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  • Shifa Sadiqe

Kathputli Colony: A Place of accolades but nowhere to keep them

The fish, Even in the fisherman's net, Still carries,

The smell of the sea- Mourid Barghouti

We have been taught that our talent, hard work, and creativity can take us to places, fulfill our aspirations. But is this really true? Have you ever been to a place which is full of talent, creativity, and hard work but the people there have struggled in gaining access to basic amenities? ISD’s visit to the Kathputli colony made us realize how the hegemonic structures determine the living conditions even if the place holds a myriad of promising talents.

Kathputli Colony: History and Recent Present

Kathputli colony is the world’s largest community of street performers, with more than 2800 families. The colony has a history of more than forty years.. The community consists of artists engaged in various art forms, ranging from musicians, magicians, snake charmers, acrobats, singers, to dancers. The most prominent and first inhabitants of the place were puppeteers (Kathputli in Hindi) from Rajasthan, from which the place gets its name. Gradually, it became a hub of street performers from across the country. Over time, Kathputli has become an internationally recognised place, with the artists receiving invitations to perform in international events across the world. We have witnessed their talents in Republic Day Parades and celebrity weddings. But beyond these performances, what is the reality of their lives? What are the barriers they are expected to overcome, to have access to even the most basic of the amenities?

In 2010, the Government of Delhi initiated a development project for the colony. They adopted the model of a public-private partnership, working with Raheja Developers in this case. The people of Kathputli were promised residential units, including community spaces for the heritage museum, an amphitheatre, retail outlets, a police post, a religious site, a weekly market, a children’s park, and an area for wedding ceremonies. The plan was to move the residents to the transit camp, and then after three years, move them again, back to the original site (in-situ rehabilitation). But here comes the twist. The private builder started focusing on luxury flats and malls on a significant part of their land and deprioritised the construction of the EWS flats (Economically Weaker Section).

After nine years, the colony's people are still living in the transit camps at Anand Parbat. Imagine a room of 10*12 feet in the transit camp where they are forced to store all their belongings including artistic instruments and also live with all their family members. The lack of space is one of the biggest challenges they are trying to navigate in the transit camps. Given the surroundings, the community is also extremely concerned about the preservation and growth of their traditional artforms.

When the government of Delhi decided on a slum-free Delhi, what was their motivation? Was it to provide in-situ rehabilitation for all the slums’ residents? Or was it a strategic and gradual displacement of communities, from the interior parts to the outskirts? Due to the shift, Kathputli people have lost their easy access to transportation, affecting their livelihoods and access to basic amenities. Their kids are forced to stay at home because their parents can’t afford the transportation costs to the school. Also, substance abuse is rampant in the transit camps, affecting children as well. Lack of access to schools and now substance abuse, children are at a major disadvantage in this area. A nurturing space for them to grow, feel nurtured and experiment is missing. All of this shows how the unorganized beautification of the city pushes marginalized communities to the margins, depriving them access to even the basic facilities.

Another challenge for the community is that they are not getting enough space to practice their art forms, to prepare for their performances. For instance, the community of magicians comes back early in the morning after their work. But they will not be able to get proper rest because Dhol (Drums) practice is going on in the nearby community.

After coming to the transit camps, it has become difficult for the men to find work because of difficult and expensive transportation. It has become the onus of women to feed the family, and they have started working in prominent affluent societies as cooks, etc. But their meager income is not enough to feed the family since their husbands are mostly engaged in substance abuse and playing cards.

ISD and Kathputli Colony

ISD’s visit to Kathputli in the beginning of April was made possible by Vijay Maitri, a Democracy Express Alum who belongs to the Kathputli colony. He has been an integral part of the resistance movements in the colony and has been working rigorously for its welfare. Most of these resistance movements and protests are met with threats by public officials, of blocking the supply of electricity or deleting the names from the official list of house owners. According to Vijay, it is hard to build consensus and the spirit of unity among people in these challenging conditions.

On the day of the visit, we realized that the place had been affected severely from power and water shortage for the past two days. But their generosity and humility made sure that we were adequately hydrated. Even in the midst of suffering, their hospitality was heartwarming. As a team, we went there to listen to their experiences, struggles and aspirations. We wanted to build our understanding of the ground, connect with the community and experience a part of their lives. As a team, we were conscious of our presence and made sure not to intrude on their personal space and objectify their lives. We became listeners and provided a space for them to open up.

We were privileged to talk to award-winning and accomplished artists and listen to their journeys. But their question of where we will keep these accolades if we don’t have a house made us pause and reflect. In April, a fire broke out in one of the houses in the transit camp and damaged all the nearby places. Many people have been injured and are still waiting for some form of government support. Even amidst all these disasters, they enlightened the space with a simple yet powerful thought “Zindagi hai toh jeena hai” smilingly.

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