Delhi's Street of Dreams

It would be true to say that you can smell Shadier Depot - also known as Kathputli Colony - before you can see it. It is a place of enormous poverty but also enormous richness. It is a place where you might see miracles but also a place where you will always see a fight.

Shadipur is home to most of Delhi’s traditional entertainers - acrobats, magicians, dancers and the like. Here, to India’s shame, they remain - stuck between poverty on the one hand and international stardom on the other, consigned to their fate by bureaucracy and the ineptitude of the authorities. A place forgotten or unknown to most Delhi residents.

On a filthy and cold winter morning in Delhi, the pollution hangs low enough to taste. Sandwiched between the flyover and the bus depot, from where Shadipur takes it’s name, the Colony is starting to wake up.

Barefoot children are running through the open sewers and those that have no facilities in their shacks are relieving themselves over the embankment. There’s a great commotion of spitting and hoiking of phlegm and a man is lying where he fell last night, dead drunk, covered in vomit. Then you hear the drums starting up. Like a rough dawn chorus, someone is practising a tabla , then someone else joins in, then there’s singing. Then bedlam. Walking becomes nigh impossible down the crowded, twisting, narrow lanes. Children run screaming past and push into you. Men with instruments in cloth bags hurry down to the main road to catch a bus for a gig. Bejewelled Rajasthani women start their daily grind of washing and cooking.

Out of this chaos, comes Bagwan Das, a heavy man in his fifties; thinning hair, big smile.

I have come to listen to this internationally renown singer and follow him to his compound, a whitewashed brick shack with a tiny courtyard. Surrounded by his family and accompanied by his three sons, he sings quawaali , Sufi devotional songs with such an intensity and passion that you can forget you are in a ghetto; or that you are anywhere at all.

His photo album bears testament to his international tours - most of Europe, The Middle East, even America once. “He is one of India’s finest cultural ambassadors”, says Bagwati Hartal, who runs an NGO called SARTHI (Charioteer) that looks after the artists. “But he lives in, well, Shadipur...”, barely hiding his frustration. Indeed Shadipur, as a slum is a very new one. It is also a double-edged sword - a wonderful success and a disastrous failure.

“Before Shadipur, we used to wander”, says Bagwan Das. Indeed, most of the traditional performers were living a gypsy-like existence, going from one place to another, performing at fairs, pilgrimages and royalty. 1947 changed all of that. Independence, meant a time of great suffering for many traditional ways. Nobility lost it’s financial power and overnight, the traditional performers lost their wealthy clients. As India heaves itself towards modernity, so too have the traditional performers been sent into decline by TV and Bollywood.

Lured by the bright lights and money of Delhi, many families came and stayed. By the early ’Seventies, there were many scattered across the city, ekeing out an existence. By 1975, 150 performer’s families, registered themselves as a co-operative. And that’s where they stayed. Bagwati pulls out numerous architects plans, dusty and yellowed from the Delhi air, that were created around this time to transform the ghetto into something that India could be proud of. Incredibly, theatres, a museum - even tourist facilities were outlined. The performers started to travel overseas and were even championed by Rajiv Ghandi. It made no difference however, as Delhi corruption and bureaucracy strangled any progress.

Today, the performers number barely a fifth of the Colony. They have been joined by the destitute and the unloved of the streets - the sweepers, the hawkers and the beggars.

Puran Bhatt sits on top of his roof, surrounded by puppets. Big ones, small ones; hundreds. Puran is one of Shadipur’s successes. A puppeteer from the age of nine, he carves all his own puppets and has found huge international acclaim, especially in France where he holds a yearly festival. Foreign puppeteers stay with him for weeks to learn his skill. Surely though, with all this success, he could leave the Depot?

“It is” as he explains, “not so simple”. For a start, his family are all around. His father died here. Moreover, people know exactly where to find him - a very Indian contentment.

Raffan, the young, roguish street hustler is more direct. “It’s about money”. Why leave the Depot when it’s free? The residents pay no rent, no bills and no income tax. Their electricity and water are “procured” from the Delhi corporation. Life is cheap. He leads a merry band across the motorway to perform some street magic. He too has been abroad. His photo album has many pictures of him with various Eastern European girl-acrobats, kissing and holding hands. Raffan is 19 going on 50. His control of the crowd is magical, and with his young sidekick, Chi-Chi, gets around Rs1000 for pretending to strangle and stab his partner. After a few card tricks and sleight of hands, it’s back to the Depot for tea.

A greater contrast could not be found with Judduchkra Iqbal. Most of the colonies’ magicians are Muslim and they live in their own separate, very clean and tidy area. Iqbal’s father and uncle are famous and he works hard. His children are polite and his appearance is neat. He too works a great deal, “But not in the street”, he says pointedly. Mostly he does venues for the well-to-do Delhi Wallahs. “Yes”, he would leave if he could, but he simply hasn’t enough money. “Delhi is an expensive city”.

The problem with Shadipur is that despite the huge pool of talent, as time goes on the next generation, brought up on despair and frustration and alcohol, will never escape from their filthy tinsel town. Yet, there is some light. SARTHI has worked hard to exempt the residents from the catch-all Bombay Beggary Act (a great excuse for the eternally corrupt Delhi Police to extort money), pushed on with an anti-alcohol scheme and even persuaded some to open bank accounts.

Night is falling, a sickle moon hangs over Shadipur. Musicians return home from their gigs, dressed in shiny costumes. Singing can be heard. Someone will always offer you tea and an impromptu performance. If you know where to look there is warmth and great kindness from a community that only such dreadful poverty can bring.

© Stuart Freedman