The house of a puppeteer at Kathputli Colony in Delhi, May 8 (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
It’s been a while since one has seen magic. We enjoy our homes because they are predictable to a fault, the possibilities of the unexpected are few. But on May 8th, we glimpsed a mote of magic when Puran Bhat, a Sangeet Natak Akademi award-winning puppeteer generously decided to air out his puppets for us. Discarding his T-shirt, he donned a terracotta coloured kurta, wound his turban, and brought his two puppets Hira Bai and Blackmagic to life. With a boli (whistle) in his mouth, he jammed with the tabla and harmonium players. For a brief while as he conjured his puppets into the living, one was reminded not just of the importance, but the human need for the performing arts. Watching Bhat even for those 10-odd minutes was a portal into other worlds. His neighbours who gathered around became equally immersed in the here and the now. Art absorbed us all, nothing else mattered. It was a moment of communion.
We met Bhat in his neighbourhood, the Kathputli colony of Delhi. Originally a folk artist village located in Shadipur, they moved 7 kilometres away to a transit camp located in Anand Parbat, after their houses in the jhuggi-jhopri cluster were demolished in 2017. The residents who had lived at the Shadipur location for some 50-odd years had waged a spirited fight against the relocation. The original Delhi Development Authority (DDA) plan was to redevelop 5.22 hectares of Kathputli Colony into high-rise buildings along with a private developer as part of a slum redevelopment scheme under private-public partnership. But three years later, the residents of Kathputli village—who are puppeteers, acrobats, magicians, snake charmers, drummers, singers and dancers—are still marooned at the Anand Parbat camp, which they prefer to call a “detention centre” rather than a “transit camp”.
Around 2,800 families live in 12’x8’ single-room tenements. A family has a minimum of four members. The rooms are tightly packed to each other, like teeth in a mouth. Each street has around 40 houses and only two taps which receive fresh drinking water twice a day. When women come to collect water, there is no question of social distancing. Since the lockdown, the residents of Kathputli colony have taken it upon themselves to ensure that no outsiders enter without their knowledge. That is their one form of defence and offence against Covid-19.
Our guide to Kathputli colony is Vijay Maitri, who is as energetic as he is enterprising. He is a young theatre artist from Kathputli Colony itself, who graduated with a BTech from Rohtak, and pursued engineering for a while. But he gave up all that and returned to his first love, theatre. He started a theatre centre when Kathputli Colony was at Shadipur and as the demolition and resettlement plans gathered steam, he directed a play which merged puppetry and histrionics called, Jameen Hamari Jaan Hai (the Land is our Life). He continues to be engaged with “rights-based” plays, whether it is about girl-child education or land rights. Maitri was supposed to travel to Switzerland this year for a play, but of course, that is not to happen.
These folk artists earn during the season, which runs from December to April. Their main source of income is weddings and shows in India and abroad. Maitri says 99 percent of the artists have passports, 60 percent have ration cards. The impact of the coronavirus has been especially debilitating for this community as their source of livelihood has come to a complete halt. Maitri says, “The biggest hope of the world is art, but the artists are now hopeless.” Right now, Maitri and his team of about 50 young volunteers have consolidated their strengths to raise funds for the community. On their Ketto fundraising page (https://www.ketto.org/fundraiser/support-kathputli-colony-during-covid19-178869?payment=form) they have so far raised Rs 4 lakh of their goal of Rs 10 lakh.
The impact of the coronavirus on the 2,800 families (15,000 people) at the transit camp has left 700 families ‘especially vulnerable’ and unable to fulfil basic needs. The fundraising page makes an impassioned plea: ‘Now is the peak season for weddings and cultural performances when traditionally the artists made the bulk of their living, but due to COVID-19 all gatherings have now been cancelled. At the same time, daily wage workers have also lost their jobs and their only source of income. The community is now in crisis, there is no money coming in, no support from the government, and many cannot afford even basic food, water and medical supplies for their families.’
The younger artists have banded together to support the community. Their focus is on collecting and distributing essentials
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AT A FIRST glance, Kathputli Colony would resemble any urban jhuggi-jhopri cluster. Lives spill out onto the lanes, cooking, sleeping, TV-watching all happen in the same space. While residents do their best to keep their homes in order, overflowing drains dampen their efforts by soiling the surroundings. But what differentiates Kathputli from most other bastis is that this is a neighbourhood of artists, which buzzes with creativity. Many of them have travelled the world because of their art. You walk into a room (a house) and you might be greeted by an array of boulder-sized puppet heads staring at you. You turn a corner and you’ll meet a house that has been hand-painted with flowers and leaves. We meet a singer, Jagdish Bhat, who belts out his own composition on the harmonium, with a voice that seems to come from the bottom of a well. “Jab yeh vakt guzar jaye, Corona bilkul mit jaye, tab aana paas mere humura/ Lockdown khatam ho jaye, desh bandi bhi khul jaye, ghar bhaite hum kare ye dua, humura. (When this time has passed, when Corona completely vanishes, come close to me, my fellow traveller/ May the lockdown end, and countrywide restrictions be gone, that is what we wish for while staying at home).”
Jagdish plays the harmonium for Puran. Puran Bhat’s traditional repertoire consists of Rajasthani folktales and the story of the Nagaur king Amar Singh Rathore. He says the puppeteers create their own puppets from carving out the faces from wood to dressing them up. During the lockdown, he has tried to create new puppets from thermocol, but he gave up when he couldn’t find a shop selling Fevicol! Like most of the other artists at Kathputli Colony he also learned his art from his father, who learned it from his grandfather. When one asks the artists here about where they’ve mastered their skills, they look at one puzzled. A dhol player tells me, “I was born knowing how to play the drums.” That seems to be a common refrain among the people here.
Bhat’s puppetry has taken him to 24 countries. He has performed at major venues in India. Speaking with a measured cadence he says, “Puppet mein magic hai, magic hi hai.” The best compliment he says that he has received is when the dancer and choreographer Saroj Khan once happened to see his puppets in action as they were rehearsing at the same venue. She told him that what he did with his puppets, she could not do with her dancers.
He adds soon after, “Lockdown se mind mein dar aagaya. Hamari zingadi khatam kar di hai (The lockdown has made us afraid. Our lives have finished.)” He employs an idiom to explain his situation, “Roz kua khodna, roz paani pina,” which essentially refers to their hand-to-mouth existence. A while later, a young man, sporting dark glasses, recites the same expression to explain the situation of the artists in the neighbourhood.
We meet an amiable woman who introduces herself first as “Radha”. She later adds, “Radha Solanki, Dancer…passport mein bhi yehi likha hai. (Even my passport says so).” Having divorced 12 years ago, she is the sole provider for her three children. The brightness of her smile dims every time she mentions the hardships she now faces. She tells us the names of the various countries she has visited—Dubai (the UAE), France, Holland—and adds while she enjoyed every country, she found the Mauritians particularly helpful. She has been to Almaty six times and it’s a city she’s most familiar with. She was to leave again for Russia, the seventh time, in early March.
Solanki says today everyone is scared. They are scared for themselves, they are scared if their neighbour sneezes, they are scared that since they’ve missed the season, they are staring at ruin. She is most grateful to Maitri and his team for ensuring that she can keep her kitchen fire burning. But dabbing her eyes with the end of her dupatta, she adds, “Garib hi mar jayenge. (It’s the poor who will die).”
The younger artists have banded together to support the community. Right now, their focus is on collecting and distributing essentials, supported by crowdfunding, and a few generous patrons. They are also planning for the future. Maitri has reached out to established puppeteers like Dadi Pudumjee, founder of Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust, and president of UNIMA International (Union Internationale de la Marionnette / International Union of Puppeteers). Together they are all trying to sustain their livelihoods in a new normal.
Kathputli Colony is also home to hundreds of drummers. A few members of The Indian Wedding Rockers bring out their dhols and perform a short number. They have been told not to gather at these times, as when the drums are playing it is impossible for people to not be lured towards them. One of the lead players, Vinod Bhat says that they have performed at “saat-crore ki shaadis” and across the world. On their Facebook page, one can watch videos of them, dressed in resplendent colours, performing at weddings in Dubai and Thailand, at bars and discos in Delhi, and even getting Chris Gayle, Kings XI Punjab and Jamaican cricketer, to jive to their beats at Mohali.
Vinod says none of these performers has a job, they only have their art. And with the cancellation of all major gatherings in the foreseeable future, their own survival looks increasingly perilous. The contrast between their performing avatar and the person behind it often seems hard to reconcile. These artists have truly been on the world stage. However, their struggles continue to be one for basic amenities, a struggle which has worsened with the pandemic.
When I speak to Pudumjee, he says that the line that has been doing the rounds which makes the most sense at this time is, ‘We are all in the same storm. But we are in different boats.’ As an artist he too is staring at an uncertain future. All the shows and performances that had been slotted for the coming year stand cancelled. How is he to make rent or afford salaries? He says, “The problem right now is what to do with the future. The audience cannot gather. So, you have to change. We are all trying to find ways to make the medium and the message meet. And we need to find ways to use technology in creative ways. For everyone it is a livelihood issue. The state government, Central Government, academies have to take more interest.” He adds, “Everybody is thinking of tomorrow. But some are just wondering where their next meal will come from.”
While acknowledging that the present crisis at an artist village like Kathputli Colony is around essentials, he also believes that “empathy can only go so far”. Eventually the community, with government support, will need to chart their own way. He says, “These are artists who don’t want doles. They can create something. They can do that for you. The challenge is to make it interesting. Puppetry can say a lot of things. It is an objective art, not a subjective art. But it has to be used well.”
He feels that some of the artists could use their skills at stitching, painting, carving, etcetera and venture into making top-quality dolls, puppets, and animals to supplement their incomes. He reckons that the resources of the artists could be used by ministries to drive awareness campaigns. In the past, Ishara, for example, has collaborated with UNESCO’s non-formal education section and Salaam Baalak Trust (a Delhi-based NGO that works with street children) to create shows and build awareness around HIV/AIDS. As we deal with a pandemic and health crisis, it is more important than ever to reach correct information to the public, and the arts have often proved to be the best medium. He sees hope in the fact that the youth of Kathputli village are coming together under the guidance of someone like Vijay Maitri and working together.
As we head out of the camp, the refrain from Jagdish Bhat’s song lingers with us. May this disease be wiped out, and may people return to their lives and livelihoods.