Left: Anurupa Roy is the founder and managing trustee of the Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust, a puppet theatre group based in Delhi since 1998.  Right: Claudia Orenstein is a scholar, dramaturg, director, actor and puppeteer. She received her PhD in directing and criticism from Stanford University and is Professor of Theatre at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, CUNY.

In Conversation with Anurupa Roy and Claudia Orenstein: Kathputli Colony is a Metaphor for Systematic Inequalities

in Interview
Published on: 08 June 2020

Ansh Baid

Ansh Baid is a commercial and documentary filmmaker. His professional assignments cover a wide range of fictional and non-fictional content. He has directed short film documentaries for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ogilvy and Mather, Save The Children Foundation and The Bastion, to name a few.

Kathputli Colony is a colony of street artists—acrobats, magicians, puppeteers, snake charmers and many more—that came into being with 60 years of continued migration of street artists from all over India.

Anurupa Roy is the founder and managing trustee of the Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust, a puppet theatre group based in Delhi since 1998. She has been working with the artists of Kathputli Colony in New Delhi for the past 25 years and is a major creative force in Indian puppet theatre.

Claudia Orenstein is a scholar, dramaturg, director, actor and puppeteer. She received her PhD in directing and criticism from Stanford University and is Professor of Theatre at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. She has worked and studied in the US, France, India and Japan.

In 2014, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), in association with Raheja Builders, razed Kathputli Colony to the ground. They agreed to hand over a rebuilt colony within three years, a promise that remains unfulfilled even in 2020. Now, most of its residents live in a makeshift transit camp in Anand Parbat, West Delhi. 

This conversation covers a wide range of subjects related to the Kathputli Colony, from its resident artists and their spaces to the creation of high and low art in India. In this dialogue, we acknowledge the artists as victims, who have agency nevertheless as entrepreneurs and individuals in a community. And often, as is true of nuance, we find ourselves flirting with contradictions.  

The purpose of this conversation was to explore and become acquainted with some of the micro and macro perspectives related to Kathputli Colony. These perspectives reflect a puree of economic, social and political contexts, as seen in a cultural melting pot such as the artists’ colony. 

Following is an edited transcript of the interviews conducted on Skype by Ansh Baid over two days, on October 2 and 3, 2019.


Ansh Baid (A.B.): How would you introduce the Kathputli Colony? What should we know about it? 

Anurupa Roy (A.R.): Kathputli Colony is ‘kathputli’ in name only. There are 12 different tribes living there. There are circus artists, musicians, Langas and Manganiyars (folk musicians), Kalbeliyas (folk dancers), street magicians, animal handlers, acrobats and more. All these art forms are completely different; they are different tribes. They have their own set of rules. These communities cannot be bunched as one and called kathputliwalas [literally, puppeteers of the kathputli tradition, but in this context, residents of the Kathputli Colony], simply because they are not all puppeteers. 

I am saying this now because a while back, when there was this big hullabaloo about the rights of the artists, there was a conversation about puppeteers and their dying art but there was hardly any conversation around so many of the other art forms that are there. 


A.B.: Given that there are so many art forms that thrive within Kathputli Colony, not to mention the different tribes and subcommunities, are there any apparent class, caste and/or creed divides? Do certain art forms have higher status? 

A.R.: So, there have been these exceptional personalities who have done really well, become very famous, and highlighted their particular art form, like Puran Bhatt for puppetry, Langas and Manganiyars for Rajasthani folk music, etc. But the art forms in themselves do not have higher status. That said, most of the people in Kathputli Colony are from tribal communities, they are recognised as SC/ST. So, there are no higher castes within Kathputli Colony. But yes, there are very poor and very rich artists within the colony itself which is induced by the means, network and connections of an artist. 

As far as religion goes, there are people who could be from three different religions, but they believe in the same idol. For example, both Hindus and Muslims in Kathputli Colony believe in the same idol, Pir Baba. It is like this in a lot of art forms across India. But I am sure there are nuances here that I am not well equipped to address. It is possible that there is some conflict between Hindus and Muslims. 


A.B.: Speaking of conflict, could you tell me a little about the demolition of the Kathputli Colony in 2017 and what the situation is now—both politically and in relation to the resident artists? 

A.R.: Well, the DDA gave Mr Navin Raheja [managing director of Raheja Developers Limited] two-thirds of the land, and the colony was razed to the ground in 2017. More than 4,000 families, out of which over 1,100 were identified artist families, were displaced. They were promised apartments for housing by 2019, but they have not been given anything yet. 

After the demolition, the residents of Kathputli Colony were sent to two different transit camps. Some were sent to Anand Parbat and some to Nangloi. That said, a lot of them have still not been allocated a transit camp space. I was working with a couple of boys from Kathputli Colony who were interning with Katkatha, they had been living on the footpath for a week. That is the reality check. What are we talking about when a lot of people do not even have a space to live? This, I think, is the reality right now. 

Besides that, the way this community is being accessed and the way people are receiving work has also changed. Earlier, people used to go to Shadipur Depot where Kathputli Colony originally was, to pick up performances. Now there is no Shadipur Depot and people do not really go to transit camps to source these performers. Most of them are found over the phone or online, which means that the ones who have a strong online presence or have a lot of contacts are the ones who get the lion's share of the work. 


A.B.: During my time at the Anand Parbat transit camp, I got a chance to speak to a few artists and I was intrigued by the fact that 1) a lot of them had work, and 2) many of them had performed abroad. They said the government had given them these opportunities. What do you think about that? 

A.R.: See, at the end of the day, I do not live in Anand Parbat nor did I live in Shadipur, so I have an outsider's perspective, and it is a perspective only. That said, one thing that has remained consistent, irrespective of whichever government is in power, is that the artist in these areas is seen as dispensable. They are marginalised and disrespected.

Cultural policies are largely influenced by patriotism and a sense of national identity. So, you need these artists to take them to festivals abroad and present the idea that ‘this is India, and this is who we are’. At the same time, you want to throw these artists in the bin, the minute you are back. The artists have become disposable. That is one reason why their living conditions have not improved much. We would not dare treat classical dancers and musicians like this.

Claudia Orenstein (C.O.): I think there is an interesting aspect to this story. At the time when India was struggling for Independence, one of the things that happened in the arts was that the people who were part of that struggle were looking at Western forms of art and they were saying, ‘Oh, we must have a distinguished culture like that.’

Even though India already had a distinguished culture, there was a real movement to express the culture of India in a sort of Westernised format. This was expressed, firstly, as a national, rather than regional, culture, and then, further, there was this movement to create this idea of ‘classical arts’. Art forms like bharatanatyam and kathakali, for example, became classified as ‘classical arts’ comparable to, say, ballet and opera in the West. Puppetry, in particular, was not a part of that discussion. But, I think, some other forms which were considered to be folk arts might have become classical arts or vice versa. In fact, the whole situation was about making/creating these distinctions. So, the greater question is how/why/when do people, governments, etc., create these categories, these designations, of a classical art and a folk art in relation to our ‘nation’. This is opposed to the categorisation of more indigenous ideas based on what art is and how it functions in particular regions. That said, folk and street art forms were not really a part of that whole discussion. They, thus, became popular art forms that do not share the same prestige, that do not require a refined audience, that do not require the space in our national identity.  

A.R.: Usually, traditional arts have a particular caste that performs them, and those castes have a different power status. Some performers are Brahmin, while others are from castes that have a lower social status. So, there is a big range throughout India in terms of how performers are seen. Kathputli Colony has a particular power dynamic where performers are usually seen as beggars; the consequence of this is that a lot of these artists have begun to believe that their status is ‘low’. That the status of their art is low. Of course, class and caste are exactly what this is about. This has to be said aloud. This is the reality. And even today we are fighting this with every single government agency in this country, because they are still shrinking funds for folk and street arts, pushing them further towards the margin. 


A.B.: How can one intervene to make it better? Do you think there needs to be an intervention? 

A.R.: Their needs must be met, which requires a change at the policy level. See, the bottom line is that they do not have a roof over their heads. So that is the priority at the moment—a permanent space which gives them some sense of security. Second, we need to create spaces where performers can practice and get better, where there is an aspiration of bettering yourself. That is not really there in Kathputli Colony.

 How do you create that aspiration? See, there is one thing you must realise, if tomorrow I make a painting, Anurupa Roy will be put on it but if a kathputliwala makes a puppet, it is bought by a museum and the puppet says ‘kathputli puppet’. Where is the recognition for the artist? There is not any; this kills any initiative and incentive for good work, especially for the younger generation. 

It is important to create that incentive for good work, not just any work. Mind you, the kathputliwalas are quite self-sustaining. They are survivors. But the quality of work is poor. They will work every day but they will not spend that time of two months, three months, four months redoing their puppets, [for example] making a new performance, creating a new repertoire. They do not have that luxury. Because the mindset is survival, survival, survival. So, the first thing to do as a policymaker is to look at the basic things that this community needs to support its life and art. 

C.O.: I also think we need to ask the artists themselves: what kind of space would you like to live in, what kind of performance would you like to have, what kind of models would be helpful to you? You know, I think, communication and respect are missing. Besides that, it is important for us to create nationwide interest, put modern and traditional art forms along with urban and rural audiences in conversation. This will create more varied opportunities for performance, helping the artists learn more things.


A.B.: What kind of spaces do they perform in now? How has it changed over the years? How has the audience changed? 

A.R.: Well, it depends. The performance space differs from art to art and depends on factors like who commissions the performance and so forth. As far as Kathputli Colony is concerned, the ‘street’ as a performance space is increasingly only a notion in our heads, it does not really exist. The streets are not the way they were. They have policemen patrolling the streets, they have people who have no time and there are very few open spaces, parks are gated and any market space is in a gated community. The streets are shrinking spaces.

Earlier there used to be majmas [crowds], in front of whom they performed on the street uninterrupted. It was their job to hold your attention. And get the money. That is the task of the street performer. But now, where will they do that without being harassed by police or local residents raising objections?

C.O.: Besides that, I think there is a real transition happening, especially in Delhi. The cost of real estate is going up so high. I think that is really what has been threatening the Kathputli Colony. They are sitting on the land off which people want to make money either through building apartments or businesses, or ‘development’ of some sort. The space is, therefore, being turned into a kind of private profitable space, rather than a public space for community gathering. This kind of privatisation of public space really hurts these performers. 

We are all also involved in this process. People are being pulled into the kinds of jobs that require them to be at their desks from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, require them to be connected to computers and to all the media that we have got out there, and this is really shifting the way we operate in public spaces. We are just rushing through, we are on our phones, we are taking the metro and we are not, you know, hanging out on the street anymore.

A.R.: For instance, traditional puppetry performances used to be nine days, 18 days, 21 days long. Which audience wants to watch 21 days of Ramayana today? You know they would rather come home and watch TV. So, with a changed audience, a lot of artists have responded by changing their performances, cutting them short or performing only the highlights. So, even the narratives are shrinking.

C.O.: But the things that have helped these traditions stay alive are the room for personal improvisations, additions, and the ability for these artists to tell stories in their own way, create their own interpretations and versions. 

A.R.: And a lot of the narratives have never been written down but have been passed on orally from generation to generation. Take for example, Shakuni’s story in Mahabharata. If you go to the South [of India] they will tell you the story of Shakuni, popularly known as the evil advisor of Duryodhana, with a twist. Nowhere in the popular narrative will you read what Shakuni’s motivation really was—why did he do what he did? In the South, they will tell you that he was avenging his family, he was fighting for the underdog; he is revered in Kerala. And that story is passed on orally through art forms like puppetry. So, it is kind of an alternate history, another way to learn and teach.


A.B.: This kind of an alternative way of creating and disseminating knowledge seems to be unavoidably linked to the informal space of Kathputli Colony. For this reason, how do you think a building, if it is built, will affect the community and their art forms? 

C.O.: What it is going to change is the next generation. Within Kathputli Colony, art is generationally passed on. It is linked to growing up in a different environment. When I last went to Kathputli Colony, it had all these open spaces and open rooms. They stored their materials and built things, performed and lived in that space. I met [puppeteer] Puran Bhatt there, and he had this large space up on the roof, where he could try things out and throw out a rug and, you know, bring out a puppet and start doing stuff and then people would gather, someone would come by and play some music with him and younger kids who are learning would come and watch. So, this kind of informal way of passing on the tradition of training, of being part of the tradition, I think, is really part of that space that you are talking about.

Rahejas could build them really super apartments but that abundance of space may go, that informality may go, that accessibility may go. There is something about that culture of informality, that whole world of community, the messiness—it has different ways of thinking, different ways of sharing knowledge, and different ways of being in space that, I think, will disappear. But this is really something that the artists need to think about for themselves, I am just on the outside.             

I did hear that Kathputli Colony put together a kind of proposal for a place where they could live and work, like a kind of an entertainment park or something, which sounds brilliant. But I am not too sure about this since it is not first-hand knowledge; I do not think it worked out.   


A.B.: Is there anything else that you would like to address? 

A.R.: See, my problem with this conversation is that you and I are not stakeholders. So why are we even talking about this right now? If we can do something then let us do something, otherwise we are just talking. The stakeholders are the residents, they are the ones living there, and theirs is the only opinion that matters, not ours. 

That said, there is no one narrative. It is more complex than that. We cannot say that the government is the villain and the kathputliwalas have all been taken for a ride. I have worked in the Kathputli colonies of Jaipur, Delhi, and Mumbai and one thing that is common in all is: ‘I won't change myself. I will remain a victim.’ 

C.O.: But, it is also true that they are entrepreneurs. Many puppeteers [though not necessarily the kathputli puppeteers], for example, used to be part of a patronage system, where they had patrons whom they could count on to support their work. When that stopped, they floundered. The government tried to help, but those who thrived are the ones who have learnt to be entrepreneurs themselves. They learnt to create their business models of either being teachers or retailers or other things. 

I see around the world that street artists and folk artists in so many places have been marginalised or their traditions are dying out, but they are not all waiting to be helped. They are creating their own models, and this, I think, is really wonderful and exciting. 

A.R.: I think the other thing to really talk about is that all these artists have enormous kinds of skills. For instance, puppeteers are also musicians, tailors, woodcarvers, engineers; magicians are also mechanics; artists are also entrepreneurs. 

C.O.: That said, Kathputli Colony is kind of a metaphor for a lot of these systemic inequalities in India. You know, you are talking about all these things like tradition vs modernisation, cost of land, alternative development, poverty, inequality, women, education, healthcare, etc. All of this is also within Kathputli Colony itself. In a way, it makes the colony a kind of microcosm, and its issues a kind of constellation of all these larger issues that are going on in India right now. 

A.R.: A lot of these art forms talk about things that you and I cannot publicly talk about. They talk about issues that are tabooed, about underlying beliefs, and they question them, and that is the power of something like art. And that is part of what the community at Kathputli Colony is all about. That is what we do at Katkatha, that is what I am fighting for.