Letter from Asia: It will take a magic trick to protect Delhi’s unique colony of performers

The problems confronting the people of Kathputli are repeated across the city

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The Kathputli colony in west Delhi is brimming over with musicians and artists, magicians and poets. There are men whose sleight of hand will fool your eyes, others whose songs will move your soul.

For 60 years, this neighbourhood of performers, drawn from across India, has been largely ignored by the authorities. While officials were happy for the performers to appear at cultural events, they did nothing for their situation; the colony has no real 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 with a private firm, Raheja Developers, to build apartment blocks, some to be bought at a sharply 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 anxious. They are fearful that if they leave they will never be permitted back. Many say they would rather stay in their squeezed, basic homes than move to an apartment. “When we moved here, this place was not fit for animals. But we have made it heaven,” Mohammed Islam Azad, a poet and community leader, said this week at a residents’ meeting held beneath a spreading tree.

The Kathputli colony may be no heaven, but to the 20,000 people crammed in here close to the railway lines, it is home. It is also inextricably linked to their livelihoods. Performers store their instruments here, others stable their horses.

The alleyways are also a place where ideas can spread. Songs can be shared from neighbour to neighbour, generation to generation. How could such a fertile environment be replicated, they ask, in a tower block? “This place is important to keeping the traditions alive,” said Bhagwan Das, a 75-year-old singer who moved from Rajasthan 60 years ago.

The problems confronting the people of Kathputli are repeated across Delhi, and all of India. Surajit Neogi of ActionAid said government figures suggested there were 180,000 so-called “slums” but that this was an under-count because only those officially recognised were counted. Residents face eviction in 90 per cent of them.

“The slums in India’s cities occupy prime land. Under the name of development, they are creating vertical homes for the residents and that means they can develop the rest of the area as they like,” he said.

Sunayana Wadhawan of the Delhi-based Hazards Centre group has been helping the residents. She said the developers said they will provide apartments for around 2,700 families, whereas her organisation’s own tally suggested the figure should be 3,800. She said people were asking for documentation that they had been allotted a home before they would consider moving to a transit area. “People have a right to be involved in the development of their community.”

Navin Raheja, chairman of Raheja Developers, insisted people would be provided such documents. He said all the plans would soon be placed online. He insisted, too, that his development plan included workspaces and performance venues for the artists. “The poor in India are living in such squalor. We need to change the lives of the poor,” he told me by phone. “For our company, it’s a mission.”

Among the residents is Ishamuddin Khan, a performer of traditional Indian magic tricks. He has secured a place in the footnotes of the colony’s history as being one of a handful of people in the world to have carried out a convincing display of the Indian rope trick – a legendary Indian stunt, the providence of which appears to have been authenticated, falsely, by an 1890 report in the Chicago Tribune.

Mr Khan, who figured out how to do a version of the trick and did a performance in 1995 at the Qutub Minar, a 12th-century minaret in south Delhi, has long lamented the way in which while he and his colleagues toured the world, they struggled for recognition at home. Some of the performers have been called upon when Indian prime ministers have travelled abroad, most recently when Manmohan Singh visited Germany.

“None of the NGOs or intellectuals care about us,” he said. “Post-independence we have been ignored.”

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