The magicians’ ghetto – an Indian slum under threat

Poverty has many faces but few are as colourful as Kathputli in India – the artists’ colony.

A student at the Kathputli Colony in India.

Students at the Kathputli Colony in India. Source: SBS News

The narrow alleyways teem with creativity – fire-breathers, acrobats, snake charmers, puppeteers and musicians call this slum in West Delhi home.

The thousands of people who live in Kathputli have “art in their blood”, according to local resident, Davinder Bhatt.

“I feel very glad that I was born in this colony, really! We are from the very low community, but I feel very glad,” says the 23-year-old smiling broadly.

Mr Bhatt is a teacher at the performing arts school that sits in the middle of the colony. He was once, he confesses with a cheeky grin, one of the school’s naughtiest pupils.

A student at the Kathputli Colony in India.
A student at the Kathputli Colony in India. Source: SBS News

Sterre Sharma, a painter originally from the Netherlands, established the school 25 years ago because the traditional arts of the community were being lost. 

While the school teaches the children English, its raison d’etre is training them in the arts of their ancestors. They are taught to play drums and accordions, to perform acrobatic tricks, hanging from ropes, and to dance. Another popular subject is malkham, a traditional Indian sport in which a gymnast performs on a vertical wooden pole.

“In the beginning we hired the gurus of the slum, the elderly people, but now we have worked for 25 years and the elderly people have died,” says Ms Sharma. “Now the youngsters have learned so they are teaching.”

The charm of the Kathputli Colony has long attracted authors and filmmakers. It features in Salman Rushdie’s book Midnight’s Children as the “magicians’ ghetto”.

But Ms Sharma has no patience with outsiders who she accuses of portraying the colony as idyllic. She says they should come to the slum at six o’clock in the morning and “watch the people shitting” in the alleyway outside her school.

SBS did just that.

In the early hours of the morning – when millions of more affluent Indians were still sleeping – it was peak hour in the colony. People were bathing outdoors with buckets while children defecated in the drains, women cooked chapatti on open fires outside their houses while shopkeepers sold lollies and soap.

The colony is colourful and creative, but it provides no fairy tale existence. The area wheezes with disease, tuberculosis is rife, and so is malaria. The pungent odours of faeces, urine and cooking fat fill the alleyways.  There are few toilets and no clean water.

A student at the Kathputli Colony in India.
A student at the Kathputli Colony in India. Source: SBS News

“Doctors from the WHO (World Health Organisation) have said if they test everyone here for tuberculosis, 80 per cent of the people will test positive and this has a lot to do with the crowding and the hygiene of the colony,” says Ms Sharma.

“There’s not enough space for people to breathe, forget about anything else.”

Teacher, Davinder Bhatt says he’s become conscious of how the colony looks to outsiders.

“Whenever my friends are coming – those living out of Delhi – I feel ashamed a little bit because it’s a very dirty place. Day by day it’s becoming dirtier.”

The residents live shoulder-to-shoulder in small, rickety shacks that look like they won’t survive the next monsoon.

But it’s not a thunderstorm that threatens the future of the colony. In 2009, the government sold the land to developers who plan to demolish the slum and build apartments. Some have been promised to the residents while others will be sold.

The locals worry about disease, but their biggest fear is being forced out of the only home many of them have known.

Artists like Rajenda Kumar, who makes puppets and performs with them, have been promised apartments, but fear they will be forced out permanently.

“I worry that if we have to move nobody will be able to find us. We’ll be in trouble, without food or work,” he says.

There is a great deal of confusion about the proposed development. Initially the residents flatly refused to leave, but as the years have passed, many are considering the proposal.

Davinder Bhatt says the government must provide the residents a written guarantee that they’ll be given accommodation in the new development.

“The world is changing, we have to change our lives also," he says. 

"Before we were not educated, and it was okay for us to live here. But now we have become educated so we have to change our lifestyles also.”

In recent months, some parents have begun marrying off their daughters in the hope they’ll be rewarded with more property in the new development. Some of the girls are only 10 years old.

“They think if they are married, the children are married, they will be entitled to a flat so, just as a precaution, even though that’s totally illogical, they are getting a lot of youngsters married,” says Sterre Sharma.

These unions are being borne of fear rather than hope, little girls married off before they’ve even reached puberty.

For the young girls from the performing arts school, dreaming of a Bollywood future, the agent of poverty is likely to sign them up first.

5 min read
Published 22 May 2016 at 12:49pm
By Lisa Upton