Inside New Delhi’s "Colony of Wooden Puppets"

Tomorrow We Disappear
Tomorrow We Disappear / Tomorrow We Disappear

For hundreds of years, India’s itinerant artists wandered the countryside, performing amazing acrobatic feats, puppet shows, and acts of magic: They could bend iron, pick up needles with their eyes, make their children disappear and reappear. But in the early 20th century, as television and radio swept across the country, it became increasingly difficult for them to make a living traveling from town to town.

In the 1950s, these artists from across India started flocking to New Delhi, where they began to build a tent village on the outskirts of the city. They called it the “Kathputli Colony,” or “The Colony of Wooden Puppets.”

They found work performing in the city, either at official events, or on the streets. But as the city expanded outwards and began to encompass their homes, the Colony started to turn from village into slum.

Today, the Kathputli Colony is right in the heart of the city, just next to a major train stop—its handmade homes are beginning to crumble, and its narrow alleyways are filled with trash. But it’s still home to 2800 families of traditional magicians, puppeteers, and acrobats.

The recently-released documentary Tomorrow We Disappear, directed by Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber, tells the story of the Kathputli Colony artists as they face an uncertain future: in 2010 the Indian government announced plans to demolish the Colony and build a skyscraper called the "Raheja Phoenix" on the land. The film showcases the traditional arts of the Kathputli Colony, and follows the community of artists as they fight for their homes.

During the shoot, director of photography Joshua Cogan took a series of breathtaking photos of the Kathputli Colony, check them out below:

Director Jim Goldblum explained to mental_floss that though the Kathputli Colony is known for its puppeteers, it's also home to magicians, acrobats, fire breathers, stilt walkers, musicians, and painters.

Puran Bhatt is perhaps the most famous puppeteer in the Colony. He’s performed all over the world, and was awarded India’s Akademi Award for Traditional Arts. "Puran's son plays Grover on Galli Galli Sim Sim, the Indian version of Sesame Street," says Goldblum, "And Puran and his family make a lot of the puppets for the show."

Bhatt learned puppetry from his grandfather, and is teaching the art to his own children and grandchildren. Sometimes Bhatt’s grandkids sneak into his puppet room at night to play with the puppets.

Rajasthani puppetry is one of India’s oldest art forms—in the past, puppeteers traditionally performed at religious festivals and for royal patrons.

According to Goldblum, Bhatt is a master of Rajasthani puppetry: "He has this traditional 'black magic' puppet act, where a 15-string magician puppet cuts its own head off and juggles it. But he's also a master of all the international styles, like Thai shadow puppets and Japanese Bunraku."

Another artist who lives in the Kathputli Colony is Maya Pawar, who comes from a long line of acrobats. Her limbs were stretched and molded as a baby to allow her to perform different kinds of stunts and contortions.

Goldblum explains, "The kind of acrobatics Maya does aren't being done anywhere else—she can bend a steel rod with her neck. While she was learning, she punctured her throat, and she still has the scar. She can bend over backwards, and then, using intense concentration, pick up two needles with her eyes. If you make a mistake you could gouge your eyes out. You have to imagine the intense concentration that takes, the refinement and control over your body. She's completely fearless."

Maya and her family once made it to the finals of “India’s Got Talent.” Though they live in a tiny house in the Colony, they've traveled all around the world performing.

Rahman Shah is a street magician who performs comic—and sometimes gruesome—magic acts with the help of his two young sons. Some of his most popular tricks involve making it look like his kids have been injured, then “magically” making their wounds disappear.

"Being an artist is a very difficult choice to make in a world where people don’t really value art. I think a lot of the choice to be in Kathputli is that they’re all in it together. You’re living next to puppeteers, acrobats, magicians, and jugglers—there’s a strength in numbers," Goldblum says.

But part of the reason the artists are fighting to stay in the Colony is logistical: the government plans to, first, move the artists into transit camps on the outskirts of the city where it will be extremely difficult for them to commute into the city for work. Then, once the redevelopment project is complete, the artists will be given small apartments on the land: Goldblum notes, "You can’t build a 16-foot puppet in a 10-by-10 flat. You can’t put a bunch of kettle drums into an elevator. The art literally doesn’t fit into the modern spaces of New Delhi and that’s what the government wants to provide them."

These days, many of the puppeteers find it difficult to find regular puppet work, so they've started performing music at weddings. Goldblum notes, "Drumming and harmonium have always been part of the traditional puppet show, but now there's more demand for the music than the puppets."

Most nights, around 9 p.m., there's a procession as the musicians leave the Colony on their way to weddings around the city. "It’s this loud, vibrant scene every evening where you hear the harmoniums and drums moving out of the Colony," Goldblum says.

In the 1970s, the artists registered a cooperative under the name "Bhule Bisre Kalakar Samriti," which means "The Cooperative of Lost and Forgotten Artists." They petitioned the government to resettle the Kathputli land, to transform it into a place where the traditional arts in India could thrive. Decades later, the artists are still fighting for the rights to the land.

Check out the Tomorrow We Disappear website for more info about the Kathputli Colony, or watch the film on iTunes

All photos courtesy of Tomorrow We Disappear.