x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Street artists fear they're being edged out of modern India

The artists and musicians of a New Delhi slum fear an enforced move will destroy the vibrant community that helps keep their skills alive.

Altimas Khan practises juggling at his home in Kathputli Colony in Delhi. The colony houses more than 2,800 families, who warn that the long and complex process of moving them away may destroy one of the last vibrant communities of India's performance artists.
Altimas Khan practises juggling at his home in Kathputli Colony in Delhi. The colony houses more than 2,800 families, who warn that the long and complex process of moving them away may destroy one of the last vibrant communities of India's performance artists.

NEW DELHI // Bhagwandas Bhaat's ancestors used to perform for kings. He comes from a long line of puppeteers and musicians who once enjoyed the patronage of the royal families of Rajasthan.

But that backing withered away after India's independence in 1947. Mr Bhaat's audiences are now mostly children of middle-class families. He lives in Kathputli Colony, a collection of ramshackle huts on 5.22 hectares that is home to more than 2,800 families of puppeteers, musicians, acrobats, snake charmers and other folk artists from across India.

Today Mr Bhaat, 65, has another disconcerting change to cope with. The government plans to move the artists this month into new low-cost housing about eight kilometres away. Mr Bhaat will have to vacate the humble home he has lived in for 40 years.

"When a bird builds a nest with twigs collected over time, with its hard work and one day you destroy it, where does all the hard work go?" Mr Bhaat asked. "What does the bird have to show for it? Nothing."

The move is particularly troubling because the government's plan is to move the artists into "transit camps" for two years, raze the slum, build high-rise buildings on the site and move the performing artists to it.

The families warn that the long and complex process may destroy one of the last vibrant communities of India's performance artists. And even after some of them move to the high-rise, they say, they will not have the environment they need to survive as artists.

If the colony is displaced, the network that connects them and through which they hear about jobs and perform together will disappear.

Mr Bhaat has seen the temporary housing and said he will not move there.

"All our dignity will be gone by the time we are made to move into those temporary plywood structures that can barely hold a cot," he said. "One family cannot live together. I have three sons and a daughter. Where will they sleep?"

Mr Bhaat moved to Delhi 40 years ago. Delhi was then their base of operations. His wife makes the puppets. The family would sleep on the streets between their travels to other Indian cities, where they would perform outside. Slowly, the artists and their families settled near each other, giving rise to Kathputli colony.

"On one hand, we are the keepers of the country's ancient traditions, on the other hand ... look at us," Mr Bhaat said. "We are being sent off to a place from where we don't trust we will come back. This will never be the same again. The fibre that holds us together will be gone forever."

Ishamudin Khan, 40, is a magician from Uttar Pradesh. He said the government should look at the colony, and others like it across India, and understand the needs of the artists. He says they are "not rickshaw pullers and uneducated people".

"We need mobile schools for our children, so they can study. We need permits to be able to perform across India," Mr Khan said. "And how is that going to happen when we are stuck in a building?"

For some families there are also other concerns.

Kailash Bhaat is hoping that his education will help him to break out of the cycle of poverty afflicting thousands of artists in Kathputli Colony. Courtesy of Simon de Trey-White

The Khans, for generations, have eaten food made on a wood-burning stove.

"How is that going to be possible in a flat?" Mr Khan asked.

With no royal patronage and no support from the government, many of the artists eke out a living today by performing Bollywood songs at weddings and parties and on the streets.

"We have to do western clown tricks to make money at the birthday parties and keep the people interested," said Mr Khan, who is teaching one of his sons how to ride a unicycle and juggle at the same time - in a clown costume.

Modern India is also threatening the street performances.

"If we want to perform on the streets here, we have to bribe a policeman or a local official" because we are supposed to have a permit, said Mr Khan. "We are street performers but not allowed to perform on the streets. Yet no one comes to ask us about how we feed our families.

"Our problem is empowerment, not housing. Being able to perform is empowerment," he said.

Mr Khan and Mr Bhaat have performed abroad for audiences that the both said seem to have more interest in the traditional arts than modern Indians. But even then they are paid Indian wages - between 1,500 (Dh103) and 2,000 (Dh137) rupees a day for their performances.

Mr Bhaat and Mr Khan are pouring what money they can save into their children's education, hoping they will break out of the cycle of poverty.

Kailash Bhaat, 25, learnt to speak English and French while on tour with his father to Europe. Mr Khan's eldest daughter, Jasmin, 19, is set to graduate from university with a degree in English. She also takes Chinese lessons from a local language school.

Kailash is a soft-spoken puppeteer and impressive musician who plays eight instruments including the harmonium, drums, flute, harmonica, melodica, the African drums called djembe and the khartal, or crotales. He recently performed at the Alliance Française in Delhi, where he earned a diploma in French. To pay for the course, he played for three days and three nights at a lavish wedding in Rajasthan, earning 8,500 rupees.

"It is ironic that I have performed on streets across the world, but I have never had the opportunity to perform on the streets here," said Kailash.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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