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Kathputli

“I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.”
― Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Children

Kathputli.  It was the slum that inspired Salman Rushdie’s writings in his famous novel “Midnight’s Children”, a story about the children born between midnight and 1am on the exact day that India gained independence from Britain – 15 August 1947.  The story tells how children born at that hour were blessed with magical powers and the main character, the one born closest to midnight named Saleem, had lived for a short time with Pavati the Witch in a magician’s ghetto alongside a snake charmer named Picture Singh.  I imagined that the magicians ghetto is Kathputli.

Walking the streets of Kathputli it isn’t hard to see how Rushdie gained his inspiration, for Kathputli is not an ordinary slum, it is also home to some of the most talented street and party performers in Delhi.

 

Visiting a slum can be a very confronting experience.  In 1994, when I first visited India, I visited a large slum in Delhi at the time and I was horrified, shocked and saddened by that experience.  For as far as I could see, there were people living under black plastic garbage bags propped up by sticks.  In the distance I noticed a black bear, in chains, being tormented by people.  Although this first visit was terrible the memory of it has stayed with me forever.

A few years ago I visited another slum, this time it was one outside the Rajasthani city of Jaipur.  I’m not sure of its exact name but people were still living in dire conditions there, however this time I saw that NGOs had set up mobile health clinics, obstetric care facilities and even a mobile school for the children of that slum to attend.  The Jaipur slum gave me a glimmer of hope that life inside the slums of India may be slowly improving.

Fast forward to this year and I arrived in Delhi to start my Ladakh Women’s Project, an expedition I designed to support women living in remote and isolated communities across Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, northern India.  Joining me at the start was one of my guests (now friend) on the trip, Dutch/Australian photographer Ingrid Hendriksen.  It was Inge’s first time to India and I said “How about we visit a slum?”.  Inge, being up for anything, replied “Sure”.  I wasn’t sure what she would think of joining me in a slum for photography.  Indeed, I even had some out-of-character neuroses about visiting Kathputli.  After all, my previous experiences in slums had been very mixed.

Slumming It

Before we arrived in India, I encouraged Inge to watch the well considered documentary presented by Kevin McLeod called “Slumming It”.  As the daughter of a highly awarded architect in Australia I have always been fascinated by the way people live, social mobility, public spaces, communal living and the way communities evolve.  This documentary, presented by Britain’s foremost commentator on housing architecture, provided viewers with a fascinating insight into the society of slums versus our own.  It asks questions about the way our societies are fragmenting, in parallel with slums, which are becoming more and more cohesive.

This documentary is about Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai that is home to nearly one million people in a square mile and the slum that inspired the famous film “Slumdog Millionaire”.  It paints a vivid picture of the daily life of people in slums, how they survive and how their communities are shaped by small industries and communal households.  Dharavi is being threatened with destruction by land developers in Mumbai, who want to relocate the residents into high rise buildings from their current home.  One of the most poignant comments made by Kevin McLeod, to me anyway, was his questioning of the developer “Across our society we are taking down high rise public housing buildings because they foster social dysfunction and crime.  Why do you think that removing people from somewhere like Dharavi into these buildings might benefit them?”.  There was no reply.

Destructing slums in India remains a highly controversial topic.  As the world’s population booms and people from rural areas migrate towards the world’s cities in huge numbers, the slums of India often play a vital role in housing people arriving from out of town.  Some of them simply stay for a short time in these places.  Others move on.  Regardless, the slums of India, in my experience remain a place of transient life and humanity.  They are as much fascinating as they can be overwhelming.

Slums and the Dangers of Poverty Porn

Before we went to Kathputli I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’d seen photographs of it taken by other photographers and they all appeared to be colourful and vibrant.  The last thing I wanted to portray about my own experiences in Kathputli is the concept of poverty porn.  For I am neither here to make Kathputli appear glamorous or to sell my images from my two trips there.

Instead I would prefer to share my pondering thoughts about how and why communities like Kathputli differ so greatly from our own.

A Colony of Artists

Kathputli is as much an artist colony or enclave as it is a slum.  Many of the residents of Kathputli have arrived there from two of India’s most colourful and vibrant states, Rajasthan and Gujarat.  Amongst them are some extremely talented street performers including stilt walkers, dancers, puppeteers, fire breathers, magicians and high wire artists.  In this way alone Kathputli is very different from any slum I have visited. Similar to other slums you still have to watch your step in Kathputli (you might end up standing in something horrible) as you walk through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways with rudimentary sanitation.  Often open sewers are covered with large slabs of stone.  In public areas, large spans of rubbish are not covered by anything.  Yet Kathputli feels different. Its narrow alleyways are filled with smiling children, stray cats, people preparing meals or enjoying a wash.  There are livestock animals in there like goats and chickens.  And nearly everyone knows someone who performs professionally.

Our guide, Bunty, provided both of us with an excellent insight into life inside Kathputli.  I asked him what happens when people become ill, when a woman gives birth or what might happen if Kathputli’s residents need dental, optical or other medical care.  He explained that a clinic is nearby to help most people but didn’t really go into any specifics.

He also told us how the colony had changed over the years with homes that are now numbered and how access to water and power has improved for the community.

We were invited into Bunty’s home and in one room we learned that six of his family sleep in the room we were invited into for tea.  All of them joined us to paint our hands with henna while we drank tea and enjoyed Indian sweets.  It was one of the most generous, humbling and beautiful experiences of our entire trip to India.

Kathputli is Surprising

Kathputli Surprises #1  – It Doesn’t Smell.

In the pit of pre-monsoon India we visited Kathputli.  The temperatures in Delhi were nearing 40C during the day and I worried that the entire experience of Kathputli would quickly overwhelm us.  I thought the smell alone would drive us away.  Instead the opposite was more true.  For some reason neither of us could smell anything dire.  The air was simply perfumed by people and it wasn’t unpleasant at all.

Kathputli Surprises #2 – There was Beauty Everywhere.

Over the 23 years I have been visiting India, the one singular impression I have of the entire country and its people is an affinity with colour.  It’s like complimentary colours are formed perfectly with Indian genetics.  It doesn’t matter how rich or poor a community may be, that sense of colour and beauty pervades absolutely everything.  Kathputli is no different.  Walking through the streets of Kathputli you may chance across a brightly coloured wall adorned with a complimentary coloured shrine.

The women have an innate sense of wearing colours that suit them.  Children dart around courtyards that are painted a rainbow of oranges, greens, pinks and reds.  The colony’s performers move about in a riot of vibrance that includes shades of turquoise, yellow, lime green and purple.

Kathputli Surprises #3 – The People are Extremely Generous and Kind

Everywhere we visited in Kathputli we were literally overwhelmed by the friendliness and kindness of the people we met there.  We were invited in for tea.  Children followed us around simply so we could take their photo.  Many, many residents simply wanted to chat with us or practice their English.

In fact within an hour of us arriving on our first visit, we were spontaneously invited to join in a wedding celebration, the friendliness and beauty of which moved us both to tears!

This level of kindness and generosity surpasses so many of our societies in the ‘developed’ world and one of the things I ponder most about places like Kathputli is how much they remind me of my own childhood, growing up on a fishing trawler with a strong sense of community and purpose.  Our modern world has lost much of this yet Kathputli retains a stronger sense of community responsibility and support.

Kathputli Surprises #4 – Everything That Can Possibly be Recycled Is

When I return home from places like India and Kathputli, I am often saddened at how much we waste.  All over the world, the issue of waste is unavoidable and Kathputli, in some ways, is no different.  They do, however, make use of things way more effectively than we do.  When I was a child we used to be quite resourceful with rubbish and try to waste as little as possible.  I had a childhood that instilled in me the need to use less and waste less but the more I travel, the more I am realising that my own upbringing was unusual.  The incredible amount of single use plastics in our environment is the by-product of our society which has become used to plastic packaging, throw-away cups, bags, utensils and wrappers.  As a child, if our nets on the boat were ever caught up in a snag, we would try to retrieve them and mend them.  I spent many hours watching my dad show my brother how to mend nets.  In contrast, many modern fishermen use nets that are so cheap, if they get caught, they are simply cut free to drift the ocean, indiscriminately killing a lot of marine wildlife.

Kathputli has waste but it only consists of stuff that can’t be used.  Secondhand timber is used to fashion ladders and steps, pieces of corrugated iron are used for building houses, bricks are used for the same, clothes are handed down, tins are used for growing plants and storing food items, the same bottle is used for fetching water every day.

Although some would look at Kathputli and see it as dysfunctional, when it comes to waste I feel they do this much better than we do.

Kathputli Surprises #5 – It Supports An Entire Industry

While many of Kathputli’s residents live in poverty, the community itself supports almost an entire industry of performers that are often hired out to work in events all across Delhi.

Kathputli’s resident artists have been entertaining weddings, openings, parties and all manner of social events since the colony was established over sixty years ago.  We were lucky enough to watch many of these performers during our two visits and they are extremely talented.  I was really left wondering what may become of some of them if, somehow, Kathputli was ever destroyed.

Why Kathputli Should Be Preserved

Kathputli lies approximately 30 minutes drive from one of Delhi’s wealthiest areas, the city’s prestigious Diplomatic Enclave.   The land it sits on is owned by a government body, the Delhi Development Agency, which has earmarked it for demolition.  Currently new accommodation is being created for the residents in Kathputli to voluntarily move to yet few have done so.  Although the destruction of this incredible place has been curtailed for now, I fear that it will only be a few years before that act becomes a reality.

The destruction of a slum like Kathputli perplexes me.  Why would anyone want to destroy an integral part of the social fabric of a large city, especially one that is so charismatic, cohesive and inoffensive?  I understand the incentive of big developers wanting to make lots of money, at any cost but why Kathputli?  In the middle of the night, if I can’t sleep, I often think of communities like Kathputli and what its residents may do if they are forced to move.

My hope is that Kathputli will continue to exist either in its current form or in some altered way that will allow the resident families there to build upon their existing relationships and continue to foster their community’s strengths.

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