Oh, I see! moments
Travel Cultures Language

Kathputli: Traditions of Fire, Puppets, and Magic

by Meredith Mullins on April 17, 2017

A puppeteer performs for his family in the Kathputli Colony in Delhi, showing cultural encounters in the slums of India. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

A handmade puppet dances for her puppeteer inside a Kathputli Colony jhuggi.
© Meredith Mullins

Cultural Encounters in the Slums of India

The labyrinthine streets lead from one palette of wild color to another—from carnival reds and yellows to candy pinks and lavenders to soothing blue and green pastels.

The stripes and flowers and polka dots of the freshly washed clothes that hang in every possible open space make the colors of the buildings even more festive.

Colorful buildings and hanging wash in the Kathputli Colony of Delhi, showing cultural encounters in the slums of India. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The Kathputli Colony in living color
© Meredith Mullins

Smells of curry and turmeric drift in the dusty air. And sounds of daily life and laughter create an uninterrupted soundtrack.

Cultural encounters in the Kathputli Colony in the Shadipur Depot area of west Delhi are filled with “Oh, I see” moments.

Girls of the Kathputli Colony in Delhi, showing cultural encounters in the slums of India. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

A community filled with smiles
© Meredith Mullins

The Slum Truth

I thought I had a hint of what life is like in the slums of India—Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai. After all, I’ve seen films like Slumdog Millionaire and Lion and read books such as Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Midnight’s Children.

But, it was not until I had walked through the cramped alleys of Kathputli; shared tea in a puppeteer family’s one-room, dirt-and-concrete floor home; stepped gingerly over the rivulets of sewage and tangles of electrical wires; and played with the local children that I began to understand.

Colorful alley in the Kathputli Colony in Delhi, showing cultural encounters in the slums of India. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Electrical wires abound, but electricity is sporadic.
© Meredith Mullins

Oh I see. This is home . . . although it is not an easy existence. Electricity is sporadic, water must be carried from a distance, and the streets are littered with more trash than they should be.

Even with this backdrop of poverty, families are relatively happy here. There are plenty of smiles and laughter. There is artistry through almost every open door.

This is life. There is pride of place . . . and a spirit of family and community.

A home in the Kathputli Colony, with mother, son, and dog, showing cultural encounters in the slums of India. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Colorful, open-air homes
© Meredith Mullins

A Community of Street Artists

Two things make the Kathputli Colony unique—the past and the future.

This particular neighborhood has a long tradition as a home for street performers. Started in the 1950s by puppeteers from Rajasthan, the colony now has more than 3,000 families of magicians, fire breathers, snake charmers, musicians, acrobats, singers, dancers, rope walkers, and jugglers.

Men play cards in the street of the Kathputli Colony, showing cultural encounters in the slums of India. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Life in the streets
© Meredith Mullins

Outdoor life is common in India. At Kathputli, the residents work and play in the open courtyards and wider alleys, as well as and in their makeshift homes pieced together with wood, tin, tarp, mud, and brick.

They go out to perform, by day or by night, and return to the camaraderie of their families and friends and their colorful home life.

Fire breather in the Kathputli Colony, showing cultural encounters in the slums of India. (Image © Chester Ng.)

A fire breather at the colony
© Chester Ng 2016 ([email protected])

The community is friendly and welcoming. Even the children have a wonderful theatrical quality—in their poses, their colorful American brand-name hand-me-downs, their trendy hair styles, and their connection to visitors.

The time I spent wandering the Kathputli alleys was a traveler’s treasure (and a photographer’s dream).

Three children of the Kathputli Colony in the street, showing cultural encounters in the slums of India. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Setting trends in many ways
© Meredith Mullins

An Uncertain Future

This spirit of community made it even sadder to learn that the Kathputli families are being displaced from this colony.

As “progress” would have it, the land they have lived on for the past 60 years is now becoming prime real estate. At the same time, the government has pledged to eliminate slums.

A group of Kathputli Colony dwellers, showing cultural encounters in the slums of India. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The evolution of a camp
© Meredith Mullins

The original residents built a community out of a jungle on the edge of the city. They started with a camp and slowly made improvements to produce the village of jhuggis (makeshift dwellings) today.

However, as Delhi expanded, Kathputli became more central and is now even on a major metro line.

The government has given a contract to developers to develop the land, including commercial buildings as well as new homes in apartment blocks for the colony families.

The families will be relocated—first to a transit camp while new homes are constructed in multi-story buildings and ultimately to these new living units.

Two rows of transit camp units for the Kathputli Colony, showing how cultural encounters in the slums of India have led to displacement. (Image © Sanjuko Basu.)

The transit camp does not lend itself to the spirit of the Kathputli Colony.
© Sanjukta Basu

The colony is rightfully skeptical. Some have refused to leave their homes until they are promised the new homes via a court contract and are given some specific timelines for the new development.

Currently, it is unclear how long they must live in the transit camp, which seems more like a military camp than the colorful community of Kathputli.

The developers can’t begin the new construction until all the families have relocated to the transit camp. But those holding out have no faith that they will get a new house, and they want to be sure that the new housing works with their artistic lifestyle—with places to store their materials and performance areas to practice and share their arts.

Two girls hold hands at the Kathputli Colony in Delhi, showing cultural encounters in the slums of India. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

A nostalgia for the ancestral homes
© Meredith Mullins

A Nostalgia for Traditions

While the redevelopment plan may be a good start to solving the issue of slum dwelling, there will be a lingering nostalgia when the colorful alleys and cultural encounters of Kathputli have become a sea of high-rise apartment buildings, and when the puppeteers and fire breathers are no longer gathering spontaneously in the streets to share their proud history of artistry.

Sometimes the path to “progress” leaves much to be desired.

A boy poses amidst the rubble of the Kathputli Colony, showing cultural encounters in the slums of India. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Kathputli style
© Meredith Mullins

For more information about the current Kathputli Colony relocation issues, read this article by independent journalist Sanjukta Basu in The First Post. OIC also thanks Ms. Basu for permission to use her photograph of the transit camp. Please also visit her website.

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Comments:

4 thoughts on “Kathputli: Traditions of Fire, Puppets, and Magic

  1. How bitter-sweet: the colors and laughter amid what some would call “squalor,” the depth of community fabric they have woven from necessity and a passion for living, only to be about to lose it to “progress” and modernization. thanks for telling this incredible story

    • Dear Rick,

      You are so right about the bitter-sweet feelings and, as you so poetically put it, the depth of community fabric. This story has stayed with me. I fear for its ending. But somehow I hold out hope that these artists will survive the wrath of “progress.”

      Thank you for writing … and for keeping these passionate folks in your thoughts.

      With best wishes,

      Meredith

  2. Remarkable story through your lens and told from your warm heart. I think is is one of your best stories.

    • Dear Pamela,

      Thank you for your kind words. The Kathputli experience was certainly one of the most moving ones in my many years of travel. I felt I learned first-hand what’s important in life.

      I do not want to forget the faces of these wonderful people.

      With best wishes,
      Meredith

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