The emergence of the first stretch of metro line was still half a century away, it still wasn’t unimaginable to find shy, lonely lands tucked up in the wilderness, yet to be silenced by the mayhem of a city, to be buried under the toxic smog.

Once upon a time, a few puppeteers from the ‘Ghumantu’ (Nomadic) tribe took refuge in the wilderness of a small piece of land in the heart of the city. They pitched the life that they carry on their shoulders in the form of tents. “A nomad finds hope in the presence of another nomad,” says Rehman, a traditional magician whose family observed the seasonal sprouting of tents four decades ago and decided to be a part of it.

Tents attracted tents, and gradually families of nomadic acrobats, magicians, puppeteers, folk musicians, dancers and other street performers created a city where talent and traditional art expressed a person’s identity instead of caste and ethnicity. This remarkably unusual concentration of traditional artists, one of its kind in the world inspired the ‘magician’s ghetto’ in the much-acclaimed book ‘Midnight’s Children’ by Salman Rushdie.

The neighbourhood grew into one of the largest slum clusters in New Delhi embodying self-built mud houses, open sewers, dangling power cables and dingy alleys. The traditional artists are now called slum dwellers. Over the years, efforts have been made to rehabilitate the 3500 families living in uninhabitable conditions. Recently Delhi Development Authority (DDA) started issuing demolition slips to the residents of the colony under the cover of hundreds of police and paramilitary personnel. “For decades there have been talks about the demolition of Kathputli Colony, I wish somebody would talk about its conservation or preservation too” says Rehman.

DDA plans to relocate the residents of the colony for a couple of years in a transit camp situated in Anand Parbat, 4.8 km away from Kathputli Colony while multi-storey buildings are constructed in the area by Raheja Developers Ltd. Raheja Developers Ltd, a local developer bagged Delhi’s first slum redevelopment project in 2009.

“You will find Kathputli Colony’s artists in all distinguished national-international cultural festivals; we are called to welcome foreign delegates and bureaucrats but at the end of the day we come back to our filthy ghetto that we call home. The point is that you’re looking for cultural heritage all over but neglecting the very roots of it” says renowned puppeteer Puran Bhatt who was preparing to shift to the transit camp when we visited him.

Reflecting on what Puran said Rehman shares that they have raised a community on the foundation of traditional art and trust. “We have spent all our life here; there have been times when regular nights would turn into a glorious celebration of folk music and dance. We are leaving the very idea of Kathputli Colony behind with a hope that we shall come back. But, we may disappear tomorrow; our children may never know what Kathputli Colony was”.

“Turning this colony into a heritage city was a dream, and will remain a dream” concludes Puran despondently.

  • Rachit Sharma