This month, Kathputli Colony, a neighborhood of Shadipur in Delhi, is slated for demolition. The Delhi Development Authority has sold the land on which KC’s residents live to a real estate developer, who has plans to build a condominium and shopping mall.
Meanwhile, Raheja Developers has been charged with building the transit camps where KC’s nearly 3,000 families are supposed to live. In February, two days before the relocation was supposed to begin, the Times of Indiareported that there were still no bath fittings in community bathrooms, no proper water supply, and spotty electricity. At time of writing in early March, over a dozen families had already been relocated to the transit camps. Bulldozers were being used to intimidate residents. The DDA and Raheja have promised the artists proper flats eventually. Time will tell.
Perhaps this would be a minor news item—just another slum in the developing world cleared in the name of beautification, progress, and the bottom line—if not for the unique population of puppeteers, acrobats, balladeers, magicians, artisans, and folk artists who call Kathputli their home. For Kathputli is not just any colony. It’s Salman Rushdie’s magic moving slum. And it’s home to a band of artists whom Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi once called India’s “foremost cultural ambassadors.”
In 1980, Salman Rushdie published Midnight’s Children, which went on to win the Booker (and Booker of Bookers) and inaugurated a new era in the writing of the English-language Indian novel. Indeed, Rushdie’s linguistically innovative, magical realist treatment of India’s birth into nationhood was so influential that multiple generations of Indian Anglophone writers are still struggling to surmount the moniker of “Midnight’s Children’s children.” But few people know that the magic that infuses the now canonical novel was actually the province of a living community in Old Delhi, and that the magician’s slum in which Saleem Sinai takes refuge with Parvati-the-Witch and Picture Singh (The Most Charming Man in the World) is an actual slum that was subject to “clearance” during the Emergency of the 1970s and which then, having managed to avoid being “disappeared” by Sanjay Gandhi’s/Major Shiva’s goons, re-appeared close to Shadipur bus depot.
Rushdie’s magicians are the magicians of Kathputli Colony.
In 1985, thanks to an agreement between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Ronald Reagan, there was a major Festival of India in the United States, which featured nearly 800 programs in 44 states in 140 cities. Many of the major programs of the Festival were organized and hosted by the Smithsonian, including “Aditi: The Living Arts of India” at the National Museum of Natural History and “Mela! An Indian Fair,” both of which included the participation of folk artists from India. These artists were mostly members of the “Bhule Bisre Kalakar (Forgotten and Neglected Artists)” collective, who at the time were living as squatters in Shadipur, but who had garnered the support and attention of influential activists in India, including designer Rajeev Sethi, a major force in the conception and execution of the Festival.
Indira Gandhi was assassinated before the festival came to fruition, and so it was Rajiv Gandhi’s responsibility as Prime Minister to attend the festival, where he called the folk artists “India’s foremost cultural ambassadors.”
Gandhi’s ambassadors were the artists of Kathputli Colony.
Rohan Kalyan, a professor of International and Global Studies at Sewanee, has in recent years conducted ethnographic research in KC as part of his work on urban dispossession and slum re-settlement in postcolonial India. An oldkathputliwalla, Mohan, recounted to Kalyan his memories of performing for President Reagan and Prime Minister Gandhi on the White House lawn during summer 1985. Rajiv Gandhi directly addressed Mohan and his fellow artists, assuring them that they “would always have a place in Delhi, that unlike other slum clusters in the city, their homes in Shadipur would always be protected from redevelopment and demolition by the state.”
Richard Kurin, Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture at the Smithsonian, recalls that there was more than one promise extracted from the Prime Minister, who also pledged to the artists and another one of their champions, Maura Moynihan, daughter of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the revocation of beggary laws affecting folk artists.
In reality, however, and as the New York Times reported in October of that same year, the folk artists went back to “living in squalor … looking for work and facing an uncertain future.” Over the course of the next three decades, numerous efforts were made to settle the artists in more permanent circumstances. In 1995, the Delhi Development Authority granted some land to the artists; plans were drawn up for a residential and cultural center that would include homes, artistic facilities, workshops, cooking areas, and even a library. But corruption, lack of will on the part of local politicians, a scandal concerning a cabinet minister and petroleum contracts, and prejudices against folk art derailed efforts by Sethi and the artists to bring the plans to fruition.
Today, the artists of Kathputli colony are no longer “forgotten” but they are still neglected, marginalized, and subject to the development schemes of the post-colonial (perhaps more accurately neo-colonial) state. They have an NGO now, called “House of Puppet: Education Welfare Society,” which has its own website and Facebook page. Google it. There are YouTube videos as well, and pictures galore.
These are the descendants of Saleem Sinai’s saviors, the living, breathing children of Midnight’s Children. These are the descendants of the artist-ambassadors who not only demystified India for a generation of Americans, but also inspired the creation of a National Cultural Festival, various regional cultural centers, and the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation back in India.
And there is yet another reason for us to pay attention to the story of Kathputli Colony, another debt we owe these folk artists who are being violently removed from their homes. In 1987, when Arvind Kumar conceived of the publication that would become our very own India Currents, he was specifically inspired by the Festival of India.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.