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Puppets in the administration’s hands

The relocation of the Kathputli Colony will destroy a social network that has produced myriad art forms

ht view Updated: Apr 16, 2014 00:24 IST

After nearly 60 years of its establishment, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has recently started building homes for low-income groups with some enthusiasm. This move is welcome but from the perspective of the National Housing Policy, which recommends on-site rehabilitation of people without destroying their livelihood options, the authority’s decision to relocate the Kathputli Colony is insensitive.

The colony is almost as old as the DDA itself and houses traditional puppeteers who migrated from Rajasthan and other states. They have lived on the economic margins of the city all these years, and unlike the rest of us who are also migrants to this city, have remained in their original location, more or less retaining the authenticity of their art form.

Poorly paid, working in appalling locations without job security, insurance or medical facilities, these artisans indirectly contribute to the quality of life in the city. The colony is now classified as a slum and has come under redevelopment, while most other artisanal communities are working illegally from Shahjahanabad and old urban villages.

The city government’s largesse of ‘authorising’ unauthorised colonies seems to have escaped this colony. There have been many attempts to improve this colony by independent initiatives of some influential designers, who showcased them in cultural festivals in the city and abroad.

Urban design schemes were drawn up with areas designated as housing and work places and dozens of academic exercises have been taken up by schools of architecture in the last four decades. But none of these has been executed and repeated pleas of the community leaders of the Kathputli Colony to the authorities have fallen on deaf ears. Their items are produced in their homes, courtyards and open spaces around their homes. All preparatory work, production of props and artefacts as well as training is carried out within the home as household activities that involve all members including children. There is a real ‘parampara’ in operation with a strong community structure where the social network is the instrument for inter-generational knowledge transfer.

What the present project for redevelopment would do is to break this chain of tradition for good. The issue here obviously is not of dislocation, which in itself destroys culture, but also of severing these artisans from their traditional livelihood. Will the relocation and new housing address this issue? No.

During a discussion in 2010 at the Delhi Urban Art Commission, the DDA was reminded of the Kathputli community’s contribution to the intangible heritage of Delhi. The suggestion was to group these communities around courtyards and open spaces in ground and first floors so that the familial links and conviviality of the community could be protected in the new housing scheme.

If the open spaces owned by the community are put in use, the chances of their art form’s survival can be assured. Another method could be to provide flatted factories (these are located along with housing and is provided with serviced space that can be collectively used through cooperatives) as proposed in the first Master Plan. This kind of modernisation may also encourage the younger members of the community to remain in the trade. Obviously, the government’s memory is short and we are back to square one with demolition, relocation and destruction of our cultural heritage. Needless to say, this would need some redesign of the housing area by the DDA’s own rich talent pool and it is never too late.

KT Ravindran is Dean-Emeritus, RICS School of Built Environment

The views expressed by the author are personal