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Losing Kathputli

One of Kathputli’s children stands at the base of a pile of rubble. I still wonder what may have happened to him.

“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”

“Miss! Miss! One photo! One selfie!” . This was how I was greeted when I visited the artist colony of Kathputli in Delhi. That was back in April 2017 when the community still existed.

Kathputli. It was the slum that inspired Salman Rushdie to include it in his book “Midnight’s Children”. When I write about Kathputli, I use the term ‘slum’ warily. For me, Kathputli was more than just a slum. It was a community woven together by threads of artists’ families; migrant workers from Gujarat and Rajasthan; ragtag groups of children wandering the streets and alleyways filled with colour and light.

I hadn’t planned to visit Kathputli. I was at the start of my ethnography project in Ladakh and in transit through Delhi when one of my guests (now friends), Ingrid, and I decided to go.

Before we visited, I assumed Kathputli would be a grim place filled with destitution and poverty. What we found was the opposite. Instead of roughly hewn huts, I found a mishmash of brightly coloured, yet basic buildings that were home to some of the most warm and welcoming people I’d met in all of India.

It was only a slum in a physical sense. Wandering the streets we had to be careful not to step in an open sewer and sometimes we had to negotiate piles of rubble to make our way to the end of the street. Rubble that had been picked over by collectors. For Kathputli wasn’t necessarily filled with trash. It had been rid of anything that could be recycled by entrepreneurial types willing to make a little cash from whatever they could find.

Collecting wasn’t the main pre-occupation of Kathputli. It was a sideline to the more lucrative industry of art and performing. Residing in Kathputli were some of Delhi’s most talented artisans, dancers, puppeteers, magicians and painters. Many of its residents had graced celebrations across Delhi over many decades. Most had been born in Kathputli, they had raised their children there and a lot of residents were looking after elderly family members living with them.

The community had breathed larger and smaller in size for over seventy years.  A beating heart of families that shared community, houses and a unique talent for bringing joy to so many.

Wandering its labyrinth of colourful alleyways, we were swallowed up whole by the lives of the people in Kathputli. In the dark corner of a room we’d watch a mother gently breastfeed her baby. A short walk down the street we’d watch someone getting ready for a performances in the city. We were invited into homes where eight or so family members would sleep in one room at night. The walls of those rooms were adorned with tattered family photos, good luck symbols and chalked school timetables. Around some corners were shrines for Hindu worshippers. At the edge of the community a makeshift mosque had been erected for Muslims to pray.

Shortly after we arrived, we heard loud music and women singing from one courtyard of a home. Bunty, our guide took us to the source and we found a group of women ululating and dancing to prepare for a wedding in the community. Seeing that we were foreign in their world, we were asked if we would like to join in their celebrations. Although it was early in the day we were served a low alcohol beer and snacks as the women circled around us through dance. In the end we were both swept up by this celebration so much that we were moved to tears.

As photographers we were treated as a curiosity. After all, Kathputli’s artists had their own innate sense of art and form. After each click we were often asked to see the photos we’d taken and when shown we were surrounded by eruptions of smiles and laughter.

We were constantly humbled by the sheer humanity of this ramshackle community not far from Delhi’s famed diplomatic quarter.

From people who had very few material possessions we were shown the most gracious hospitality. Tea and cakes were shared with us by women who painted our hands with henna in the tradition of Mehndi. We watched magicians perform for mesmerised children; stilt walkers negotiating their way through crowded streets and fire-breathers practicing their art at dusk. It was hard not to feel enveloped by Kathputli both physically and emotionally.

For years the residents of Kathputli had been fighting with government officials in Delhi to stop their community from being destroyed. Foreign NGOs were also working with the people of the colony to stop the destruction.  I felt there could have been options for Kathputli that would have been more favourable. I always thought it could have been protected in the name of preserving a part of Delhi’s cultural heritage.  Sadly developers never shared my idealistic view of Kathputli’s future.  Economics took the primary stage in their decision making.

In November 2017, at the start of a vicious Delhi winter, the worst nightmares of Kathputli’s residents became reality. Their battles to save their community had been lost. With less than a month’s notice, the government in Delhi decided to demolish Kathputli to make way for new buildings and homes to be constructed. Very little was offered to the residents of Kathputli as compensation for their losses. Government officials had planned to place them in alternative camps a long way out of the city, effectively cutting the community off from any way to make money.

Instead the residents of Kathputli scattered. Some simply joined Delhi’s throngs of homeless people. Others took shelter in churches or mosques. The formerly close-knit community of Kathputli was obliterated. The fabric that held them together was simply ripped apart.

The act of demolishing Kathputli was way more than just the destruction of another slum in India. It was the breakdown of families, homes, love, ties and any chance for a viable future for nearly a thousand people.

When Kathputli was demolished a Dutch lady who had been working with the people of Kathputli to help them find alternative accommodation, food, schooling and healthcare approached me about my photographs that I took there. She hoped she would be able to use them to obtain funding for the people of Kathputli. Without question I gave them to her. After all, the people of Kathputli had welcomed us like family during our visit.

These images formed a part of a vital campaign to assist the people of Kathputli to survive. They bolstered a funding drive that secured shelter, food and continued schooling and health care for around 90% of the residents within around six weeks of their homes being destroyed. My images helped many of the children in Kathputli to continue with their schooling. They helped others to find more permanent homes.

I still think about the people of Kathputli every day. Although short, my time with them was a profound experience of learning for me. Thankfully I can check on them indirectly from my home through friends who are still connected with the residents and most are doing OK. Help is reaching them in terms of food and shelter.