March 21, 2014

Poornima Sardana: The woman behind Friends of Kathputli Colony Delhi

By Payal Khandelwal

The enchanting ‘Kathputli Colony’, located about two minutes away from the Shadipur metro station in Delhi (India), has fortunately become international media’s sweetheart recently. Global media publications including TIME, BBC and Guardian have extensively written and expressed concerns over the ongoing feud of the colony with the DDA developers (Delhi Development Authority) who have offered to dislocate the families of puppeteers, artists, sculptors, magicians, snake charmers, musicians and dancers living in Kathputli for generations and “relocate” them first to a transit camp and then to buildings with urban 1 BHK flats. “Inko flat de rahe hai, acha kaam kar hai (we are giving them flats so we are doing good work), says the DDA. But from whose perspective is it good? Definitely not from these people’s perspectives,” says Poornima Sardana, a woman who has been slowly, silently and obstinately working towards giving a voice and a sharp face to Kathputli Colony through her initiative ‘Friends of Kathputli Colony Delhi’.

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A graduate from NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology), a dropout from NID (National Institute of Design), an attendee of Young India Fellowship and whose area of interest lies in storytelling, research and narratives, Sardana first came to this colony about one and half years back and was completely in love, she confesses. Another visit, about five months back, just sealed the idea that she had to do something to connect with the people here and thus ‘Friends of Kathputli Colony’ was born to raise awareness and gather support, now physically manifested in a Facebook group. She jokes that these days “you are more credible if you are on Facebook.” However, she confesses that starting the Facebook group completely turned things around as various people from different backgrounds started approaching her to volunteer in some way or the other. “The moment it became an open thing, a lot of individuals and NGOs, with their specific reasons, came forward to help. And everyone does this on a volunteering basis and any commercial benefit goes directly to the people of the colony.”

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A lanky lane bedecked with drums and advertisements for local drum bands on both sides leads to Kathputli Colony where Sardana is constantly referred to as “beta” or “didi” as we walk around. After every few steps, there are eager faces of old people and youngsters waiting to talk to her for a few minutes to get updates on various things going on in the colony right now. Once inside the colony, it’s hard to remember that these people are under so much stress as they are constantly fighting being cajoled to leave their homes. Their apparent confidence, optimism and belief that they will not move are simply phenomenal. And a lot of credit for this should definitely go to Sardana who has been constantly engaging in extensive conversations with the colony people and been working together with them since the last few months on constructive ideas on how various issues can be solved.“I spent the first two months just talking to people and I started off with the elders of the colony. I had made a promise to myself that initially that I won’t document anything, won’t click pictures or record etc. but just talk to them and understand their point of views fully.”

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In the “workshop” area, where we are scheduled to meet, two people from World Comics India are giving a talk on comics to a crowd of about 10-15 people including all age groups on how to make comics. This bunch of audience will soon be making comics on about 7-8 narratives about the colony which will be presented during the festival to be held this weekend. The idea of the festival is not to create a hue and cry about colony’s problems, specifies Sardana. “It is to let these artists talk about themselves through their beautiful means of expressions.”

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At the World Comics India’s workshop

One of Sardana’s main aims is that the power should be vested amongst the people of the colony, and not in any outside organization. “We deliberately named this initiative ‘Friends of Kathputli Colony’ because we are friends, not an NGO or the people who own the colony. We want to spread an atmosphere where colony people start taking initiatives themselves. It should not be someone else’s agenda.” She wants artists, and not someone who does research on them, to give lectures about the art forms and in the process eliminate the “middle men”. “We took Pooran ji (puppeteer) to Jindal Steel for a lecture and that got us an urban planner to help us to file a case (to stop the relocation).” They also got various youngsters from the colony to perform at Mallika Sarabhai’s dance festival Darpana in Delhi this year, which was based on the theme of Displacement.

While Sardana started the initiative on her own, today she has a lot of support from various individuals and organizations who are keen to associate themselves with the artists or the cause of the colony. And she also has her own brat pack in the form of a strong community that has emerged in the colony itself which fully supports her endeavors. Friends of Kathputli has now connected with social media experts who will soon start workshops with the colony people to handle the whole digital part themselves. A group called Interact will soon start heritage walks in the colony. They are, however, currently looking out for volunteers who could help make digital portfolios of various artists living in the colony.

Sardana confesses that initially she was quite hesitant about a lot of things (like heritage walks etc.) as this might objectify the people in the colony or make them sound “exotic” but now she knows that these artists want an audience and this is part of their jobs. “This is something I have learnt from the artists here. They told me that if you don’t portray the fact that we are these traditional artists, we can lose out on work. On hearing things like these from them, a lot of my own theories got nullified,” she says. She still makes sure that she doesn’t romanticize their problems. “I agree that there are health problems, sanitation issues etc. and I would love to see it redeveloped but in that process, I don’t want them to lose out on their charm and their charm is in their community life, in how they work together and how they interact with each other. In whatever way it is redesigned, it’s our responsibility that they don’t lose that.”

And this community life was well demonstrated to us when we paid a visit to renowned puppeteer Jagdish Bhatt’s Dalmia’s house. While Dalmia narrated various anecdotes of his life as a puppeteer, of receiving awards from political figures in India and abroad and of being taken on a jet with Aamir Khan, his son and nephew were kind enough to show us the photographs of some of these accomplishments. Titu, Dalmia’s son, says that his uncle who is also a puppeteer stays next door. “Our terraces our connected so we can jump over whenever we want. Our entire family is in this business and we have to stay together. We have so much space here to keep all our props, drums, materials etc.; how will we get this space in a flat?” His nephew adds, “And then there will be an ego problem. How do they expect us to stay in an expensive flat and then go out and perform on the streets? It will be awkward and it doesn’t suit us. We are very happy here.”

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Dalmia and his son Titu

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Pages from Dalmia’s records

Sardana told us later that while the land issue wasn’t a priority when she started, in the last two months it has gained momentum. “The main idea is to give these people an identity. Even their own neighbours don’t know what’s happening inside the colony. So many people living close by, say inside Rajendra Nagar, don’t even know that there is a Kathputli Colony even though there are reports in the newspapers everyday now. This lack of awareness, not just for Kathputli but for so many other communities in India, bothers me a lot. They are really precious and we might lose out on this knowledge about traditional arts forever.” For this purpose, Sardana is also quite keen on the whole documentation process. And while she knows it’s not an easy task and documentation doesn’t come to Indians naturally anyways, she has been figuring out ways to do this. “Ideally, some organizations who are officially into documenting and archiving should take this up. And also, if someone makes an archive, it has to be accessible to these people so it has to be in Hindi also. The basic problem here is that they don’t have access to stuff about themselves. There are a lot of photographers who have done amazing photography here but they haven’t given it to the colony people for them to use it.”

However, she says, there also have been people like Rajeev Sethi, Wako (a group of documentary filmmakers from France) etc. who have been sharing their material to be used for exhibitions, screenings etc. at the colony. Sardana hopes that in future whoever does any research or work based on the colony should submit a copy in the workshop cum office located inside the colony.  “As design students, we can help a lot. We do so much research and so much work, we just need to give it back to these people for it to make an actual difference,” she says.

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Sardana herself is exemplifying the difference it can make.  She is hoping that if it all gets stretched till the elections, things might turn in Colony’s favour hugely and the support of the international media is definitely helping a lot.

Don’t miss the Kathputli Colony exhibition in Delhi over the weekend.  Here are the details.

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