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Destiny's kathputli: Displacement makes survival tough for artisans

The artists complain that the impending move has affected business. Fear of displacement resulting in negative impact to an already suffering career in a traditional art form has enveloped them, writes Poulomi Banerjee.

art and culture Updated: Mar 30, 2014 18:31 IST
Poulomi Banerjee

Sarbati is perpetually suspicious these days. The puppeteer from Kathputli Colony’s Bhule Bisre Kalakar Co-operative Industrial Production Society Limited now asks every visitor for a card. She is usually unclear about what is written on the cards, but always tucks them into her purse, needing some tangible proof of who she is speaking to. “We never had trouble trusting people before, but now so many people come, claiming that they will help us and then nothing happens. Sometimes people come from the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the company that has bought this land and we mistake them for NGO people. That’s why we ask for cards now,” she explains.

Talks to redevelop the 50-year-old colony started in 2008, when the DDA invited bids from private developers. The deal went to Raheja Developers who paid Rs 6.11 crore for the 5.22 hectares property. The company is set to transform Kathputli Colony’s chaotic alleys and jhuggis believed to have inspired the depiction of the magician’s lane in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, into orderly highrises free of cost. In February this year, the DDA started shifting Kathputli residents to a transit camp set up by Raheja in Anand Parbat Ramjas ground. But the puppeteers, dancers, musicians, fire eaters, stilt-walkers and street performers of Kathputli Colony were in no mood to comply and moved court against the shift. On March 20, the Delhi High Court turned down the plea, but told them discuss their concerns with the DDA.

A Kathputli resident does a traditional Rajasthani dance. (Subrata Biswas/HT photo)

The artists complain that the impending move has affected business. Sarbati believes the facilities at the camp are ill suited to their needs. Fear of displacement resulting in negative impact to an already suffering career in a traditional art form is not unique to Kathputli Colony. Talks to redevelop the idol-makers hub in Kolkata, Kumartuli, started in 2005. Since then, little progress has been made. A redevelopment plan for Mumbai’s Dharavi was sanctioned in 2004 and work on one of the area’s five sectors, which includes the potters colony of Kumbharwada, has started. If the residents of Kathputli Colony are apprehensive about living in highrises, Dharavi’s potters know they can’t practise their trade in a multi-storey building. “Low cost housing should be a humane habitat, which should cater to the functional requirements of one or two room units, with cooking and toilet facilities. In my opinion, this should be low rise high density development. The dwelling units should be designed to have individual courtyards and roof terraces,” says architect Raj Rewal, chairman of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission.

Most traditional artisans are actually struggling to preserve a way of life. This is as true of Balaramapuram as it is of Kumbharwada and Kumartuli. And this is where Kathputli residents differ. “A group of college students has been showing us how to put our traditional puppets to modern use. We have done shows on road safety, for which we are paid Rs 2400 per show. I want my son to study, but I will also teach him puppeteering so he knows how to marry this traditional form with future demand,” says Raju Bhatt (24).

Most children in the Kathputli Colony are also quick to learn that foreign appreciation pays more. “Every child here has a passport,” says Sarbati. “The area doesn’t even require a pin code. Letters from foreign clients are just addressed to Kathputli Colony and they reach us,” says Puran Bhatt, a master puppeteer who has travelled to 25 countries.

Understandably, a change in that address, even temporary, and a more permanent change in its character is not something that goes down well here.

Lost in transit: Kathputli colony
The transit camp for Kathputli Colony residents at Anand Parbat is a far cry from the bylanes of Kathputli with its open drains and flies buzzing over garbage heaps. Here, the one-room homes are set in neat rows; there are toilets and drinking water facilities, guards at the entrance and CCTV surveillance. The 100-odd families who have moved here are happy. Others are also queuing up. But there are few artists among them. “The facilities here are much better. And it is so clean,” says a new resident who is a domestic help. She says those resisting the shift blame the ones who have moved for weakening their cause. “But we want a civilised life,” she says.

Dimple Bhardwaj, general manager, corporate communication, Raheja Developers, says Corporate Social Responsibility has played a big part in the company’s plans. “We have provided the residents with a performance area and special rooms for keeping their material.” Kathputli residents are not reassured. “My drums weigh 20 kgs each. No transport is willing to go to the camp. How will we carry our equipment?” questions one. 18-year-old Amit is convinced he can’t keep his stilts in a flat. Dilip Bhatt, a community pradhan, points out a more pressing flaw. “There’s provision for only 2800 families. We have 3200 families here. Where will the others go?” The artists laugh at the idea of accommodating their families and their work in the proposed 30.5 sq mtrs flat. “No one is opposed to development. We want better living conditions, but highrises are not for us. Also, if they are taking the land from us, the whole of it should be used for us. Why give private developers 35 per cent to build luxury apartments and a mall?” asks master puppeteer Puran Bhatt. A young Kathputli resident, who didn’t want to be named said, “This area was a forest. We cleared it and made it our home. No one was interested then. Now with the metro line here, the cost of this property has gone up and so everyone wants to develop it.”

‘Our kilns are dug into the ground’
Smoke permeates the air at Kumbharwada, the potters’ colony in the heart of Mumbai’s Dharavi. The 1,200 families who live in this section of the slum have been making and selling earthenware for generations. The proposed redevelopment of Dharavi will end that. “Our kilns are dug into the ground. These arrangements are not possible in a multi-storey building,” says Raju*, 35, the fourth generation of his family to live here. He is sceptical about the redevelopment. “With so many families here, all with their livelihood at stake, it will not happen.” Opposition over the lack of a viable rehabilitation plan for the artisans of Dharavi — tanners, potters, weavers and dyers — is one of the key reasons that the redevelopment of this large tract in the heart of Mumbai has been delayed by a decade.

A potter’s family at Kumbharwada in Mumbai’s Dharavi. (Purva Gadre/HT photo)

A plan sanctioned in 2004 envisions plush residential and commercial buildings on this 557-acre space, with the current inhabitants being rehoused in government projects on one portion of the land. Work has already begun on one of the slum’s five sectors. There is no consensus on how the artisans will be compensated so, for the potters, the idea that they will be forced to move still seems absurd. “I’ve been a potter for ever,” says Qasim (58) whose business is set around the kilns and open courtyard that abut the 400-sq-ft home he shares with his wife and sons, aged 13 and 25. More than redevelopment, though, he fears the death of his business.

Youngsters here do not want to take over their families’ low-profit business. Qasim’s elder son prints banners. His friends want to join the city’s youth in the search for jobs that will pay well. “I want to join the merchant navy,” says Rashtrim*, 26, who has been a potter for a decade but now wants to opt out. “There’s good money in that profession.” His ultimate dream: To move out of Dharavi.

(* Surnames withheld on request, to protect identities)
(Mumbai story by Apoorva Dutt)

Durga Puja is the busiest time at Kumartuli. (Subhendu ghosh/HT photo)

‘No progress for three years’
The 22-crore Kumartuli redevelopment project was conceptualised in 2005 by the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA), with the cost being shared by the Centre and the state government. The plan for the settlement of makers of Devi idols was similar to the Kathputli model and likewise did not meet with approval. “We build big idols. Our workshops need to be at least 18 ft high. Also, at Kumartuli, we often leave the idols out to dry. Closed in spaces won’t do for us,” Babu Pal explains.

After the final plan was passed, the next hurdle was finding an alternative location for the artists while work was underway at Kumartuli. Many suggestions were made about shifting them to the city. “We need to be along the river. The mud, bamboo, everything is transported by boats,” explains Pal. Finally, in April 2011, some artists moved to nearby Rabindra Sarani. “The working conditions at the temporary site are better. Rains don’t spoil work. But for the past three years there has been no development. Clients with a particular idol maker will track him to the new place, but the artisans suffer when it comes to sale of ready-made idols. A few have started bringing their idols to Kumartuli to sell during peak season,” he says.
(Kolkata story by Poulomi Banerjee)

‘My ties are as strong as the thread I weave’
The weavers of Balaramapuram are so fed up with their lot, they are planning to use NOTA (None Of The Above option) in the general election. Scared politicians are now making a beeline for their colonies. Famous for traditional varieties of handlooms Balaramapuram (15 kms away from Thiruvananthapuram) once employed more than one lakh weavers. Their number has now dwindled to 20,000. The loom’s paradise is fast turning into its graveyard.

A weaver at work at Balaramapuram (Vivek R Nair/HT photo)

K Mahadevan (67), a weaver, has been working since he was 12 years old. “I get a paltry amount. But my ties are as strong as the thread I weave so I can’t leave it,” he says. Bleak marketing options, mounting government apathy, exploitative middle men and the loss of skilled weavers to other remunerative jobs have left the handloom sector in Kerala gasping for breath. Many skilled weavers have turned to lucrative unskilled jobs under the NREGP. In some areas, the real estate mafia has usurped the land vacated by handloom units. “If this continues, one of the finest handlooms of the world will be history. The only way is to give enough value addition and direct government support to the sector,” says K Satheesh Kumar, secretary, Handloom Production Forum.

To make matters worse, powerloom units have been using designs that are identified with handloom and flooding the market with their cheaper goods. Clearly, things have reached a crisis point. “Minimum wages will have to be ensured for weavers. We have to make it more attractive otherwise this traditional sector will die a slow death,” says master weaver and ‘Padma Shree’ awardee P Gopinath.
(Kerala story by Ramesh Babu)