Kathputli Colony: Dilli Ke Bhule Bisre-A Tinsel Slum

By Akshita Kholsa,

According to UN Habitat, “A slum household is a group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area who lack one or more of the following five conditions : Access to water, Access to sanitation, secure tenure, durability of housing, sufficient living area.”

Slums and squatter settlements are considered as the worst and the most sub-standard settlements in the world. Section 3 of the Slum Improvement and Clearance Areas Act of 1956 states that buildings and/or areas unfit for human habitation were declared as slums. The Jhuggi Jhopdi  clusters are considered as an encroachment on public and private lands.

Kathputli Colony

Delhi started witnessing emergence of JJ Clusters immediately after independence in 1947 and with effect from 1960, the Government has taken up resettlement of JJ families in a planned manner. Till the end of 1984-85, about 2.40 lakh JJ families were resettled under various programmes from time to time. During the Seventh Five Year Plan, 1985-90, the stress was on improvement of Slums on “As is Where is basis”.

– Delhi Planning Committee(URBAN DEVELOPMENT)

The Delhi Master Plan 2021 introduced the ‘in-situ rehabilitation’ approach to the slums for redevelopment. According to this plan, the residents of Jhuggi Jhopdi  clusters are transferred to a temporary housing, till the Delhi Development Authority (DDA)reconstructs the settlements. The slum dwellers are then shifted back to the original plot and an improved housing.  West Delhi’s Kathputli Colony was selected as the first slum under the ‘in-situ’ project in 2007. Raheja Developers  undertook the project of constructing  ‘Raheja Phoenix’ (with a planned height of 190 meters) on the Kathputli colony in 2009. Touted to be Delhi’s ‘first true skyscraper’, Raheja Phoenix is supposed to be 54 floors of luxury flats equipped with ‘skysclub and helipad’, say the private developers.

The Kathputli in-situ slum rehabilitation is a three-step process. First, the residents of Kathputli  who qualify for the project will move from their current settlement in Shadipur to a transit camp. Second, Raheja will raze the JJ cluster and begin the construction of high-rise apartments—and a luxury skyscraper—on site. Finally, within the next three to five years, the transit camp residents will move back into the settlement, next door to Raheja Phoenix.

–CPR Paper June 2013

After being immortalized in fiction by Salman Rushdie’s portrait in Midnight’s Children, Kathputli Colony has long been the object of fascination for various Non Governmental Organisations and tourists. “You’ll find magic in the Kathputli slum,” TIME magazine reported in 2008, “if you know where to look.” Kathputli colony’s vast sprawl currently occupies valuable real estate in Central Delhi.  The Raheja website states that “The project is located in the heart of the city surrounded by posh commercial and residential localities of Central Delhi, and distance from Connaught Place is just 5 min.”

In the early 1970’s, a handful of performers from Rajasthan –mostly puppeteers and magicians, migrated to West Delhi’s Shadipur region. Over time, they were joined by a variety of artists from Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, started living together in a cluster. The settlement came to be known as ‘Kathputli’ after the kind of string puppet theatre performed by its residents.

Kathputli Colony , better known as Kalakaaro ki basti, Bazeegar Colony and Madari colony, is a slum beneath the Shadipur depot. Almost centrally located, the colony is just 5 minutes away from the posh Connaught place. After exiting the Shadipur metro station, one almost ignores the narrow alley that leads to the colony. Flanked by ‘Dhol-wala’ kiosks on both the sides, the mouth of the colony has a small ration shop right in the beginning. The slum is famous all over the world and has puppeteers, magicians, acrobats, dancers, snake-charmers, monkey trainers and mime-artists as its residents. As I move in , a strong stink of garbage takes over all my senses and makes me scringe my nose. Women in colourful lehengas are seen doing their daily chores, while most of the men are seen playing cards in the alley. There are lanes and streets that end abruptly. At certain places pucca houses and cemented dwellings have come up. These belong to the well-established artists who have made a couple of trips abroad.

On asking the people about the problems they face, one of them, aged around 35 says, ‘Madam, where should we start from. We want somebody to listen to us. We have a lot of problems.’ He then directs me to the Pradhan’s house, who has all the records and is a representative of the Kathputli colony. On reaching his semi pukka house, I am warmly greeted by five women, who are crammed in the room that they call home. As the conversation proceeds, Seema,the Pradhan’s wife tells me that they do not want to relocate at all. She says, “We have been living here since 50 years. My father-in-law got me married and brought me here. This is where my children have been born. We have an identity here, because people know that this is Kathputli Colony. We do not trust the Government. It has never done anything for us.’

Geeta, one of the dancers, whose son just returned from Russia, says that they have been performing cultural traditional Rajasthani folkdance for 30 years now. ‘Our children learn the art right from the beginning. Girls perform traditional dances while boys learn to play the dhol and do ‘talwaar-baazi’. People from hotels know that we live here and recruit us by contacting our madam’.  They refer to Mrs Kuldeep Kaur as their madam who has been looking after the Kalakaar Trust for over  ten years now. The artists who make puppets and carve out idols from wood call themselves ‘Bhule Kalakaar’ or the forgotten Artists.

Mukesh Sharma, Geeta’s son says that there is almost nothing to do in the off season. A  professional dhol-wala , he says that his mother has been to Russia, Turkey and Istanbul to perform. “We face problems when we are returning back in the night from hotels. “The police harasses us and demands money from us after putting allegations of us being thiefs. One abroad trip gives us Rupees 30,000 whereas if we stay here, we get to earn only Rupees 25,000 in a year. In off season, we make puppets and sell them in Dilli Haat and at India Gate. Our mothers often make biryani to sell it to the labourer class.”

With major water problems and sanitation issues Kathputli colony has about 3200 houses and a population of 12,000 approximately. The Pradhan has written letters to Sonia Gandhi and other Congress and BJP leaders, making demands for pucca houses.

With permanent risks of eviction, every resident of the slum has a different story to tell. Despite living in dismal and pathetic conditions, the artists are trying to preserve the dying art forms. These cultural ambassadors of our country certainly deserve a place of their own and a life of dignity.

Akshita Kholsa is a student of journalism at Asian School of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai.