NEW DELHI – Narrow, unpaved roads lined with open sewers, used to lead into the slum that had no running water or toilets, but enough magic to keep the world enthralled for decades.
New Delhi’s Kathputli (Hindi for puppets) Colony, home to some of India’s renowned street performers, was recently demolished by the Delhi Development Authority to make way for highrises and skyscrapers.
“There are many regular slum neighborhoods. But we are artists, we have traveled around the world and represented India, even in Europe,” Vijay, a 26-year-old theater director born in the colony, told EFE.
The residents of the Kathputli Colony might face an uncertain future at home but their work is appreciated worldwide, including on the other side of the globe at an ongoing exhibition at the Center for Puppetry Arts, the largest American nonprofit organization, dedicated to the art of puppet theater.
On Wednesday, the exhibit opened for its 4th week, and is due to run until March next year when a film on the lives of the residents of the Kathputli Colony will also be screened.
The Kathputli colony was home to around 3,500 families, most of whom were street performers, including musicians, dancers, magicians, puppeteers, snake charmers, but also some who worked informally as domestic help or daily laborers.
In 2009, the DDA chose the Kathputli Colony as the first slum to undergo in-situ redevelopment without displacing its former inhabitants owing to its prime location near central Delhi, DDA spokesperson Prakash Agrawal told EFE.
The development authority’s plans include the construction of a 54-storey skyscraper and 2,800 apartments spread over 15-storey buildings that will be allocated to the Kathputli residents for free, Agrawal added.
But when this plan, jointly developed by the government and private developers Raheja, was announced, it faced opposition from residents who claimed the documents did not mention the size of the apartments, an important detail for this artist community, where houses are often filled with giant puppets and musicians usually practice with their instruments out on the streets.
“At first, we thought that they were not going to give us apartments because the DDA asked us to move to a temporary camp without giving us contracts. That is why we organized a protest in 2014,” Vijay said.
“We fought hard to make ourselves heard but in December 2016, we got a good deal,” after which most of the inhabitants agreed to move out of the colony, he added.
Vijay ended up moving, along with the rest of his family and most of the residents of Kathputli, to a temporary camp around 3 kilometers (2 miles) away, where he will have to wait for at least two years while the flats are being built.
In the camp, there is an air of optimism with the musicians scurrying along with their drums and harmoniums to play at weddings or various other gigs.
Puran Bhat, whose works are also being shown at the Center for Puppetry Arts, told EFE that he does not regret having moved from his tiny home at the Kathputli Colony to the temporary camp.
Surrounded by his large, colorful puppets (some of which are several meters high) in his temporary 12 square meter house (130 square feet), Bhat said that his new home will at least have drinking water and bathrooms.
With the housing problem solved, he will now be able to focus better on his art, he added.
However, there are some residents, who are still refusing to move to the temporary camp as they fear they have not been included in the list of people who have been allotted flats by the DDA.
“I was born here, in Kathputli colony, but the new list did not have our names (...) and they didn’t tell us anything. Normally they should have put a notice to inform us that we were going to be evicted,” Vilas, a warehouse worker told EFE, sitting on a white couch among the ruins of what was once his home.