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Sleights of hand

An Australian researcher has done an amazing job of recreating the world of Indian magicians in centuries past, reminding us of our rich cultural heritage. This extract is about Delhi’s Kathputli colony

An air of despondency greeted me when in 2016 I visited Shadipur Depot, a West Delhi slum set up in the late 1960s that takes its name from an adjacent bus garage. It was often referred to as Kathputli colony, or the Puppeteers’ Colony, because it contained the largest concentration of street performers in India. Immortalized as the ‘Magician’s Ghetto’ in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Shadipur always had a precarious existence. In its early years it was demolished and rebuilt a number of times. In 1976, the thumbprints and signatures of the colony’s ‘puppeteers, singers, balladeers, jhula-wallahs, animal trainers, jugglers, acrobats, magicians, toymakers, wood-carvers, peep-showwallahs and street entertainers’ appeared on a petition pleading for recognition and help. ‘We remain scattered and forgotten, wandering from place to place and living wherever we can pitch a ragged tent and place three stones to mark our hearth,’ it stated.

A year later, a flamboyant young designer and the founder of Delhi’s first discotheque, Rajeev Sethi, stepped in and helped the signatories form a cooperative known as the Society of Neglected and Forgotten Artists. Thanks to Sethi and his co-workers, the colony’s jadoowallahs, katputliwallahs and other artists found themselves as kurta- and sari-clad cultural ambassadors performing at festivals of India in Washington, New York and London. A roster was set up to ensure no family or community was singled out for favouritism when opportunities arose at home or abroad. Shadipur would be home to some of India’s most famous street magicians including Ishamuddin, who did a version of the Rope Trick in 1995 that made front-page news all over India.

You knew you had arrived at Shadipur by the mounds of uncollected rotting refuse piled up on both side of the entrance to the colony. And also by the sounds – an almost constant refrain of drumming that occasionally burst into a crazed crescendo. Once inside the slum, things were much cleaner except for suspicious looking black sludge that trickled down the middle of the unpaved laneways. What little running water there was, came from a few communal taps. Sanitation was almost non-existent.

My guide and interpreter, Mohammad Ayaz from Sethi’s Asian Heritage Foundation, seemed to know almost everyone. I was taken to meet Iqbal, son of the late Chand Pasha, legendary hypnotist and conjurer from Andhra Pradesh. Pasha, who died in 2015, was famous for playing tunes on an ordinary trumpet just by placing it against his neck. Between engagements, he was employed by the government to spread the message of family planning, producing half a dozen babies out of an empty box after putting a male and a female doll inside, but none when a condom went in with the dolls.

These days Iqbal increases HIV awareness by demonstrating a trick that uses two ropes, one red and one white. Knots magically disappear or move from one rope to another, before the ropes themselves change colour. There’s no better way to hold a crowd’s attention and his patter about the dangers of unprotected sex does the rest. For his next trick, he took a folded piece of cardboard and transformed it into dozens of different shapes – a policeman’s hat, an umbrella, a video camera, a lotus flower and so on.

Later, I met Rehman Shah who had just returned from doing a show outside a nearby metro station. He knows the local cops who normally turn a blind eye to his breach of the Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act (1959) in exchange for a hundred-rupee bribe. The Beggary Act (which was extended to New Delhi in 1960) continues to bedevil anyone who dares to mount a puppet show or an acrobatic display on the capital’s streets. Determined to rid the city of the ‘social menace’ of begging ahead of the 2000 Commonwealth Games, the government formed teams to round up beggars and deployed mobile courts to prosecute them. The act’s very loose definition of beggar and vagrant reflects its colonial antecedents and includes members of nomadic communities such as magicians, singers, dancers, acrobats and fortune tellers as well as people who earn their living by selling medicinal herbs, tools baskets, mats, brooms and so on.

Qalandars and their performing bears largely disappeared off the streets in the early 1990s after Maneka Gandhi, the environment minister in the Congress government, introduced a ban on keeping the animals in captivity. Many turned to puppeteering instead. Snake charming, prohibited under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, has also gone into decline. In November 2004, hundreds of snake charmers threatened to release their serpents in the Orissa State Assembly because their traditional means of livelihood was under threat. On some days, Shah is lucky to earn what he has to give out in bribes, leaving him with nothing to buy food for his family.

It’s a massive fall from grace. His ancestors started performing magic in the days of the Mughals and once were feted by the royal courts of Rajasthan. After serving syrupy milk tea and salty biscuits, he ran through a few routines including the Egg Bag trick and the always stomach-churning spectacle of spitting out a series of large brass balls from his mouth. Although it is getting harder to work as a street magician, he is grooming his sixteen-year-old son, Junaid, to follow his profession. It takes about fourteen years to learn the jadoowallah’s craft. But these days, being streetwise is just as important as being a good performer. ‘He has to be old enough to face the police, some criminals are there, the sharabi (drunk people) and some other communities. He has to have enough experience to manage those things,’ Shah explains.

Shadipur Depot’s existence was always unstable. In 2009, the Delhi Development Authority announced a public-private partnership with the Raheja group to redevelop the site. The artists’ colony was to be replaced by the capital’s highest residential tower and a shopping mall. Those who opted to relocate would be assigned new accommodation in high-rise flats on the periphery of the development, an outcome that critics said would destroy the slum’s cohesion and spell the end of its artistic traditions. Rajeev Sethi wanted the site retained as a model colony for street artists complete with an auditorium and museum.

As the legality of demolishing the slum and evicting its tenants languished before the courts, some residents moved to alternative accommodation at two sites, one of them 30 km away. On 30 October 2017, those remaining were startled by the sound of bulldozers and the sight of hundreds of lathi-wielding police ordering them to vacate their dwellings. By the day’s end, half the slum had been demolished. ‘We are artists. We perform and entertain people and they kicked us out of our own house. Is this democracy? This is absolute injustice,’ complained dhol and harmonium player Pappu Bhatt.

Despite the odds steadily shortening on the survival of other communities of street performers, Sethi is surprisingly optimistic about the future of their craft. ‘In the past such communities proved to be wonderfully adaptable,’ he says, citing the example of the thirteenth-century Sufi saint, Bu Ali Shah Qalandar of Panipat, who created the qalandars to go out and spread his teachings. ‘They had to learn how to tell his story, to sing it and to keep the narrative alive for audiences over many days and nights. The only difference is that in those days it was interpersonal, today it is all done in the mass media.’

Looking back over more than forty years of work with India’s street performers, folk artists and crafts people, Sethi warns against underestimating the basic human need to be wonderstruck, to be entertained and to search for originality – the very formula that creates and sustains magic in its broadest sense. “I don’t think this is going to be the end of it,’ he says after disagreeing with my suggestion that we’re both rather old-fashioned when it comes to regretting the erosion of traditional art forms. “They won’t disappear. There will be a reaction. It will come in a different way. That need to sit across and to engage with one another…is finding new ways of expression. I’m still an optimist. The will to survive is what is at the heart of the creative urge.”