In the 1950s, traveling puppeteers from Rajasthan set up a tents in a field on the outskirts of Delhi. Today that space is Kathputli Colony, which has been enveloped by the expanding Delhi and is now home to around 30,000 people. The colony’s name points to its history – Kathputli means puppet in Hindi. The colony is still home to puppeteers, and also to magicians, snake charmers, acrobats, musicians, wood carvers, and many other types of artists.
The area is also a slum where walking through the narrow lanes often involves traversing lanes of runoff water. Most of the residents don’t have running water in their houses and need to carry water from one side of the community to their homes.
PETE for India runs three schools in the area: kindergarten, primary, and vocational. Brian and I went on a walk through Kathputli Colony with one of their guides, who is a drummer and resident of the colony. Upon arriving, we were greeted pretty much immediately by children who wanted us to take and then show them their photos.
The first area we visited was the Muslim community within the colony, where we saw a magic show on a rooftop. (With lots of audience participation, including by us. The kids were inarguably cuter and more competent assistants than us.)
Next we visited the vocational school, where young women in the community learn skills like sewing and henna application.
This was also the home of our guide, and his father performed a puppet show while our guide drummed. (This and the magic show were optional performances that we paid the artists for directly outside of the donation to PETE for organizing the walk.)
Our next stop was the kindergarten. The children sang us several songs and tumbled over each other to pose for photos. (And then to peer and laugh at those same photos.)
We learned from our guide about ongoing attempts to relocate the residents of the colony to temporary housing while the area is converted to higher density housing. While families living here currently would theoretically receive some of the flats being built, there are concerns: about the quality of the temporary housing, that not all of the families would receive a new flat, and that proposed layout of the new housing isn’t suitable to the needs of the residents, many of whom are performers and artists who need space for their work. You can learn more about the colony and the proposed development from the documentary Tomorrow We Disappear, which Brian and I watched after our walk and highly recommend.
A few days later, I went back for a second walk, this time with Laxmi, who manages parts of the PETE schools and also does social work in the area. She greeted me with a hug, and then we went on a winding walk through various communities; every few minutes, she’d tell me that we were entering a new area, and the origin and language of the residents would shift. (There are 11 different languages spoken in different communities of the colony.) Throughout the walk, people (mostly children, but some adults too) would come up to say hello, shake my hand, and sometimes request a photo.
As we walked, Laxmi would check in on various people. She brought a bag of flour for one woman and gave money to another who was sick. It was clear from the warmth with which she was received that she is well-regarded throughout the many communities in the colony.
For me, a key reason for this two-year trip around the world is seeing the different ways in which people live. It was humbling to see the hardships, but also the strength and friendliness of the residents of these communities.
If you find yourself in Delhi, I very much recommend organizing a visit to Kathputli Colony through PETE – it’s an opportunity to see parts of Delhi that you could easily miss completely and donations support free educational opportunities in the community.