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A struggle to save a tradition

Print edition : Dec 05, 2003 T+T-
A family in Kalakar Colony, Delhi, at work on a horse to be used in a performance.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A family in Kalakar Colony, Delhi, at work on a horse to be used in a performance.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

For the Kalakar community in Delhi's slums, preserving its traditional artistic skills is a challenge.

IN the foreword to a recent United Nations report entitled `The Challenge of Slums', Secretary-General Kofi Annan writes: "Slums represent the worst of urban poverty and inequality." Today, in Delhi there are approximately 4.5 lakh people living in slum conditions. Even in the face of such misery, there is some room for optimism. In situations of extreme adversity, the human spirit shows extraordinary creativity and artistry. Nowhere is this more evident than among the slum-dwelling Kalakars, or folk artists, of India, ranging from musicians and magicians to puppeteers and acrobats.

The heritage of these Kalakars has its roots in Rajasthan and dates as far back as 600 years. The advent of cinema and television has cut the demand for their theatrical performances which portray myths and legends. The Kalakars, whose ancestors entertained the great and the good for centuries, are a common sight at weddings, where they play the dhol, and at cultural events, where they dance and sing. They also perform with hijras (eunuchs).

In the Kathaputli (puppeteers) Colony of West Delhi, which nestles in a corner of New Patel Nagar, there exists one of the largest enclaves of Kalakars in India. The jhuggi (slum) cluster has grown over 50 years and now houses approximately 360 of the nearly 650 Kalakar families in Delhi. It would be easy for a passer-by to overlook the shambolic community. Tightly packed makeshift buildings jostle for space between the narrow passages, and barefooted children play among debris. The image is repeated in cities the world over. The U.N. report on slums, released on October 6 in Rio de Janeiro, revealed that the world over 924 million people live in slum conditions. In developing countries, slum-dwellers make up 43 per cent of the population.

However, in Kathaputli Colony there is a difference - it has a theatrical spirit that pervades every resident, not unlike that found in a circus. The suffering and degradation common to all jhuggi areas is somewhat offset here by the slim hope that stardom beckons. Families that had once travelled the country like gypsies, eliciting delight in villages with their skilled performances, have settled down in this colony. Their nomadic days over, they have adopted the name `Bhule Bisre Kalakar' (forgotten lost artists). The colony is in itself a work of art. As a community, the artists are vehemently loyal to one another. Each member brags of the other's talents and implores visitors to see the other's work before their own. In their new extended family, children learn to excel in a variety of arts. On an average, each person engages in more than two occupations (mostly because of the seasonal nature of their work). The oldest inhabitants recount, with the aid of photo albums, times when they attracted the attention of the world's glitterati. At the end of a maze of alleys with a stream running through the centre is the dilapidated home of 62-year-old Navrang Bhatt. His wizened face and white hair betray the youthful magic his fingers are capable of weaving. He accompanies the show, manipulating two wooden puppets in his hands, one a sequined dancing beauty and the other a snake charmer (both produced by members of Kathaputli Colony), blowing tunes on a bamboo whistle and ringing bells on his slender fingers. On a tattered dhurrie (carpet), in a tiny dark room, the dolls sway their hips and shake their heads to the music. Bhatt's wife Sarvati assists him. His son Sanjay is a "fire-eater".

The history of the puppeteers is steeped in myth and legend, but told only within the Kalakar community. One story ascribes their origin to Siva, who created moving puppets to entertain his spouse, Parvati, when she was lonely. Similar folklore surrounds the origin of the other artists.

But notwithstanding their talents, the Kalakars are not exempt from the troubles that plague every poverty-ridden community. Since 1989, the Integrated National Development Centre for Advancements, Reforms and Education (INDCARE), based in west Delhi, has been doing research on slum-dwellings, in partnership with the U.N. It confirms that Kathaputli Colony is typical of the 1,600 jhuggi clusters in Delhi. Water supply comes from the Delhi Jal Board, and is available to slums through the trunk lines, supplying only seven to 10 taps per 1,000 households. Many jhuggi clusters have illegal and dangerous electricity connections. For unauthorised and unregistered colonies there is electrical access through the single-point delivery system.

According to INDCARE, 60 per cent of Delhi's slum-dwellings are made of mud and brick, the remaining 40 per cent being tents or other makeshift structures. Common complaints, arising mainly from the unhygienic conditions, include common cold, influenza and tuberculosis. The most prevalent social problems are alcoholism and drug abuse. The National AIDS Control Programme (NACO) puts the level of drug abuse in Delhi slums at 58 to 60 per cent and the level of alcoholism at 74 per cent.

Although its growth has been entirely organic, Kathaputli Colony has combated these problems for the past 10 years with the help of the Kalakar Trust. A non-governmental organisation based in Delhi's Safdarjung Enclave, the Trust has attempted to organise the artists. It has helped them obtain work at international cultural events; by raising the profile of the Kalakars, it has also enabled them to charge higher rates for their work. This has been a factor in transforming the colony from a few scattered, roofless shacks to a collection of brick buildings. The proportion of pucca houses has risen from 2 per cent to 98 per cent in 10 years, estimates Kalakar Trust director Strerre Sharma. The Trust has also introduced health and education schemes, including a school. On a typical day, the classrooms are full of children. The dropout rate is high because the children are required to contribute to the family income. The school fights this by allowing the children two days a week to learn traditional skills. Former students, who have gone on to earn money from worldwide performances, funded the building of an extra schoolroom. A plaque above the door bears their names.

But the best efforts of the Trust have not helped eliminate one of the most persistent social problems - alcoholism. According to female residents of Kathaputli Colony, many men turn to alcohol because of the seasonal nature of their work, which means that most families do not have a steady source of income. "The whole colony faces this problem," says Urmila Sharma, an elderly woman who has lived in the colony for 20 years. Worse still, boys in their late teens have started drinking like adults. Sterre Sharma estimates that 80 - 90 per cent of the men in Kathaputli Colony have problems related to drinking. The repercussions include violence in the family, and loss of income owing to both expenditure on alcohol and incapacity to work. Owing to alcoholism and the power struggle among men, the Kalakar Trust has found it more beneficial to work with the women in the colony. INDCARE too works only with the women and the youth. The U.N. report on slums has recognised that "in a rapidly urbanising world, women suffer most". By entrusting them with credit schemes and welfare education, both organisations have empowered women. Sarbati Bhatt, vice-president of the colony's credit society, has lived in the colony since she was 11 years old, and is now the mother of eight children. She has seen how improved women's literacy and management of family finances by women have enabled them to be the catalysts of change in Kathaputli Colony. Her husband, who rarely drinks, agrees that women are the heart of a household, and that his well-organised home is thanks to the efforts of his wife. Sarbati's son Kailash speaks fluent English and has travelled to Europe with his musical talent. A picture of him performing in Amsterdam in 2001 is pinned up in the Kalakar Trust office.

Unlike many communities that are stuck in a cycle of poverty, the Kalakars have the advantage of being able to use their talents to improve their lot independently. By employing their united strength, they have made it possible to command higher rates of income for their work. This and savings have helped develop their society. Although many of the inhabitants of Kathaputli Colony have worked with film stars and travelled around the globe, when the curtains finally fall they have to return to their lives in the slum. Despite the talent and hard work, the cycle of poverty it appears, cannot be broken easily. Although they are artists in their own right, society is reluctant to accept their work with the respect it deserves. Often they are consigned to the category of graffiti artists or clowns, and the wealth of history and value in their work is all but ignored. Traditional artists are included as a category under the Bombay Beggary Act of 1959, which forbids them from carrying out their work in public places. The problem has been exacerbated because traditional artists tend to originate from tribal groups or from low social groups. The legitimacy of their craft has not been recognised. The most they can expect in terms of government support is exemption from the Bombay Beggary Act. This questionable privilege is bestowed in the form of a card, which has to be shown to the officials concerned when necessary. Despite this, the Kalakars claim that they are harassed by the police.

What the artists need most is a regular venue to perform, which could guarantee both an audience and a steady income. "The Kalakars need a platform," says Anju Choubey of the Kalakar Trust. Attempts have been made to construct a purpose-built theatre. But these have been stalled by political wrangles. The Kalakar Trust funded the construction of a theatre at Qutb Minar on Delhi Development Authority (DDA) land. But, according to Sterre Sharma, the DDA revoked its support after the construction was completed in 1996. It attempted to buy the theatre back from the Trust to use it as a sports stadium, Anju Choubey says. Litigation followed. With the court case pending, the Kalakars are unable to use the theatre unless they perform for free. Their commitment to their art is evident - young Kalakars will perform for the public free of charge on November 22. "For one or two years the Kalakars had a dream," says Anju Choubey. "Now only the children still have hope. The theatre is for the young generation."

The U.N. estimates that unless steps are taken to alleviate the situation, the number of people living in slum conditions is likely to double in the next 30 years. If public support is not forthcoming to communities such as the Kalakars of west Delhi, there is little hope for the rest of the urban poor.