Saturday, May 18, 2002

Cultural ambassadors of India
H.C. Gera

Bala Bhat, a puppeteer, practising in the colony
Bala Bhat, a puppeteer, practising in the colony

SHADIPUR Depot in South Delhi is neither famous for shopping nor it is on the tourist map of Delhi. But Kathputli Colony, a slum beneath the bridge of Shadipur Depot, is famous the world over. What is so special about this place?

Kathputli Colony is a tinsel slum. Over 600 artists from here have represented India in several fairs and festivals abroad. About 800 families have settled here since Independence. Magicians, acrobats, mime artists, puppeteers, jugglers, folk singers, snake charmers, bear handlers, monkey trainers and other street performers reside in this colony. A visit to the colony is enough to believe that Shadipur Depot is perhaps the only place in Delhi where the ancient tradition of magic is preserved and inherited.

Most of the artists are from UP, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Kathputli Colony is also called by other names: Kalakaron ki Basti, Madari colony and Bazeegarcolony.


As you move about in the colony, you have pigs, stray dogs and the stink from open drains accompanying you wherever you go. Heaps of garbage, flies and mosquitoes buzzing all around is a common sight. A small central road passes through the colony, which has many criss-crossing pathways, dilapidated hovels, shanties and mud huts. There are streets and lanes which end abruptly. Suddenly upon reaching the end of a street, you may find a wall decorated with cowdung cakes. At certain places pucca houses and cemented dwellings have come up. These belong to the well-established artists who have made a couple of trips abroad.

Although life may seem chaotic here yet it is peaceful. Hindus, Muslims and Christians live in harmony here. They live and learn together. Men can be seen listlessly moving about, while women hustle around actively. With jasmine flowers in their hair, they wear sarees of bright colours like yellow, orange, blue, green and red. The jingling of their silver anklets and glass bangles creates a fine music.

The main road leads to a workshop-cum-office, which is run by a NGO named Saarthi. The Bhoole Bisre Kalakar Cooperative Production Society, registered in 1978, arranges training sessions for the folk artists. Shilpayan is a one-room school situated in the same building. Here poor children are taught to read and write. In this school, free training in art and craft work is given to young girls.

Bala Bhat, a puppeteer from Rajasthan who learnt the art at the age of 15. He says that foreigners, some of whom are his friends, feel astonished that he lives in such a dirty place. Concerned about the fate of his art, he says he values his prized possession, an album showcasing certificates of appreciation from different countries.

Raffan, a magician who belongs to the traditional kalander family from UP, has performed in many fairs and festivals in India and abroad. Acrobat Renu is one of the budding stars of the colony. This 13-year-old girl displays immense flexibility. Her performances, especially the Kabutar Natt, have been widely appreciated abroad.

Kathputli Colony is a place where knowledge about folk culture, folk life and ancient magic still exists. Despite living in dismal and pathetic conditions, the artists are trying to preserve the various dying art forms.

The government has promised these artists separate land where "Anand Gram" will soon come up. This would indeed come as a reward for the cultural ambassadors of India, for they will get a place where they can live with dignity.