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Flowers in filth: Delhi's forgotten street performers

Monday September 12, 2011 08:22:08 AM, Mohita Nagpal, IANS

Folk singers and puppeteers at Kathputli colony in New Delhi

New Delhi: "We are like flowers growing in filth." Somehow when translated in English, the significance of Sajjan Bhatt's bitter words seems to get lost. But try braving a walk through Kathputli colony, a Delhi slum, where the puppeteer lives with other street artists and the significance would stay forever, if not the nauseating stench.

Located in west Delhi's Shadipur area, the 5.22 hectare Kathputli colony housing over 4,000 families is one of the biggest hubs of street artists in India. Magicians, acrobats, puppeteers, folk singers, dancers, jugglers, tightrope walkers -- at each odd turn, in each dilapidated house, resides a talent, a performer, or as they best like to describe themselves -- an artist.

Mostly migrated from Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, these people have made the colony their habitat for half a decade.

Everyone's born with a talent here. Children learn to beat drums as soon as they start speaking. The claustrophobic lanes are their first stage, the goats, the cows and the sheepish dogs the permanent audience. The show never ends.

But Sajjan Bhatt is not happy. "There was a time when there used to be long queues of customers outside this slum. They wanted to buy puppets, book us for shows. But not any more," the 65-year-old says.

"Now you have cable TV, many other means of entertainment. For the greater part of the year, we are literally jobless. It's only in winter that we see some good business," Bhatt, who is originally from Rajasthan, told IANS.

Of his four sons, Murli, 32, is the odd one out. He plays drums, instead of exploiting his hereditary talent of puppeteering.

"We play at marriages, parties...but ever since DJs have come into the picture, our business has been going downhill."

Living with his wife and four children in a 10X10 feet room-cum-house, Murli makes a modest Rs.500 from each performance. "But there are days during the marriage season when the demand is more than the supply and we can ask for more money."

Murli has been a drum player ever since he was five. But his children, all well over that age, will never pick up the sticks.

"I don't want them to become street artists. We have been performing since generations. But that was then... now there's no future in this," he says, while shooing away inquisitive kids and eavesdropping rats at the same time.

Agrees Jagdish Bhatt, a self-confessed multi-talent. "There will come a day when people will have to call jugglers and puppeteers from abroad. We will perish," the 60-year-old announces, increasing the decibel level that adds a dramatic effect.

Originally a puppeteer, Jagdish picked up magic tricks and other art forms from his neighbours and rightfully passed them on to the next generation.

"I have performed in over 20 countries," Jagdish told IANS, ordering his grandson to fetch the album and certificates, sensing one's unexpressed scepticism.

Next door, a cursing woman is making a futile effort of making her husband take a bath. Half-naked and dripping with water, the man, drunk on cheap liquor and existential thoughts, shouts "everyone will die one day" to no one in particular.

In the meantime, Jagdish's grandson, Vicky, 22, appears with the files and a plastic egg wrapped in a green cloth. He performs the classic act of the egg disappearing from the cloth with the air and oratory of a distinguished artist.

"Last month, 25 boys from this slum started working in malls as cleaners. It's a real hand-to-mouth situation," the young magician says, before his grandfather interrupts.

"Governments in foreign countries take care of their artists and try to promote talent. People there are shocked to know that we live in such conditions," he says, while pointing towards an army of flies happily buzzing on a cocktail of slush and animal excreta.

Some houses away, if they could be called so, Jharsanut, 60, is having a practice session of acrobatics with his four granddaughters.

Sitting on the steps, Jharsanut's wife shoots comments to the girls on how to get the balance right. She's wrinkled and retired, but clearly her memory's intact.

Ask her why she doesn't possess her neighbours' cynicism about the future of street artists and sends her granddaughters to schools, and all she manages is a 'what is the option' shrug.

Words like 'education' and 'school' don't register with her. She ignores the sticky subject and fetches the photo album. It soon turns out that every household in the slum has one -- the portfolio. That they have, even if they have little else.

(Mohita Nagpal can be contacted at




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