The Kathputli colony in west Delhi is brimming with artists and musicians, magicians and poets – men who will fool your eyes or move your soul. For 60 years, this neighbourhood of performers, drawn from across India, has been largely ignored. While officials were happy for the performers to appear at cultural events, they did nothing for them; the colony has no sanitation, insufficient water and its claustrophobic alleys are lined with open sewers. Children defecate everywhere.
But the colony – Kathputli means puppeteer – occupies valuable land and the government wants to develop it. A government agency has joined a private firm to build apartment blocks, some to be bought at a reduced rate by the residents and others offered at market price to the wealthy. It wants the residents to move to a transit camp while the work is done. The residents are fearful that if they leave they will never be permitted back. Many say they would rather stay in their basic homes. “When we moved here, this place was not fit for animals. But we have made it heaven,” Mohammed Islam Azad, a community leader said.
Kathputli may be no heaven, but to the 20,000 people here, it is home. The alleys are also a place where ideas can spread. How could such a fertile environment be replicated, they ask, in a tower block?