Delhi's famed Kathputli colony of street artists is under threat from developers

Turn out of the train station, head along the jammed, honking road and then dive left into one of the alleyways. Immediately you’re surrounded by goats, children, smells, noise, people. And performers.

For more than 60 years, the street artists and performers of northern India have congregated in the cramped confines of the Kathputli colony of west Delhi. The name means puppeteer, but you will also find singers and musicians, fire eaters and conjurers. There is even one man who claims to have cracked the mysteries of the Indian rope trick.

The colony was celebrated in Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children and over the years has lured journalists and documentary-makers, entranced by the skills of the street performers and the traditions they perpetuate.

Yet for for some, more valuable than this cultural richness is the land on which the slum is located. The urban conurbation of Delhi probably now contains up to 25m people and yet it continues to swell, filled by the constant rural migration by people looking for work and opportunities. The west of this conurbation now extends deep into the state of rural Haryana.

The Delhi Development Agency (DDA), the government body which owns the land, has done a deal with a developer to clear the colony and build new apartment blocks. Some of the properties will be sold at a sharply reduced rate to residents, while others will be sold at market price to the wealthy.

Kathputli is home to an estimated 40,000 people. Many, if not most, of the residents are anxious about moving. They say the colony is inextricably linked to their livelihoods. They stable their animals there, they store their equipment beneath their tiny homes, and they feel comfortable that anyone looking to hire a performer or musician knows precisely where to come. How would that happen if the community is broken up?

“When we moved here, this place was not fit for animals. But we have made it heaven,” Mohammed Islam Azad, a poet and community leader, said last year at a public meeting.

So far, around 405 families have so far taken up the government’s offer and moved out, according to Sunayana Wadhawan of the Delhi-based Hazards Centre group, who has been helping the residents. Yet she said many of these people had complained about the conditions in the transit camps into which they have been moved.She said the authorities were also trying, unfairly, to claim that a “mafia” was forcing other residents to stay put. “That is not true,” she said.

Over the years, some of the journalists who have travelled to Kathputli have perhaps been in danger of over-romanticising the slum and its residents.In truth, it is no heaven. The alleys are narrow and cramped and children defecate directly into the gutter. There is a shortage of water and electricity; in summer it swelters, in winter it stinks with the smell of smoke. People's homes are tiny, patched shacks with floors of bare concrete. Activists, and residents themselves, have questioned why the politicians who visit the slum when it comes to election time are unable to provide even the most basic of facilities.

But the colony does brim with creativity and life. Whether it is a man breathing fire or a woman making puppets, her photographs capture the community's vitality and pulse. It is this that is threatened by the imminent arrival of the bulldozers. "They are worried about their livelihoods and how they will manage if they leave the colony," Ireland says. "That is more important to them than anything else."

Words written by Andrew Buncombe for The Independent on Sunday Magazine