppeteers, magicians, acrobats, dancers and musicians live in kathputli colony.

It is often called the world’s largest community of street performers.

But with narrow streets, filthy surroundings and lack of basic services like safe water and proper sanitation, it is an extremely unhealthy environment.

75-year old Bhagwan Das is one of the earliest settlers in the area. 

He says people want the situation to change but not the way the government plans to do it. “we gave our sweat and blood to this land and nurtured it, and now we are being driven out, even if they give us flats in high rise buildings what will we do with that? We are traditional artists; we have a different lifestyle and work culture how can we fit in there?” 

Kathputli Colony is named after puppets. 

Traditional Puppetry was once the main occupations of most of the residents here. But over the years it has seen a rapid decline.

However, a handful of dedicated puppeteers like Puran Bhat are still struggling to keep this popular ancient form of entertainment and communication alive. 

“The art never dies but the audiences die and when an art form does not attract audience we say it is dying. When we compare the response to our art in the country and abroad we get tears in our eyes, the foreigners say it is magic and what I like most about them is they appreciate and respect their art forms and ours equally but here we reject our heritage and accept with utmost warmth whatever comes from the West, and if this is the attitude our art forms are bound to be dying.”

According to Bhatt the electronic media especially television is also partly responsible for keeping audiences away from traditional arts like puppetry. 

But at the moment, the main concern for Bhat is the eviction notice that has filled every resident of Kathputli colony with a sense of impending doom.

“What is happening now is an attempt to kill us. The government’s approach is to make  a large building, put the artists in there and put a large gate over it and lock the artists inside. Let the artist lose his livelihood, let them starve and let the art and the culture die. And all this has to be done because a builder has to earn profit from the land.

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