The Doomed Fight to Save Delhi's 'Magician's Ghetto'

A new documentary explores the cultural cost of slum redevelopment. 

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Joshua Cogan

Puran Bhat has lived in a slum in West Delhi for 45 years. He's a puppeteer—a lumbering, 62-year-old performer with a handlebar mustache and more puppets than he can count (each of which has a distinct personality, he says fondly). He's also a member of a small commune of Delhi street artists fighting to keep their homes amid a tidal wave of redevelopment.

Tomorrow We Disappear—a Kickstarter-funded documentary film that premiered at the Tribeca Film festival in April—tells the story of Bhat and his community. It's now making the rounds at film festivals in Canada, Australia, Korea and around the U.S.

"We wanted to... show that when you're trying to create skyscrapers in your city and you're removing slums—these things that are happening in every major metropolitan area in the world—that things are lost, that you're going to lose culture," says Jim Goldblum, one of the film's directors.

He and co-director Adam Weber first learned about the "magician's ghetto" from Salman Rushdie's magical realism masterpiece, Midnight's Children. They were surprised to learn that the Kathputli Colony ("Kathputli" means "puppet" in Hindi) was a real place. Once they visited the community for themselves, its "exotic veneer," as Goldblum puts it, quickly fell away, and the filmmakers realized the story they were telling was more universal: how it feels to lose one's home.

Kathputli has seemingly little to fight for: it has an inadequate water supply, poor sewage and waste management, and spotty electricity. Still, the space is central to the identities of artists like Bhat. Weber says they tried to show both the storied beauty of the community, and its reality.  

“The slum actually informs the art and the art informs the slum ... they're sort of inextricable in the survival of one another," Goldblum says.

It was in 2010 that the colony of 3,500 first learned that Raheja, a real estate development firm, had in 2009 purchased the right to construct luxury highrises and malls at Kathputli for $9 million. Compensation was part of the deal—the developers were going to relocate the families into small flats on the redeveloped land. Bhat believes any sort of relocation would lead to the colony's demise.

A tightrope walker in Kathputli. (Joshua Cogan)

"Everything we've worked for with blood, sweat and tears to keep alive—it will all finish," he says in Hindi.

Where will the tightrope walkers practice? Will performers be able to lug dozens of puppets, masks and drums up and down tall skyscrapers—not to mention, where would they store them? Being boxed into one-bedroom flats is for people with 9-to-5 jobs, not street artists, Bhat says.

The community, with the help of activists, protested, petitioned, appealed to political leaders and sought legal remedies. Now, five years after the original development deal, the project is on hold following a March court order that forced the developers to do a recount of exactly who they would need to relocate, says Dunu Roy of the Hazards Center, a Delhi-based urban policy think tank.

Media attention has "definitely highlighted the issue," he says, but broader solutions to the current slum redevelopment model need to be found.

Still, the roar of bulldozers isn't too far away. Roy says when the demolition takes place depends on how the politics play out, but it could be as soon as three months.

While uncertainty looms, Bhat grapples with the reality that some members of his community are already opting for more stable jobs.

"People keep saying 'dying art, dying art,' art doesn’t die," he says. "It's the one making the art—the artist—who dies out."

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