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Save Kathputli Colony: Artists Living On The Peripheries Of The Capital Stand Up To ‘Redevelopment’

Posted on March 21, 2014 in Specials, Staff Picks

By Saanya Gulati:

‘Kathputli’ is the Hindi word for puppet. Kathputli colony, located in West Delhi, derives its name from here since many of its occupants are puppeteers. Today, the colony is as famous for a redevelopment controversy it is mired in, as it is for its puppeteers.

Picture Credit
Picture Credit

Raheja Builders, in collaboration with the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the Ministry of Urban Development put forth a plan for the colony’s redevelopment. Residents have protested as they believe it will have adverse repercussions for their community. The tale is one that most Indians, and anyone who saw the movie Avatar, are all too familiar with. Yet, amidst the meta-narrative of redevelopment, the community’s story is often lost. Last Sunday I ventured to Kathputli colony in an attempt to tell the community’s story.

The rickshaw-walla turns off the main road near the Shaadipur metro station. I walk down a narrow lane, with open drains running along either side. Children are celebrating choti holi and amidst the heaps of garbage are now patches of bright colour. It is obvious that I am an outsider, and I become aware of the penetrating stares and glances from residents.

A young man informs me that I am not allowed to take photographs, unless I meet the pradhan (community leader), I panic for a second, but quickly assure him I will not take more photos. ‘Aap pradhan-ji se nahi milna chahte ho?’ (Don’t you want to meet our community leader?)

The pradhan takes a long drag of his beedi (cigarette) and gives me a gesture to occupy the stool in front of him. I oblige. He asks me why I am here, but we both know this is a mere formality. He is all too familiar with the swarms of journalists, idealistic college students, and activist European groups who invade his neighbourhood day in and day out. Each of them feels compelled to understand his plight. But for him, each of them is an uninvited guest.

There is pain and fear in his eyes. Pain because of what may ensue if the colony is demolished. Fear because of the uncertainty of what is to come. The same fear resonates in the voices of the residents — they tell me about Mumbai’s slum redevelopment, of a community that continued to live in transit camps well past the promised deadline. They are fearful of ending up in that situation.

Thirty families relocated to a transit camp in Anand Parbhat, an area four kilometres away from Kathputli colony. Media reports say that the camps can hold up to 2800 families. These residents signed an affidavit stating they will voluntarily give up their homes and relocate. There was no mention of where s/he is relocating to, nor any duration, says the pradhan. They were initially written in English, which most residents do not speak. It was only recently translated into Hindi. “The families want to come back now! But, you think they will allow them?’ he asks me.

The ‘us versus them’ motif runs deep in the stories that Kathputli colony’s residents share with me. ‘They’ after all, are the most persistent of the uninvited guests. I ask the Pradhan if he has communicated with ‘them’, but he claims that all his efforts are in vain. ‘You know Gandhi-ji’s three monkeys? That’s what they are like. They don’t want to see us, speak to us, nor hear us out. We continue to shout, but it makes no difference.’

The pradhan is candid about his concerns with ‘them’. ‘They keep changing the area of land they will offer us. They think we’re stupid, because we live in juggis (slums). They don’t understand the kind of space we require, they don’t understand the kind of professions we have.’ Residents have been demanding a plot of 25 square metres, according to the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUCD), which has been advocating on behalf of the residents. However, a letter from the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi in 2011, revealed that the Rahejas intend to designate a miniscule fraction of the land for the housing of current residents. A large number of residents may be accommodated in multi-storeyed blocks of 21 square metres. The space is inadequate for puppeteers, whose puppets are 10 to 15 feet long. The project awaits clearances from the relevant environmental and airport authorities, as it does not conform to many of their specified criteria.

Close to 3,500 families, comprising 20,000 residents, currently inhabit Kathputli colony. Six students will sit for the Civil Service examinations this year. The pradhan filed a case in the Delhi High Court, which objects to the current redevelopment plan. He anticipates the next hearing, which is scheduled for the 24th of March. There is a tone of defiance in his voice when asked what he thinks will be the outcome. “Let them come…we are ready to die in front of the bulldozers if we have to… there’s no point living to see what comes after that, anyway.”

The residents of Kathputli colony take collective pride in their artistic occupations. The community comprises of puppeteers, jugglers, magicians, and snake charmers. ‘Those performances at weddings or birthday parties, which you see? That’s us!’ says the resident who introduced me to the pradhan. I tell him I want to meet the pupeeteers. He gladly agrees.

I ask one of the artists about the redevelopment. ‘Initially, they spoke of building hospitals, and schools; services that would benefit the community. We aren’t told what the exact plan is. But now we hear about big malls being built. How will that help us?’ Raheja’s letter to the Lt. Governor of Delhi states that four-fifth of the land is being reserved for commercial centres and luxury apartments. The residents have been advocating for the solution of cooperative housing, according to the PUCD. So far, nothing has been done to advance this agenda.

One of the puppeteers reminisces about his visit to Germany in 2005, where he was invited to perform. The Germans gave his community a grand welcome. ‘Par Hindustan mein hamein aisi izzat kahaan milti hai?’ he asks me (‘But in India, where do we get such respect?’) ‘Look at where we live. Do you think that if Raheja redevelops this area, and tomorrow there is a 50-storey building, like the Burj Khalif in Dubai, they will let people like us live in the same vicinity?’