“The mind, by seeking to normalize what it perceives, to make sense and resolve, is deceived, easily and constantly misdirected, and willing to be so for the sake of equilibrium. Our desire for order deludes us. I realize this not only at the magic show but while walking down Chowringhee. We dare not see what is really going on.” -Lee Siegel, Net of Magic (p. 426)|
Table of Contents
The Magicians’ Ghetto5
Moving Slums: Urban Renewal or Urban Removal?7
Memories of Urban Removal: Moving Slums as Spatial Morphology12
Magical Urbanism and Urban Metis14
Figure [ 1 ]: location of kathputli colony
Kathputli Colony is located very close to Shadipur Depot which is one of the main bus depots of Delhi. The area is very accessible which also makes the area a prime location and much in demand. Kathputli Colony falls in zone G of Delhi. It is at walking distance from Shadipur Metro Station and adjoining to Pandu Nagar (South) and New Patel Nagar (East). The squatter settlement is spread over 5.2 ha of land and an in-situ rehabilitation programme is currently being planned for the area. The colonies houses around 3500 families out of which most of them are traditional street performers and artists on whom the colony is named so.
Kathputli means wooden puppet. It is an ancient Indian teatre form which is native of Rajasthan and was performed by Rajasthani Bhat community. There is also a major concentration of Bhats in Kathputli Colony wo were one of the first inhabitants here. Apart from the Bhats there are several other groups based on their profession or caste present in the colony, viz., the Kalandar, the Massaits, the Bhopas, the Naits, acrobats, etc. who all are mostly from Rajastan and are considered as artists. Apart from these ther eare groups based on language like Bihari Samaj, Gujarati Samaj, Marati Samaj, Bengali Samaj, Natives of Andhra (locally called as Aadivasis), Kodhi Samaj (colony of leprosy patients), Valmiki Samaj, Gihara Samaj and Kajariya Samaj.
The Magicians’ Ghetto
Kailash Bhatt was born and raised in Kathputli Colony, a famous slum community comprised of street performers and folk artists in central New Delhi. Magicians, puppeteers, fire-breathers, jugglers, acrobats and myriad conjurers of everyday spectacle constitute the diverse groups that reside in what is one of the largest slum clusters in the city. When Kailash’s father Mahesh first built his home in Shadipur, as the area surrounding Kathputli Colony was known in the 1950s, it was surrounded by jungle. Mahesh Bhatt had migrated to Delhi from neighboring Rajasthan and had brought his knowledge of folk arts with him, helping inaugurate a complex and continuous community of artists and performers who have occupied their current space for no less than six decades. Founded on the outskirts of the capital, today Shadipur is surrounded by postcolonial Delhi’s expansive commercial and residential developments for miles in every direction.
And while the city grew around Shadipur, the slum itself grew manifold, as migrants from all over India moved into the slum in different waves over the past half-century, forming dense clusters and neighborhoods adjacent to and surrounding Kathputli Colony. As Kailash told me about the history of his slum, we climbed to the roof of a tall, narrow, brick building in the middle of Shadipur. From three stories above the surrounding slums, the expanse of the community was now visible; it was a bustling mini-city in the middle of a much larger metropolis. But just recently, Kailash informed me, the Delhi Government had sold all of Shadipur’s land to a private real estate developer. The slums in Kathputli Colony and its adjacent neighborhoods were now being targeted for demolition.
“The government wants to get rid of us,” Kailash said. “They want to build a skyscraper right here in Shadipur, one that will be taller than the Eiffel Tower!” The reference to Paris was deliberate. Kailash and his troupe had been to that city several times in their lives. They had also been to Rome, Barcelona, Moscow, Dubai, Toyko and Washington D.C., places that seemed a world away from their tight quarters in Shadipur.
In Delhi they lived in cramped slums and struggled to make ends meet month-to-month, increasingly finding it difficult to even perform in public spaces. Yet talented folk artists like Kailash and his family were regularly commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to showcase their talents at diplomatic events both in the city and abroad. For the latter, the ministry would grant them special visas to travel to foreign countries, so that at international meetings and gala receptions in foreign consulates, the artists of Kathputli Colony represented India’s rich cultural achievements abroad, even as they were facing imminent eviction in their own city.
If the story of Kathputli Colony’s impending removal strangely resonates with a previously recorded incident of slum demolition involving magicians, jugglers and puppeteers in postcolonial Delhi, this is because a similar event is famously chronicled in Salman Rushdie’s historical allegory of postcolonial nationalism in India, his 1981-novel Midnight’s Children. But the resonance does not end there. In Rushdie’s magical realist treatment of postcolonial Delhi towards the end of the novel, ‘the magician’s ghetto’ is said to have originated in the shadow of the Red Mosque in Old Delhi. Amidst the worst excesses of the Emergency in the 1970s the ghetto of the magicians was brutally targeted for demolition.4 But instead of vanishing once and for all, the ghetto inexplicably turns into a magical ‘moving slum’ that manages to evade the authoritarian grasp of the Emergency state. The slum’s resistant movements only come to a stop once the Emergency ends, finally settling down in Shadipur, where the magicians’ ghetto remains today.
Moving Slums: Urban Renewal or Urban Removal?
What has changed rather dramatically over time, however, is the built environment that surrounds the slums of Shadipur. Whereas these informal settlements originally moved to the western outskirts of the city, the ‘outskirts’ themselves have moved further out, enveloping Shadipur. What has also changed is the political perception of urban slums, and in conjunction with the latest Delhi Master Plan, which explicitly links the image of a ‘slum-free’ city and the attainment of a supposedly ‘world-class’ status, the slums in Shadipur are now seen as a conspicuous instance of urban blight, as much an aesthetic as a legal nuisance (Ghertner, 2008; 2011). Thus like its predecessor in Rushdie’s novel, Kathputli Colony in Shadipur is being targeted today for demolition.
But talk of the slum’s demolition has persisted as a rumored possibility throughout Kathputli Colony’s extended existence. In the past, aligning with the right elected leaders sufficed to ensure that the bulldozers and wreckers stayed away from Shadipur. Kailash’s father Mahesh told me the story of one particular trip his troupe made to Washington, D.C. to perform, and had photographs to back it up. The year was 1985, and in the White House lawn, after performing in front of then-US President Ronald Reagan and then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the latter assured Mahesh that folk artists would always have a place in Delhi, that unlike other slum clusters in the city, their homes in Shadipur would always be protected from redevelopment and demolition by the state. Mahesh showed me a picture of himself with his cohort of musicians and dancers in front of the White House.
Then his mood suddenly turned somber as he finished the story: “Of course, then Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. After that, who could guarantee our place here?” More recently, slum survival has become directly linked to election cycles. As one resident of Kathputli Colony told a journalist in 2009, just as talk of the slum’s demolition was beginning once again: ‘We know our very existence here would become a problem if we do not vote. Just because we vote we are allowed to stay here, otherwise we would be thrown out from this place.’ Here, we might surmise that the ‘magic’ of the moving slum has to do not merely with it miraculously ‘shifting’ from place to place in the city, but with its residents moving themselves to the ballot box in order to secure their temporary permanence. Yet the current talk of impending demolition rings differently than before. Not only has the ‘public’ land already been sold to private developers.
It is now articulated as part of a novel and potentially lucrative urban renewal strategy whose rationale is outlined in the 2021 Master Plan for Delhi (2021 MPD). The idea is to both ‘re-habilitate’ old urban neighborhoods, while self-financing the provision of housing for the urban poor by ‘using land as a resource for private sector participation’ (Puri, 2007: 1). The strategy is consistent with the overall approach of the 2021 MPD, which focuses particularly on ‘optimizing’ land use in the city and facilitating public private partnerships as much as possible in order to transform Delhi into a ‘global metropolis’ and ‘world-class city’ by 2021. Among other things, the master plan seeks to put a ‘humanitarian face’ on the process of slum demolitions in the city. Rather than forcibly evicting current residents and moving them to the urban peripheries, which has long been the practice (indeed, Shadipur itself was once on the western periphery of the city), the new strategy includes ‘in-situ rehabilitation,’ in which ‘in-site up-gradation of the land pockets of slum and JJ Clusters, which are not required for public priority use, is the first option for provision of affordable housing for rehabilitation of squatters’ (Puri, 2007:16).
Under this scheme those current slum dwellers with proof of tenure in a notified slum colony would be able to secure a future flat within the ‘re-habilitated’ site at a greatly subsidized rate. Shadipur was to be among the first of these so-called ‘in situ rehabilitations.’ According to the DDA’s plan, the current residents of the slum would be temporarily relocated to a transit camp (in a site to be decided) for the duration of the construction period. Through a public-private partnership, the DDA would work with Raheja Developers Ltd., an Indian firm, to provide twenty-eight hundred flats for slum families free of charge. Reiterating the DDA’s goal of transforming Delhi into a ‘world-class city,’ the developer’s website characterizes this project as ‘a move to provide better living conditions for urban poor, the development work at Kathputli Colony project would act as a pilot project in Delhi and also set a benchmark for many such projects to follow to make Delhi a slum-free State.’
But what makes this particular plan for ‘re-habilitating’ the Shadipur slum clusters different from past demolitions is not simply this ‘in-situ’ aspect. In addition to the free flats to re-settle the slum’s current residents within the redeveloped site, the scheme also contains a less altruistic but financially alluring aspect: the Raheja ‘Phoenix’—Delhi’s first ‘official’ skyscraper. Raheja will partner with a multinational firm, Dubai-based Arabtec Construction LLC, which famously built the world’s tallest building, the half-a-mile high Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The result of this transnational collaboration will be a spectacle of grand proportions in New Delhi: the Phoenix will feature a 54-floor tower with a ‘skyclub’ and helipad with 170 premium apartments at more than 1000 square feet each. The flats for the residents of Kathputli Colony would ostensibly lie adjacent to these higher-end, commodious dwellings (see Figure 1).
Figure [ 2 ]: The image is the developer’s projection for the Raheja Phoenix in Shadipur Yet for all the appeal of luxury skyscrapers coupled with free housing for the poor, the so-called ‘rehabilitation plans’ for Kathputli Colony have hit a severe impasse. As of early 2013, construction still had not started for Raheja’s Phoenix project, which is now more than three years behind schedule. The biggest problem seems to be that no one in Shadipur really wants to leave the place, not even if it might mean getting a new flat at a subsidized rate or even for free. Moreover, the project actually re-settles just a small fraction of slum’s current population: only those able to furnish proof of tenure and ‘valid’ identification will be eligible for a new flat. Close to ten thousand families live in the area, many of whom have been there for decades but do not have valid identification and would thus be disqualified from being able to stay in the neighborhood.
As one Kathputli resident stated in a recent media report on Kathputli Colony, ‘My ration card expired and I have been doing the rounds at the government office…How will we get housing without valid identification?’ Many residents who actually have valid identification are nonetheless wary of being moved into ‘temporary’ housing, only for this transition to cement their permanent removal from Shadipur. Kailash articulated such skepticism, reciting instances of trickery and misdirection on the part of the Delhi government in the past. Commonly mentioned among those with whom I interacted in Shadipur and Kathputli Colony was the case of Yamuna Pushta in 2004. ‘As soon as we leave,’ Kailash’s brother Samir (a drummer and dancer) told me, ‘they will build their mall and skyscraper and never let us come back.’ But even assuming (naively) that all the eligible families actually get their flats in the re-developed site, it is unclear where these future tenants would be relocated during the construction.
This is the other major problem that has stalled the ‘rehabilitation’ project. Each of the sites proposed thus far for temporary relocation have faced stern resistance from locals who also question the ‘temporary’ status of these sites. Many fear that hosting a relocation camp in their neighborhood would also attract others to squat on the land. As Navin Raheja, chairman of the redevelopment firm stated rather bluntly, ‘No one wants poor people to be their neighbor.’ Meanwhile, Raheja Developers, still eager to speculate on the land underneath the present day magicians’ ghetto in Shadipur, is instead frustrated by what has become an increasingly familiar impasse in urban ‘renewal’ and ‘development’ projects across India. A hotly anticipated future of spectacular and profitable real estate development for developers promises to replace one kind of spectacle (the everyday practice of magicians) with another (the spectacle of ‘city-branding’ through showcase architecture).
Yet the magicians, wary of past tricks and deceptions, will not leave without assurance that they will be able to return. And thus far, the Delhi government has refrained from using force to evict the slum-dwellers of Kathputli Colony, perhaps fearing the repercussions of such a move against the famous community of performance artists. As a Wall Street Journal article recently reported, Mr. Raheja says he can’t begin work until the residents have been moved into transit camps that he is supposed to build, and for which the DDA has yet to provide him sufficient land. Kathputli colony residents say they won’t move until the DDA provides them a list of all the families who are eligible for free flats and promises in writing to return all of them to this site once construction is completed… as many as 63 real estate projects around Delhi that were supposed to supply 40,000 units of housing are four years behind schedule for reasons that range from lack of capital to ‘socio-political reasons
Figure [ 3 ]: Future site of Raheja Phoenix superimposed on existing Shadipur slums.
Figure 2, like Figure 1, is a ‘time-image’ (Deleuze 1989) of suspended urban development in Shadipur. The image, discovered accidentally by the author while attempting to locate Kathputli Colony via Google Maps, implicitly juxtaposes conflicting temporal dispositions towards the urban present. The software programmers for Google have superimposed the word ‘Phoenix’ (the name of Raheja’s development) on the satellite image of the existing Shadipur slums, as if hastily conjuring the latter’s erasure in a sinister act of ‘dynamic nominalism’ (Hacking 1983). At the time of writing, the slums were still standing at the site, with no signs of an impending demolition. In effect, the map’s digital time-image renders the slums in Shadipur ‘anachronistic’ with respect to the speculative present and future of this potentially lucrative urban space. Yet the obstinate presence of Kathputli Colony endures underneath the name of the unbuilt development, leaving an undeniable trace on the urban palimpsest. What will this satellite image look like in five years?
Memories of Urban Removal: Moving Slums as Spatial Morphology If one is to take the Delhi government at its word, then its policy of squatter evictions and slum demolitions achieves two ostensibly laudable goals, ‘simultaneously decongesting the urban centre and providing better amenities to the poor’ (Leena and Chotani, 2007: 12). In the state’s urbanist discourse, moving squatters from slums to ‘re-settlement’ colonies ‘is a marker of progress in people’s lives’ (Leena and Chotani, 2007: 26). But in order to generate consent among the soon-to-be evicted, the government must conjure an appealing image of the future: promising slum dwellers secure and comfortable lives in ‘formal’ housing, with ‘adequate access to electricity, water, health, education and other basic services.’ As many recent studies have shown in postcolonial Delhi, however, most of these projections turn out to be false promises (Baviskar, 2003; Bhan, 2009; Ghertner, 2008; Kundu 2004; Menon-Sen, 2006, Sundaram, 2009).
Attempts to ‘formalize’ the precarious existence of ‘informal’ residents by ‘re-settling’ them elsewhere often ends up hurting slum dwellers more than it helps. Menon-Sen chronicles the misfortune of Haleema, who after living in the aforementioned Yamuna Pushta slum for twenty-five years was relocated more than fifty kilometers away to a ‘re-settlement’ colony in Bawana on the far northwestern outskirts of Delhi. After the ‘re-settlement’ it was impossible for Haleema to commute to her former places of employment. Furthermore, “there are no jobs in isolated Bawana, and there is no way for her to make up the loss of her monthly income of Rs. 2,000“ (Menon-Sen, 2006: 1970). Such stories, far from being isolated cases, are broadly representative of what happens after slums are demolished, leading many like Haleema to seek to return to the city, often perilously close to the very sites from which they were originally removed.
For the artists of Kathputli Colony, re-location to the urban periphery (even if only temporary) is doubly threatening to their livelihood possibilities, as their central location in Shadipur has become a well-known place for potential patrons to find and book performers for entertainment, either in the city or abroad. These artists are also understandably apprehensive about being removed from the vibrant social habitat in which they earn most of their livelihood: the urban street. So even if his family were to remain in Shadipur once the Phoenix is finally built, Kailash told me, their new flat high up in an elevated skyscraper would take them away from Shadipur’s bustling streets and markets, thus threatening the very spatial milieu of their art. At a small chai shop on the main road through Shadipur, Kailash told me that ‘If we were able to collect 10,000 rupees from every family in the slum, we could easily come up with enough money to buy back the land from the developers.’ He had already done the math, and seemed quite confident that they could mobilize the residents and resources.
But as soon as optimism made its fleeting appearance, his disposition turned desolate. ‘Of course, the government would still build the Phoenix anyway because they want to remove the slums from Delhi.’ As conjurers and performers of everyday illusion and spectacle themselves, the puppeteers and magicians of Kathputli Colony are fully aware of the government’s own callous methods of misdirection and deceit when it comes to slum clearance and ‘re-settlement.’ The narratives of slum dwellers like Kailash and those all over postcolonial cities like Delhi are informed by the hard lessons learned in the art of urban survival. In her ethnographic work on narratives of displacement and subsequent ‘resettlement’ in Delhi during the Emergency, Emma Tarlo writes that, ‘From the accounts of the resettled, it is possible to make an alternative reading of the distribution of space’ in postcolonial cities (Tarlo, 2000: 56).
Re-settlement camps and colonies, often far away from urban centers, are spaces that are built upon acts of erasure, ‘each one recalling something which no longer exists’ (58). Such a reading allows us to understand re-settlement camps in their inter-temporal context, so that they ‘cannot be seen independently of the re-development of different sites within the city’. As Tarlo’s temporally sensitive analysis reveals in the context of post- Emergency Delhi, ‘In the spaces left behind by these acts of erasure new parks, trees and public buildings sprouted all over the city whilst a ring of poverty accumulated and thickened around its edges.’
Magical Urbanism and Urban Metis
Urban metis is a term that Michael J. Shapiro develops to conceptualize the practical knowledge that ‘diverse social types employ to flourish or survive in the face of procedures and structures of surveillance and control’ (2010: 46). Urban metis is a kind of everyday wisdom that in turn illuminates the city’s micropolitics: ‘the forces shaping its sensorium, its partitions, its social issues, tensions, and factions’. Writing about metis more generally, James Scott describes it as a form of socially produced knowledge that ‘resists simplification into deductive principles which can successfully be transmitted through book learning, because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and non-repeatable that formal procedures of rational decision making are impossible to apply’ (Scott, 1999: 313). Many residents of Kathputli Colony, in voicing skepticism and resisting the insitu rehabilitation scheme in Shadipur, display an urban metis based on their own embodied experience and subversive knowledge of urban ‘renewal’ in Delhi.
Such knowledge, produced at the very margins of the postcolonial state, is radically heterogeneous with respect to that of urban governmentality. Observe Jagdish Bhatt, a 43-year old puppeteer in the colony, voicing his doubts about the promises of an inclusive version of urban ‘renewal’ in Shadipur: “They been showing us dreams for 25 years…The Delhi government promise us nice house here, but they are just promises. This land is all over expensive. I’m sure they don’t want to build us a proper house for nothing. They are going to break up the colony.” For the magicians and artists of Kathputli Colony, magic and urban metis are not merely a profession and a form of livelihood; they are also keys to dissecting the everyday interpretive grid of the harsh and unforgiving city. Magic and urban metis thus constitute a strategy for social survival and are in this way not only limited to artists and performers, but to different marginalized subjects that are collectively produced as the vast urban underclass of the postcolonial city.
What is revealed through subaltern knowledge of urban magic and metis is not merely the ‘truth’ that underlies the ideological deception of urban ‘renewal’ and ‘re-settlement,’ but the foremost condition of possibility for magic itself: the desire/susceptibility on the part of the audience to believe in the illusion in the first place. Such knowledge not only gives the victims of urban ‘renewal’ a more intimate sense of their own displacement, but also potentially fosters a radical re-imagining of urbanism, one that includes a critical awareness of the misdirection and sleight-of-hand that gives spatial morphology the appearance of ‘progress’ and ‘development.’ This is the uncommon sense that underlies the common sense of urban ‘renewal’ in the postcolonial city. When I visited Kathputli Colon, Kailash told me a story about the infamous 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi and their impact on the slums of Shadipur.
One day, government workers showed up in vans and trucks and swiftly captured and removed stray dogs and cows from the neighborhood as part of a hasty last-minute sweep-up of the city. But their cleanup efforts did not end there. Workers, many of whom themselves probably lived in slums, erected tall bamboo-walls around all of Shadipur, so that foreign visitors passing by in cars, buses or trains would be spared the sight of postcolonial urban poverty. Here is Kailash’s interpretation of the event: “The same government that gives us special visas and passports to travel abroad and perform Indian culture for foreign leaders tries to hide us from these same foreigners in our own homes. But what are they so ashamed of? Everyone knows India is a poor country! We are a part of this country.
Who do they think they are fooling when they try to hide us from the foreign visitors? Don’t you think foreigners who are coming to India expect to see dogs and cows in the streets, and to see slums?” Here, Kailash’s cynicism confronts the apparent naivety of the Delhi government, whose urbanist ideology beholds it towards projecting a utopian image of space that does tremendous violence to visually and aesthetically ‘unappealing’ urban communities. Kailash’s identification of ‘India’ as a ‘poor country’ should not be seen as a form of self-contempt, perhaps it should not even be seen as making a mockery of India’s recent economic ‘growth’ and ‘development,’ uneven and exclusionary as it has been. Rather, Kailash’s narrative enunciates the subtle articulation of a more humane and democratic imagination of the urban. His is part of a discourse that takes the narratives of victims into account and learns from them in order to articulate alternative perceptions and imaginings of the transformative urban present.
In this report, I have used one of the exemplary texts of the postcolonial imagination in India, Midnight’s Children, in order to provide a conceptual intertemporal analysis of an ongoing episode of slum demolition and displacement in an exemplary postcolonial megacity, New Delhi. The untimely conjuncture that I have located between text and event, I hope it is clear by now, is not tethered to an epistemology of similitude, objectivity and universal truth. What I have found useful in Rushdie’s magical realism and Delhi’s magical urbanism is a concept of ‘moving slums’ that arguably allows us to not only critique the dominant ideology of urbanism (and its spatial representations of urban ‘renewal’ and slum ‘re-settlement’), but to also imagine what is lost when our only discursive access to ideas of ‘renewal,’ ‘rehabilitation,’ and ‘re-settlement’ comes at the expense of those most negatively impacted by such ideological and spatial practices.
Perhaps what makes ideologies of urban ‘renewal’ so seductive to postcolonial states and modern societies is precisely their marginalizing effect. Yet this misdirection and sleight-of-hand that gives ‘renewal’ an attractive appearance looks much different from the perspective of those who must disappear in order for the urbanist image to crystallize. As Lee Siegel cannily observes: ‘It’s a primary principle of magic that an object becomes invisible when no one is looking at it.’ The inter-temporal concept of moving slums helps to restore visibility to those invisibilizing practices of marginalization, demolition and reconstruction that make urbanist ideologies believable and desirable even in the face of their spectacular violence.
http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-1-108211-Street-artists-fear-theyre-being-edgedout-of-modern-India. ‘Puppets in the hands of politicians!’ Hindustan Times, May 1, 2009. URL: http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/NewDelhi/Puppets-in-the-hands-ofpoliticians/Article1-406331.aspx http://www.rahejabuilders.com/pr-phoenix.asp
Aneesha Mathur, ‘Show begins at Kathputli Colony,’ Indian Express (February 16, 2009). Accessed online at: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/show-begins-at-kathputlicolony/423940/0. Tripti Lahiri, ‘Delhi Journal: From Slum to Skyscraper,’ The Wall Street Journal Online, (February 17, 2012), http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2012/02/17/delhi-journal-from-slumto-skyscraper/. Simon Wroe, (2010) ‘The Fate of Delhi’s “Magician’s Ghetto”’, More Intelligent Life. URL: http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/simon-wroe/what-will-become-delhis-slumperformers.