17 March 2014

Where does art live in our cities? Culture industry ‘appropriately’ labels tangible forms of creativity as ‘arts’ and ‘crafts’, and employs artificial socio-economic yardsticks to separate performance locations. But living art is not bound within the walls of convenience at sites such as Kathputli in Delhi’s Shadipur. The colony has been a cauldron of contemporaneity, a throbbing dream of sustenance for many itinerant artists. Yet today, the all-pervasive ‘urban development’ is forcing hundreds of artists to shift from their self-made neighbourhood into inappropriate dwelling places. Along with Holi colours, this week LILA Inter-actions brings you the passionate voices of two artists from Kathputli. Rahman Shah, magician, contrasts his bright memories of the last four decades with the daily pressures of his practice. Puran Bhaat, puppeteer, reflects on the inadequacies of urban planning, and suggests ways to be inclusive. And, Prof. Tapan Chakravarty widens the picture to discuss the underlying historical and political complexity of Kathputli where art is indeed a dear way of life.


Hold the cursor on the illustrations to display descriptions.

One Huge Family

Rahman Shah

Through the Pupil

Puran Bhaat

Rehman _ Joshua Cogan_Tomorrow We Disappear dtr--bw shorted 150I am a street magician. I belong to the gypsy clan of Shadipur. I have been living in the Kathputli Colony for almost 40 years. When you speak of art and its conservation, there have always been problems, since the very beginning, and it has always been the artist who has tried to save it, despite everyday problems.

Let us go back in time. When there were no cinema halls, no malls, no cable T.V., what was people’s source of entertainment? Street performance! That was a time when people would call us themselves and enjoy the show. Now when we want to go and perform, first, it is forbidden. It is illegal for us to perform in the streets of Delhi. And if we still try to do it, then we are falsely blamed for pick-pocketing, for terrorism, for everything we do not do, which makes it even harder to plan any other performance.

But we have to survive, and since our source of livelihood is street performance, we take a daily risk, and go out to perform. At times, we need to even pay something to some policemen in order to continue with the show. It is important to have this continuity, because this is all that I know, all that I can do, this is what I learnt from my ancestors, this is how I will sustain my family. Amidst all these problems, we find solace in our colony. But how will I perform on the street when you ask me to live in a flat?

Kathpulti artists take daily risks to practice their art
in spite of the official bans.

quote rehman 1

Sadly, due to the lack of support, many performers have begun to compromise. Magic, which has existed from the times of gods, patronized by the kings and then by the English who called us “Magic Men” – this form of magic is hard to be kept alive. People feel so helpless that now the modern magicians are performing for birthday parties: we have stopped going to the streets. We are waiting for those God-sent people who would put an end to this daily dilemma of survival, to help us support our children’s future. We are waiting for those who would put an end to this daily torture by the DDA and the police, the threats that they give to individual households, their presence in the colony every day. I am unable to perform out of fear that in my absence something untoward might take place here. There is a constant anticipation, as if I were to be hanged.

Before the colony, this land was barren, there were some trees, and the ground was uneven, partly marshy. It seemed to be a ghost town. Then the puppeteers came here, followed by magicians, acrobats, jugglers and many others, including ayurveda healers, dancers and musicians. We are the ones who nurtured this land, who made it worth living, filling in soil to make it even and then established it as our colony. This is what I have seen in the last forty years.

A magician preparing for a performance. Prior to technology-driven entertainment, street performance was a major source of recreation for city dwellers.

Today, for their own personal benefit, be it the builder or the DDA, they are ready to wipe off our history, our memories, and our heritage, for they do not understand it. We started with tents, went on to mud houses and slowly we built our present houses with our own money and efforts. Our cultures survive due to support from within this colony. Today we are being offered flats, but nobody can stay in flats, because we are not used to. Our culture will come to an end, we will all scatter and go back to our places of origin, be it UP, Agra, Rajasthan, Maharashtra or Andhra. We shall be forced to go back. And then it will be impossible to have a colony as unique, with as many cultures as this, ever again.

quote rehman 2

Nowhere in India or in Asia, and I think nowhere internationally, too, will you ever find such a space again. These days we get phone calls, messages from our supporters all over the world; they are putting up messages on internet. They understand our worth, our country does not; we are taken for granted here. Tell me: where else will you get this variety of traditional art together? If anyone in India needs street magicians, they know where to go: it has to be Kathputli Colony. I just received a call from Bombay, why? Here is a place where you will find what you would have never even dreamt of.

Tomorrow We Disappear, a documentary by New York-based movie-makers Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber,
will premiere in the 2014 TRIBECA Film Festival.
Worldwide support to Kathputli is expressed daily,
while the municipality ignores the history and richness
of its cultural heritage.

In this colony, even when we come back at 3 in the morning or late at night, we will still get food and tea, we know we will be safe, we will have company and no fear. This is our colony, our home. We will come back, distribute the money earned, and know that there will be someone to walk with till home if we need it.

Since this whole pressure to shift to a transit camp has increased, our work is suffering. Two people have been attacked and threatened. But we meet every day and stand united.

We have also made a Trust of magicians to request the government and authorities to give us spaces to perform in the city, in places like the Boat Club, Sarojini Nagar market, Munirka, R.K. Puram… Since every profession has a place, street performers should also have their place in the city. In foreign countries, all street performers have time and sites to perform. They have time slots, they all survive, but there is nothing like that in Delhi. We are confused and vulnerable.

Wherever we go, we mostly get awarded and come back with pride. At airports, people salute and ask who we are. With great pride we tell them we are street magicians or performers of respective art forms from India, but in India even a policeman can disrupt our show. Rahul Gandhi goes as far as Bareilly to live with the poor, but we are suffering right under his nose. All politicians know of our reality, but nobody understands our simple demand. We want the culture of the colony to be saved, we all want to continue living together. For almost a month, DDA has been trying to lure us with videos of the transit camp. But only around 30 have shifted, but who are they? They are the tenants, not the original residents. We are one huge family. We are not greedy for flats; we can make this colony all over again. Why offer such high rises where we cannot adjust? We are seeing our contextual problem, they think of their personal benefit.

Since we are a variety of artists and performers living together, it is easy for us to collaborate and work together. For most events, performers from different communities form a group, where any one of us could be the contact point. We have the brotherhood and trust to work together: this is a hub of art, and we live like one great family. If on any day, we do not meet or interact, we feel a void. If ever any one of us is threatened, we all stand up together; to threaten one is to put a hand in a beehive. Our survival and strength is because of all of us living together. It would not have been possible on our own. And it would not have been possible, if it were not for Kathputli.

Bhaat dtr-bw-150We are Ghumantu – travelling artists – who have come to Kathputli colony at Shadipur from Nagaur in Rajasthan. I am a traditional Rajasthani puppeteer. I came to Kathputli with my parents and wife years ago. Puppetry has been our ancestral profession and art form, which we have learnt from our grandfathers, who passed it on from generation to generation. It has survived till today because we live in such an environment, and as long as we live together, we will make every effort to keep it alive.


No one knows the true origin of the name ‘Kathputli’. There are multiple stories about the term coming into being. In my view, it means ‘wooden puppet’, where ‘kath’ means wood, and ‘putli’, puppet. But the word ‘putli’ may also mean the pupil of the eye, without which one cannot see, one cannot create; without which there would not be this art form. The putli does not die. If after a human’s death the putli could be donated, another human could see through it and come alive. Similarly, as long as there is the puppet, the puppeteer can stay alive. When I perform, the audience does not notice me, it notices the puppet, and such is the power of this putli, the actor. Now, if you give us a flat where we cannot even store our puppets, where we cannot create newer puppets, how would we survive? Is livelihood separate from housing? Or let me ask, is housing enough for survival? Housing should be such that it sustains your livelihood, your culture!

The idea of putting us inside individual flats in a high-rise building, that too behind a skyscraper in an elitist neighbourhood, is equivalent to locking and silencing the artists and the art forms inside a box forever. We cannot survive in such an atmosphere. We live in an open interactive community, where we create, rehearse and celebrate on a daily basis, without anyone disliking or being disturbed by our work.

A monowheel artist practicing in Kathpulti.

How would we rehearse in such a neighbourhood as that which is being proposed for us? How would we work on wood, thermocol and stone inside a one-room flat which apparently would also be meant to host our entire families, our huge equipments and props? How would our women continue to cook on wooden stoves? Will they not feel embarrassed to continue wearing their traditional attire when we are shifted in such a neighbourhood?

quote bhaat 1

Did anyone ever try to study how we live? Had they actually wanted to design something for our specific needs, they would have thought of a chimney in the kitchen, they would have thought of space to store our materials, of platforms for us to perform, they would have thought of a Delhi Haat, and surely not a skyscraper with a helipad. Then, probably, they should also offer some mainstream job to us now, because a flat serves a certain need of a certain lifestyle. They want to give us a flat without doing anything about our survival.

In this colony live different communities of artists as well as non-artists who make this world more beautiful and liveable. In the artist communities, even the youngest of children would have travelled and performed at international festivals, where we receive much respect and acclaim. But here, we deal with humiliation and fear.

Since the advent of the electronic media and the loss of royal patronage, our heritage has been kept alive solely by our own willingness and the efforts of artist communities. We hardly have received any support or guidance from the government or the private sector. Every single day, you would find tourists from foreign lands coming and being mesmerized by the different cultures they experience here, but our own city is unable to recognize our vibrant traditions. Why?

On the one hand, I regret the lack of any strong cultural policy for folk and tribal arts of India. But on the other, it also pains me to find that we have a depleting audience for these traditional art forms. As I always say, it is not the art that is dying, it is the audience who chooses not to look at these art forms. Perhaps it is due to lack of awareness, since our education system does not include acquaintance with our local traditions, and our universities do not have departments teaching the various art forms such as toys out of clay, phad painting, folk dance and music, etc. Perhaps, it is this lack of awareness that makes one value commercial complexes more than traditional artists, and our way of living and nurturing our art.

As if our intangible contribution to the country’s richness and identity is worthless, we are simply labelled as ‘land grabbers’ or ‘squatters’, despite having treated this colony as our home for more than 50 years.

quote bhaat 2

But this problem is not just of our own colony, this is a much bigger problem, and again it begins with the putli. When I ask anyone where do you think the word putli comes from, no one thinks of his or her own eye. Why? Because we look outside for answers, we go by the spectacles, we do not look within. The answer to our colony’s problem lies within the colony, not in the ideas of architecture and development that we borrow from outside or the plans that are drawn sitting in offices far away.


So let me present an insider’s eye view: why a high-rise? Why not ground level housing? Because you did not study how we live as families. You did not notice the fifteen feet high puppets on the terrace, the bamboo poles on the ground and the drums in the rooms.

If in reality, someone wants to work towards the colony’s betterment, then they should first come and understand the culture and lifestyle of the communities residing here. It is only when you experience this place with its colours, music and tradition, you will be able to decipher what must really be done for us.

We offer to you a unique and feasible solution to this problem. Why not redesign this place in such a manner that it not only preserves our traditional way of life but also becomes a space that offers a memorable cultural experience to tourists? Where one can not only experience our lifestyle, but also engage with artisans creating authentic handicraft, learn from them, buy it from them directly? Design it like an exhibition cum performance space, where you can live with and learn from the artists as well. The non-artists can have their shops and continue with the way our colony’s eco-system is designed. It would be such an asset for tourism department and we would be able to contribute so much to our country’s economy as well. Also, it could become a one-stop space which serves you all art forms: no need to go to fragmented spaces. Kathputli could be your Mini-India. What an idea, isn’t it, Ji?

Translated by Poornima Sardana.

Rahman Shah comes from a family of street magicians. His ancestral home is in Ghaziabad, but when traced back to its origins, their gypsy clan comes from Rajasthan. He performs his acts on the streets of Delhi while having been awarded for his performance in various countries, including Tanzania and Turkmenistan.


Translated by Poornima Sardana.

Puran Bhaat is a traditional Rajasthani puppeteer from Nagaur. He has performed at various International Festivals and in 2003 was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for traditional arts by the then President of India. Even though he learnt the folk style of Kathputli from his grandfather, he has also experimented with contemporary styles of puppetry.

An Urban Opportunity

Tapan Chakravarty



Tapan Chakravarty dtr--150Kathputli Colony at Shadipur, New Delhi, brings back memories that began some thirty years ago. It was 1983 when, as a student of architecture, I got introduced to this site through an opportunity to survey the settlement under the guidance of a senior practicing architect. My work for the UG final year thesis project – to appropriate a renewed settlement for the inhabitants of the colony at Shadipur itself – till this day remains a resource that provides me with the fundamental understanding of the architecture of human dwelling as a series of discoveries in the realm of human habitation. It will be a tragedy if we lose such living evidences of intuitive architectural practice; it is fast deteriorating at the present site and it needs to be reinvented with sensitivity. Far from being messy or dirty, this settlement was like an urban synthesis of a rural habitat. A motley group of a little over 400 tiny and compact dwelling units were neatly packed into a spontaneous settlement that demonstrated a different quality of life, experienced and showcased at once by its colorful inhabitants.

Principally, all the dwelling units were ‘tented’. But two different kinds of tents meant the co-existence of two seemingly similar communities – two cultural groups? – which formed the social unit of this extraordinary settlement. It was the shapes of their tents that first led us to notice the distinction, and our curious enquiry opened up a wonderland for our eyes. A native vernacular history of almost mythical antiquity unfolded, one that we were never taught in any history book or curriculum. This was the amazing world of street performers and artists, whose silent contributions have been such an intrinsic part of India’s identity, character and mystery.

quote chakravarty 1

Both the communities were travelling itinerants. One group comprised of perennial travelers with no distinctly identifiable native place; they were gypsies. The other group comprised of seasonal travellers clearly originating from several districts of present day Rajasthan. The latter being largely puppeteers or Kathputli-walas; and somewhat larger in numbers, it inspired the present naming of the settlement: Kathputli Colony. The former, the homeless gypsies, as a mixed group of several street artists (magicians, acrobats, animal trainers, etc.), lived comfortably along with the puppeteers in absolute friendly co-existence. The two communities naturally agreed to bind their common characteristics as being professional wanderers, or ‘ghumantus’, into a cohesive social entity.

Identity records remain an issue for the settled communities of artists in Shadipur.

The gradual shifting away from a predominantly wandering to a somewhat settled way of life is a result of the present day pressures of modern society. Passports, ration-cards, Aadhar-cards or voters-IDs are real life issues to be dealt with.

Through the centuries, these communities have been engaging with the various places in Delhi. Their shifting ‘camping grounds’ from near Mehrauli, Kilokri, Shahjahanabad and eventually Shadipur may be evidenced from their collective memory. Storytellers by birth, their verbal history is worth recording and preserving, to be added to the history and heritage of the city of Delhi, poised to be a World Heritage City in the near future.

As we move towards a gradually vehicular urbanization of all our cities, these traditional artists find their urban spaces vanishing and themselves squeezed out of the bandwagon of urban development. A unique and spontaneous settlement of itinerants was succinctly labeled as an ordinary squatter settlement – “jhuggi-jhompdi” colony – which took away any semblance of identity as artists and performers, and gradually attracted all and sundry to seek residence in the still largely available unused open land next to the railway tracks. The 400 strong original settlement quadrupled in a couple of decades, as many others (non-artists and non-performers) kept adding to the crowd. They hoped for something positive to eventually emerge out of the ‘squatter settlement’ tag given by the urban planners. Unknowingly, though, these squatters…

quote chakravarty 2

… harmed the street artists enormously as their dis-proportionate numbers reduced the artists and performers to a mere percentage of the extended settlement. The loss of identity, lack of expansion space and increasing family size simply made the original quaint settlement into a congested squalor – it could be seen as a slum.


The pretty tents with mud-toe walls gradually gave way to brick-cement-steel hutments that not only became environmentally unfriendly but also created victims and perpetrators of unhygienic living conditions. All these happened in a little over two decades, while the city’s decision-makers continued to ignore pleas of recognition and assistance. The price of anonymity and apathy was severe and most unfortunate. The urban authorities, conventionally blind to social and cultural identities, now had even lesser reasons to acknowledge the significance of this dwindling community of traditional artists and performers. Today, the hapless inhabitants of this unique settlement are at the threshold of being bundled out of the very space that they called their home for generations. An unclear proposal of ‘legal houses’ has been issued; the residences would be designed on the principles of commercially viable resettlement housing units and condominiums in abject disregard to their needs and way of life.

For years this parcel of land in Shadipur lay wasted, with the urban executives waiting for it to become ‘profitable’. Once the metro operations touched its edge, the site became an invaluable urban precinct. This concept of commercially mining urban land has been the bane of post-independence urban planning. It has done more harm than good to the ordinary citizen, and encouraged profiteering by real estate businesses who have contributed little to the quality of life for the urban population. On the other hand, the existing inhabitants at the site, who willy-nilly used this long wasted piece of land for living and working, have ironically become culprits of urban land grabbing – or simply said, ‘encroachment’. Such are the perceptions and policies of modern urbanism.

quote chakravarty 3

Modern urban planning, with its misplaced understanding of revenue generation, fails to recognise the immense potential and commercial viability of this community of artists and performers, where showmanship is simply a way of life. The urban executives fail to recognize the possibility of rediscovering the urban street; they add to the crying need to encourage pedestrian activities in our metros by utilizing the occupational traits of this community of street artists and performers. The glaring absence of walkable footpaths, interactive public spaces and pedestrian friendly urban activities, as well as the recent cries for ‘eyes on streets’ to counter the spurt of urban crimes, are all outcomes of such an apathetic attitude of the authorities.

There is high merit in recognizing this community’s inherent abilities to participate in the development of Delhi’s street culture. They must be promoted, along with the cultures of street-foods, native art forms and various other intangible urban heritage of this glorious capital city. It is undoubtedly possible to architecturally reorganise the present settlement for residential and institutional purposes (mixed land use) by proposing an urban cultural precinct satisfying various needs at once. It could include auditoriums, amphitheatres and workshops for recreation, and could satisfy the fields of tourism, entertainment and education seamlessly through their residences and work spaces. It could become a new and innovative model of urban redevelopment and revitalization.

Tapan Chakravarty is currently a Professor at Pearl Academy, heading the Department of Interior Architecture & Product Design. Teaching, consulting and practicing in Delhi/NCR for over twenty-five years, his interests lie in History of Habitation, Vernacular Dwellings & Organic Settlements. Tapan completed his Bachelor of Architecture & Masters in Urban Design from New Delhi, and PGC in Higher Education from UK.

Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
LILA Inter-actions will not be responsible for the views presented.
The images and the videos used are only intended to provide multiple perspectives on the fields under discussion.

Images and videos courtesy: Pooja Pant for Soul City Arts | India TV News | Luigi Baldelli for Parallelozero | Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber | Web Neel | Star Property Jangpura | Akif Ahmad for The CaravanPooja Pant

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