In conversation with Kailash Bhatt, a puppeteer from Delhi
Kailash Bhatt: I work with Slums Actions in Delhi (SAID) which is basically an initiative by a French person called Linda Bouifrou. We focus on various slums in Delhi (like the one at Okhla, Ashok Vihar, etc) and try to spread consciousness/ awareness on HIV/AIDS, etc. through puppets and theatre. Though we barely have any financial support, we have established a small network of people who’ve moved beyond just Delhi, and are settled in different slums in different cities (like Dharavi in Bombay, etc), to carry out activities on behalf of SAID.
I understand the problems associated with being from a slum, and even the stereotypes attached to it. They find it hard to believe that a person like me, who’s a school dropout and yet speaks French and English, is from a slum. Yes I am from a slum, and I’m proud of it. I’m proud of my community. My biggest concern today is that we need a proper place to live in and I want to improve the conditions in my slum. The problems that we face are many. Right from the fact there are tourists, researchers; etc who come and take advantage of our slum to the fact that lack of education here has made some of our boys irresponsible and even indecent.
I have been making small attempts at tackling some of these problems. To begin with, I started the Junior Club here, which consists of around 50 boys from the colony. Most of the boys here have only studied till 6th or 7th class and dropped out of school after that. They get carried away because of their joblessness and often indulge in immoral practices. The numbers of cases of rape that are reported within the colony itself are so many, that it’s appalling. Most of these boys even get married early and have kids by my age! (Kailash is 20 years) In our club, we often talk about all this, and try to associate ourselves with some productive useful work I now believe that we all must collectively do something for the benefit of our community. We can’t afford to enjoy life as it comes. It’s important to make sure that the children of the colony get educated, basic sanitation be followed (most houses still don’t even have a bathroom!) and invest our earnings and learning. Like there’s even a saying, ‘roz pani peene ke liye roz kuan khodte ho, ek din kuan hi na raha toh paani kahan se piyoge?’ ( If one digs a well everyday to drink water, then what will they do if the well ceases to exist one day?)
Most of these boys also work with what I have started and called House of Puppets. Puran Bhatt is an extremely talented and renowned folk artist but most of what he does is to encourage the next younger generation of puppeteers. His workshops are mostly aimed at giving these new puppeteers a source of livelihood. My objective is to bring out the older generation of folk artists, capitalize on their experience and give them work and a means to livelihood. The young boys can still go fend for themselves. But what about the older artists, who have just been exploited since the time Katputhli colony was created? My father will tell you the history of this place later. But come to think about it, there must be over 1300 families here, and hundreds of folk artists. Not all of them could become a Puran Bhatt. What will they do? Moreover, every year, we have so many scholars/researchers/tourists/journalists, etc who come and take photographs of our colony, speak to the artists here and then go use it to their own benefit. In the bargain we got nothing. Foreigners come here often. One of them stayed for months, understood the community in great detail, went back to their country, wrote a book and made a lot of money. While people use us to become rich, we have remained down below and backward all this while because we allowed them to take advantage of us. I do not want anyone to take advantage of our slum, and want to use our own resources for our own benefit. That’s the reason house of Puppets conducts shows every Tuesday and Saturday and charges people who come and watch it. The senior artists of the villages perform here and have workshops with the younger people who’re interested. The House of Puppets, rightly has a tagline – Apne haath, Apni kala ka ghar. (Our hands, our house of art).
I use puppets as a medium, because I have inherited the art from my previous generation, and also because it’s our traditional art form. It wasn’t meant to be medium to encourage business. It was meant to convey a message from one person to another, from one village to another, from one community to another. The word ‘katputhli’, slightly different from what Puran Bhatt said, is interpreted as a wooden object (kat) which is given life when our eyes (puthli) imagine it as a life form. But nowadays puppetry is not just enough to make an artist able. And this is a lesson we have learnt from what our parents had to go through. It involves a lot of other things like knowledge of how to produce shows, way of communicating and speaking to agents, image building, training, confidence, etc. Through House of Puppets, I want other upcoming artists to learn that as well.
Kailash’s father: The history of Katputhli colony dates back to the time when Rajiv Sethi, a businessman, got us to Delhi and settled us on this land. Since then, to today, we have only been given promises that the land will be on our name soon. It still hasn’t happened and we still live on unauthorized land. Kalakar Trust, which was set at the same time to overlook our welfare, has had innumerable differences with the community. Many initiatives were initially taken – NGO Saarthi and Prayas, even Bhule Bisre, etc. None of it did much to improve our lot’s condition. The Government of Delhi too hasn’t given our art and artists its due respect. But hopefully the next generation will learn from our mistakes and contribute to our upliftment.
(Kailash later shows us around the whole colony. He leaves us with a quotable quote)
Kuch log khandani bevkoof paida hote hain aur kuch log khandani kalakar, hum shayad doosre type ke hain!