“So the women just sat down in the streets. Two hundred, three hundred women just sitting, playing their drums, singing songs and nobody knew what was going on. And even the police couldn’t do anything, because they were just sitting on the road.”
Place: Kathputli Colony, Delhi, India
Interview by Lena Dorfschmidt
Kathputli Colony was founded sixty years ago by artists from Rajasthan. They used to be artists that moved around all over India and to foreign countries to perform their arts. They were never staying in one place.
After the independence of India the Criminal Tribe Act 1871 made them criminals. So finally they reached here. They came and cut space free from the jungle to put their tents. Delhi is the capital and they were making good money performing their arts, so they called their friends and people started coming from all over India. Puppeteers, acrobats, drummers, dancers… from twelve states of India. When they first arrived they had tents, then they made houses from mud and now brick houses.
Some got good jobs, performing in foreign countries. We even have National Award Winners in the Colony and people are known in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Nowadays 20,000 people live in Kathputli Colony, that is about 4,000 families.
My father always used to say, “Don’t go to the artists’ street. “ People from the same community were hating each other. But in college [I felt that I] was growing feathers, I was feeling free. I crossed boundaries and went to the artists’ street and though, “Oh my god, how could I miss this during my childhood? They are wonderful people” That was my entry into Kathputli Colony.
Then I heard that Kathputli Colony [was supposed to] be shifted into flats. I was very happy that were were going to get good houses and shared it with my friends. In January I attended a community meeting for the first time. [I learned that] this was a PPP, a Public Participation Project, where public participation is a must. But there was no public participation. We didn’t know what was going on.
The first thing that disturbed me is that according to the ITI this land is worth 1026 crore [$150 million]– but the DDA, the Delhi Development Association, sold it to the builder for 6.11 lakhs [about $9,000]. Look at the difference!
We all felt surpised. How could they do that? This is our land. We have proof that we have been living here for forty years, we are paying our bills, we are getting food rations, have telephone connection, ID Cards and passports. If I am correct, Indian law says that if you have proof that you lived in a place for twenty-five years, you can own it.
I researched the project on google and found out that they were planning to build a forty-two story tower in Kathputli Colony. Forty-two! How could they get permission for that?
People have a different lifestyle in this colony. They don’t even purchase all the groceries for a single day – every two or three hours they go to the store again.
Accoring to DDA there were 3,046 families living in Kathputli Colony at that time. These families were going to get flats. But what happened? They came again later on and suddenly the number was down to 2,800. Families kept coming, but the number decreased? It gave me the feeling something was going wrong. They came again in 2014 and said there were only 2,614 families.
I finally decided I have to work on a protest against this. In the community meetings there are mostly older people, 5,000 people, but no one speaks. So I started explaining my ideas and people liked them.
I started to bring teenagers together. I went to the colony and asked them if they knew what was going on. They didn’t, but were very concerned. So we got together and thought what we could do.
In India, March is exam time in schools. The students in the colony are very poor, but I had a lot of hope that they would do good in their exams. But they were threatened [by the whole situation] and couldn’t concentrate on their studies. Bulldozers were coming, they were going to demolish our houses – how could the focus on their exams? About ten thousand police men were surrounding our colony.
I took thirty-five children in school uniform and they started the protest. We had banners and there was a lot of media present. I tried to show that the whole thing should be postponed until after the exams – the children should be able to focus on the exams. If they want to do it afterwards, that’s a different thing. Suddenly one child came forward and said something that was an amazing moment in my life. Now I work according to this principle. The child said, “I haven’t eaten breakfast, so I can’t walk. I am very hungry.” People came and said, “I will get chocolate for you. Just go for the protest, okay?” Suddenly a lot of people came together and said, “No, we have to get breakfast for all the children.” And between all of them they collected 300 rupees. It might not be much, but for the moment it was a big thing. People really wanted to continue the protest.
We started to walk in silence [with the thirty-five children]. “If anyone says a word, the police can attack.”
And what happened after five minutes? I looked behing and I saw that there were 10,000 people behind us. I hadn’t expected that. I felt that they had been waiting, waiting for someone to take the first step.
That day I realized that people are with us. They are ready to stand up.
I used to go to community meetings, but there only the NGOs were talking. But the NGO’s are not our decision makers! Though at that time I still thought they wanted to bring us together.
There is a problem in the artist community: They drink a lot. Daytime, nighttime. So [if we did any kind of protest] they could be arrested easily. Then I had an idea: The police never attack women directly. We didn’t have any women in our protest. I started talking to women in the artist colony. [I called them together] That day seven hundred women came.
We have five entrances to the colony. I divided them into five parts. I didn’t really have a plan yet. [I just did what came to my mind].
So the women just sat down in the streets. Two hundred, three hundred women just sitting, playing their drums, singing songs and nobody knew what was going on. And even the police couldn’t do anything, because they were just sitting on the road.
Then a police man came and said, “You are blocking the road.”
And the people answered. I was silent, because they could easily capture a man. The answer came from the crowd, “This is our colony, this brick, this cement, we made this. This belongs to us. This is not a road, this is our street. So what’s the problem? This is not a road. We want to sing. We want to sing on the road, so we are singing. So what’s the problem?” The police didn’t say anything, they just left.
We started our protest every day at 9 a.m. […]
I felt we had to do something, something more complete. We are 20,00 people and at that time we were only 3,000 people protesting. They can’t arrest everyone. I thought we have to do something new in a very artistic way, because we are artists. Then I created a theatre group. I had an idea. We have to make an art play. First we make an art play and then we have to perform every corner of the colony, so people can know.
Suddenly one friend from Switzerland, [who was working in an NGO in the colony], she said, “I was waiting for this kind of initiative from the colony. I will help, I can bring you someone who can teach you theatre.” So that guy came and we spent many nights working and after three days we made a street play and then we performed in every corner. We perform twenty shows. We said, “We are performing there, so please come.” Our main motivation to bring peoples together.
I had an idea: We have to do a fair. I told people, “Look this is a proud moment for you. You are artists, perform in your community.” They said, “We never perform in our community.” Because they have their work, they go for work [somewhere else]. That disturbs me again, [If I was] an artists and definitely I would perform in community, “Look, this is my culture, this is my art, this is my identity.” Peoples always treat you like a criminal. You are artist, you have to show your art.
I talked to the president of the colony. One president hugged me, “You know, it’s a wonderful idea. Let’s go for it. Do you want funds? Do you want facilities? Tent houses?”
Suddenly everyone came together.
We planned a fair for the 23rd of March. It is the puppeteers’ fair where we are going to present ourselves.
We went then for the police permission, and they said, “No, you can’t do it. We are not giving permission.” Then I was very violent, so I said, no we have to do it, because I had the support from the community leaders.
We took some guys who know painting and the whole workshop area, we decorated it in a very traditional manner, like we were hanging puppets, we took all the pictures from community we could get: The awards, National Awards, Guinness Book of World Records, and the paintings, pictures with Queen Elizabeth, they worked with them too, pictures with Bollywood stars, pictures with big business man. Like an exhibition.
And then we made a cultural street and on both side of the street we put tables. “And on these tables,” I said, “Whatever you do, whatever your art is, […] whether you make ropes or Henna tatooes… This is your stall so come and just put your stuff there.”
So then we decorate the market too, because on the Main Street there are a lot of shops. We also put all the artists’ names on a chart and pasted it at their shops. “This is a drum shop, this is a puppet shop.” This was done in only two days of preparation. I told them, “There is no time, we just do it.”
And when I listed all the performances, I had twenty-eight performances. Dance, traditional dancing, singing lot of things. I think that ninety percent of the colony’s people came that day. When I announced, I said, “We fixed that we are doing twenty eight performances.” That time what happened? When I checked my list at the end we had sixty-three performances. That many people came. I didn’t invite them, but they came with their art, they bring with their guitar, they bring their harmonium, they are singing. All things happened that day.
Lots of news channels came towards me. And when I gave that first interview, I asked the question to the government, “This your art, this is your culture, this is your tradition. Why you are going to demolish this. Just think about it. What are you going to do?”
After that the colony’s president came to me and said, “Which organization are you from? You have to work in this community for long time. So whatever you want, we can pay, but please work for us.” There was a lot of chaos in my head. I said, “I am from your colony, I am not from any organization.” Till that time, nobody knows that I am from community. Everybody thinks that I am from an organization; I am doing this for an organization. That day a group hug happened. Hugs generally don’t happen in India, in our culture.
Then we went for the high court, because of this NGO. I was not [convinced]. I think we are going to court [too early] and now [we figured out] it is true, we made a mistake going to court [so early]. Because at that time we didn’t have strong basics. We don’t know the numbers, how many families are living according to our survey. And then what happened, this NGO is trying to put their words in the community. They took us for court. But what was the discussion? The discussion is about the transit camp is, “Is it good? We don’t want to go there, we don’t have proof that we are coming back.”
But my question is, “We have been living here for sixty years. We built up this land. We made it. We made roads, we made streets. So why we are talking about the transit camp?! We have to talk about this being our land! If you really want to develop us, then you can give this land to us, we make our houses with ourselves. Or we can find an architect, we can design with them. Why we are questioning about the multi-story building, why we are questioning about the transit camp. Look we are living here, you want to develop, then make some street, give us the water supply, give us the electricity supply. So this is the development, we are artists, so we can live very happy. If there is a 5.22 [hectare plot of land], then just cut it, “This is your land, this is yours. Then we can build our houses, we can take loans.”
This is called mini India. We are twelve communities of artists, we are living with their culture. When people come from other countries, they reach the airport and they don’t have to go to their hotels. They [could first come] to Kathputli Colony to see what is mini India. They don’t have to travel Chattisghar, Andrha Pradesh… They could come to Kathputli Colony. We can show the culture. […]
If you really want to do something for your heritage, for your culture – These people are representing your culture all over the world. If Obama came, then you would hire these artists, to come and dance.
These people are not like us. […] They are artists. They always works at night. This is a very different lifestyle. […] Travel anywhere in India, anywhere in Delhi to see a slum and you will feel very insecure. But in Kathputli Colony, you know what happens, these kind of people, who have brick houses, when they have to come after in night time they don’t take the main road, they walk through Kathputli Colony, because they know, that this is very safe for them. The whole night, Kathputli Colony is awake. If I am an artist and my work style is I go for work at 6PM, on marriages, parties, and all and then I will come on two, three, four… Shops are open, lots of foods are available.
People are coming home, some are practicing. So the whole night people are awake. People feel very safe, they don’t take the main street, where maybe somebody can do… They walk through Kathputli Colony. So this is Kathputli Colony.
So what can we do? […] Twelve thousand, fifteen thousand people’s existence on one hand and on another hand the game point – the benefit of builder. So what is more important, the benefit of builder or 15,000 artists livelihood and their culture, their art and their existence?
Judgment came, “You have to move to transit camp and if you want any kind of facilities, then inform us. And then if you are saying that there is a problem in master plan, in map, tell us” And they gave the order to DDA to please repeat their survey. [They came to the same numbers.] But I know that all the people are not invisible. Why they are doing this? Why they are not doing this? Because the builder is making 2,800 flats. So if the number increases, towards 3,500, his map will fail. That’s why he always trying to keep that number under 2,800.
But we are still fighting, we are making our plan, because somewhere in the news came that [this is] the first MCD program in Delhi. If we lose our case, if we will be resettled, then another 219 slums in all over Delhi, they are going to do the same thing there.
The police is not here anymore. So everything is very quiet now. They keep calling me, offering me a good job, offering me one million [rupees]. Not only me, lot of peoples who have a role in the protest. They are calling again and again. Sometimes they are trying to threaten me.
You mentioned before that some people decided to leave their homes. What happened to them?
Some peoples are in a very hard situation, in rainy season especially. In some areas the MCD is not going to clean that area. So drains are full of water and in their whole houses, there is water. So some people left for this reason, “Oh we are getting flats, I think that could be a better condition of us. Anything is better then this.”
Some people offered them good money. When they leave they also take their community. If I am from Bihar and my Bihar people are there, so all people are dependent on me. Like my father is from Bihar. So if my father moved out, the whole Bihar community people would. That is the system. That is why some four hundred families moved. They also give a lot of lollipops, saying, “I will pay your child’s birthday, you don’t have to get food some time, I will get you the food.” People who are very poor agreed.
And they are in the transit camp now?
Yeah, they are in the transit camp. They are very unhappy, very bad conditions, because the houses is made from flex. So it’s too hot. There is a lack of water and a lack of hygiene, because always there is a lot of drain, things are coming out.
But people fill their mouths from rupees. And they also feel very threatened, so they don’t say anything against the builder.
They can’t come back?
If anyone wants to come back, then we are welcoming them. But the problem is that we can’t do any kind of new reparations on demolition, according to DDA. This is a big problem. We can’t do any constructions.
Who demolished the houses?
Peoples from DDA, because when they leave, they sign on a slip. “I am going for this area, I am leaving this land, so I am demolishing my house myself.” But the house is demolished by DDA employees.
How do you see the future?
One thing I can say about the future is that Kathputli Colony will definitely change. Definitely Kathputli Colony will be known as a living heritage.
But this whole rehabilitation problem is another thing… I can see the reality, that according to this kind of situations, we are not getting our lands. We have to move in flats, but I am still questioning that it should be a fifty-floor multi-story. It could be a four or a six. But we are not getting our lands. This is fixed.
But I am sure this this heritage, this culture will never die. Kathputli Colony will definitely change over the next two or three years. It doesn’t matter whether we live in a four floor building or we live in the same Kathputli Colony.
But we preserve our art, we preserve our culture and we put it forward that way.