KATHPUTLI: More Than A Story To Tell
Seating in a dimly lit, light-pink room with his legs folded on the cement floor, sipping hot tea and smoking a beedi (a cheap hand-rolled cigarette) is the right description of Bhagwan Das Bhatt. In the extremely hot 43 degrees surrounding himself by musical instruments, metal trunks, and rucksacks stuffed with bright but small clothing. The 65-year-old leisurely inhales long puffs of short, thin tobacco granules wrapped in a leaf and blows the smoke towards a rickety table fan, gusting warm air.
Bhagwan Das Bhatt
Mr.Bhat is a puppeteer by profession and has been in this family business for almost six decades. Soon, four French tourists will arrive at his house, for an afternoon performance to be given by the puppet master, his son and his grandson.
Once a prominent performance art in India, today Bhat’s Kath put Lis – “wooden carved dolls” – are seen mainly by tourists and people with personal connections to the shows.
Bhat lives in New Delhi’s fabled Kathputli Colony, which was the inspiration for the magicians’ ghetto in Salman Rushdie’s 1980 novel, Midnight’s Children. Though, this inspirational “colony” is very spirited but is living on borrowed time, as it faces demolition to make way for a shopping center and a block of luxury flats.
The area is categorized as a slum which is a bona fide version of the raw poverty portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire; an eyesore on Delhi’s horizon – but Kathputli Colony’s character, argue many, outweighs the definition. This is a slum with a soul. It is a beautiful, solitary mixture of India’s traditional folk artists – many of them have been ambassadors for their country – and the world’s largest community of street performers.
Fifty years ago, this was a campsite for traveling gypsies who were passing through Delhi. With increasing opportunities in the capital, people such as Bhat and his family opted to settle here, in makeshift tents, in an area that was surrounded by jungle. And this is where puppeteers, magicians, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, dancers, acrobats and snake charmers from far-flung states grew.
Every other house in Kathputli Colony has a performer living in it, and each has a story to tell.
Spend a day here, and you’ll get to discover the rustic charm of traditional art forms, practiced right here in the Capital. Imagine balancing acts by women during a Bhawani Dance performance, a typical Rajasthani show, a Kachi Ghodi dance, all these performances with costumes, make-up, and meticulously detailed props.
These artists are ambassadors of Indian culture who perform at international events, and accompany our diplomats and bureaucrats across seas. Aziz Khan, whose rope trick made it to the Guinness Book of World Record in 1995, said that this art is their lifestyle and their identity. Kathputli colony is trying to hold on to these disappearing symbols of our culture and heritage that once adorned the courtyards of our erstwhile Royals.
The next time you spot an aerial view of colors among dilapidated huts and shanty conditions from the metro, between Shadipur and Kirti Nagar station, you can be sure you’re looking at Kathputli.
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This area now is a victim of urbanization. The DDA has sold the Kathputli land to a private estate developer to construct a mall and high rise apartments. This has been as part of the apparent ‘Delhi Makeover Drive,’ which has sent the inhabitants into a tizzy. Questions like where will the 30 ft. high puppets are stored, or 80kg heavy drums are kept ?. Where can they practice their art without disturbing and getting disturbed plague every individual.
As responsible citizens, can we do something to keep this art form alive? Let’s just not let it die with Bhat and the people of his generation. Comment Below If You Are Interested To Help Them Out :’)