Keeping dying arts alive

At first sight, Kathputli Colony near Shadipur Depot may appear like any other slum in Delhi and its name appears deceptive. As you enter the slum, scores of men in groups are seen playing cards, women draped in traditional clothes doing household chores and young boys, donning different styles, roaming in the narrow lanes.

Kathputli Colony is home to hundreds of traditional artists and artisans.

However, even with open drains, large amounts of garbage strewn around and jhuggis in dilapidated conditions and getting worse, there is something that differentiates this place from the rest. Not only that, this place is also world-famous.

Kathputli Colony is home to hundreds of traditional artistes and artisans like street magicians, puppeteers, folk singers and dancers, wood-carving artists, jugglers, bear handlers and street performers, who have been represented India at international forums for years besides performing at places of well-known personalities.

These artistes have come from all over the country – including Rajasthan, UP, AP, Karnataka, Punjab and Maharashtra and settled in this colony in late 70s after becoming part of an organisation called Bhule Bisre Kalakaar Cooperative Society.

The Society, formed with the help of curator and founder-chairman Asian Heritage Foundation Rajeev Sethi, who has worked tirelessly towards protecting dying art forms, aimed at bringing all ghumantu artistes together to save the ancient art forms and develop a village for the artistes. However, even after almost 30 years, the model village - like most of its ilk remains a dream by the wayside.

A Society member, puppeteer and singer Bhagwan Das, who has visited 25 countries for performances, tells Metrolife: “Artistes of around 12 forms have been living here since 1979. Initially, there were tents then jhuggis were built. We wanted a village specifically for ghumantus but nothing concrete has happened in that direction.”

“Now DDA along with Rahejas is under the process of the colony’s re-development. It is said that transit camps are being built for us till the time the colony is readied. But we are not sure that we won’t be cheated,” says Lakshman, another artiste as he carefully carves a wooden Buddha bust.

These artistes now make their living by exhibiting their creations and performing on various occasions and platforms not only in India but abroad as well. But they feel ghumantu artistes and art forms are losing ground in their own land.

Even as they have prese­r­ved the ancient art forms of the country, these artistes instead of being feted, celebrated and encouraged to live a decent life - are forced to live in slums and in the worst possible conditions. It is to their credit that these conditions have not let them drifted them away from their inherited skills and heritage.

Puran Bhatt, a puppeteer from Rajasthan, says every child of 12 years and above here has gone outside the country to perform. He says there are about 1500 artistes families and as many non-artistes’ families in the colony. “Our work and we, are given so much respect abroad but we are not given any official support in our own country. People from other fields go abroad for work and many of them settle there forever. But that thought does not even cross our minds. It is only because of us that these traditional and old art forms have survived. There is absolutely no support from the government,” says Puran in fluent Hinglish.

He along with his father has performed for former Jawaharlal Nehru and even Dr Manmohan Singh, when he was a finance minister.

Syed Abdul, a street magician from Andhra, says both people and the government are apathetic towards artistes and their talent. “Neither the people nor the government realises that this heritage is India’s property and we need to preserve and nurture it. Perhaps which is why we are still in this colony,” he smiles.

However, despite living in dismal conditions, the artistes are making efforts to save dying arts. The colony also famous as Kalakaron ki Basti, Bazeegar Colony and Madari Colony, also houses Kalakaar Vikas School, run by the Kalakaar Trust, that teaches children of low-income group artistes besides imparting free training in arts and crafts.

“So far, the younger generation hasn’t moved away towa­rds other professions. They want to be associated with their inherited art and want to see it flourishing someday,” sums up puppeteer Puran. We hope their dreams come true.

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